Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Michael Phelps vs. Carl Lewis (Greatest Olympian Ever?)

22 medals for America's Golden Boy. Remarkable!
Before I start this post (Ed. Note - it's been updated to reflect current totals as of Aug. 4), I'd like to set some parameters. This is strictly comparing Olympic accomplishments, not overall careers. I wanted to remind folks who are prisoners of the moment that there is much to consider about who's on the Mt. Olympus of greatness. Here we go.

Carl Lewis
- 10 medals (9 gold, 7 individual)
- 4 gold medals in 1984 (200 - OR, relay WR)
- 1988: won 100 with OR (post suspension of Ben Johnson)
- 4-peat in long jump (1 of 3 Olympians to 4-peat in an event)
- Anchored 4 x 100 relay to world record in 1992
- The only man to defend the 100 and long jump

Michael Phelps
- 22 medals (18 gold, 13 individual)
- 8 gold medals in 2008 (7 world records, 8th Olympic)
- 6 gold in 2004 (2 WRs, 3 ORs)
- 2 WRs set at Olympics still stand
- 2 time Olympic champion in several events
- 3-peat in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay, 200 IM and 100 butterfly (1st swimmer to ever 3-peat in an event)

By the numbers, Phelps is the greatest Olympic champion. But greatest Olympian ever? For my money, it's Lewis. Let's break down swimming though.
Swimming requires a lot of athletic ability. At his peak, Phelps was the most dominant swimmer in several events that require endurance (esp. the 200m butterfly which he owned for a decade). He’s been in 24 Olympic finals over 4 years - his only other miss besides this year came when he finished 5th in the 200 butterfly in 2000 at 15 years old.

He's won events while setting records at multiple distances. His London haul (6 medals) would be a great haul for any swimmer at any Games in history. He closed out his final Olympics with 4 straight golds after being counted out after the first couple days. A reminder that even when he's not the favorite, he still managed to dominate in three consecutive Games.

You can say that Phelps has been in the conversation as the best in his sport for almost a decade. He’s the most dominant swimmer ever and has more medals than anybody. With gold at 3 different Games, it’s time to have him approach the throne of all-time greats. Throw in his world championships and he’s one of the dominant American athletes ever. But since, we’re talking Olympics, let’s discuss Lewis.

1984's Golden Boy won 4 golds like Jesse Owens in 1936.
Lewis was incredible in two arenas: Running and jumping. From covering track and field on the HS level, it’s tough to be great at the hurdles and sprints given their time during a meet. It’s even tougher to be extremely fast in the sprints and dominant in a field event.

Carl Lewis dominated both. He won the 100m twice – albeit, the second with help from Ben Johnson’s suspension – and the long jump for four straight years. You could argue that from maybe 1984-1992, Lewis was in the discussion as the World’s Fastest Man AND Longest Jumper.

Lewis was a part of 4 World or Olympic records during his time. He also had the pressure running the anchor leg on the 4x100 relay (something Phelps rarely did until this year) and never lost - Lewis' anchor leg in 1992 was the fastest until 2007. He’s one of a few people to 4-peat at an Olympics where 3-peating in a non-basketball or diving event seems difficult – as Phelps found out in the 200m butterfly before doing it twice.

There’s also more swimming events so it’s easier for elite swimmers to win more than 7-8 medals in a career. 8 of America’s best have won 10 or more (including Ryan Lochte crossing 10 at these games). Australia’s Ian Thorpe (the greatest swimmer I saw before Phelps), has 9. German swimmer Franzick van Almsick is the only non-American to win double-digit medals.

By contrast, only one track-and-field athlete besides Lewis has 10 or more medals, the great distance runner Paavo Nurmi of Finland (12 – a Top 5 Olympic candidate). It’s incredibly tough to dominate track and field and Lewis did just that in two arenas.

As Joe Posnanski pointed out, the previous record holder Larisa Latynina won 18 medals as a gymnast but 14 of them were individual. That's still an Olympic record, by the way, and Phelps coming a hair of tying it is remarkable. Yet consider this too: Phelps now has as many gold medals (18) as Latynina has total medals. 

This is by no way an attempt to say Phelps isn’t the greatest Olympic champion. He is and his performance in the final 4 events shows that his mental fortitude/physical ability remains strong as anybody. To listen to all the criticism about being washed up and not what he used to be and still come out with more golds than any other swimmer this year? That's an achievement worthy of what a champion is.

Phelps is one of the handful in the discussion for the GOOAT (Greatest Olympian Of All Time). If you say he's No. 1, I won't argue with you now that his career is done and it's all there for analysis. My personal pick for No. 1 though? The greatest male American track star of all time and the pride of Houston.

The pride of East St. Louis says don't forget about her Olympic resume.
*We can’t discuss the greatest Olympians without Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Arguably the greatest female athlete of all time, Joyner-Kersee won silver-gold-gold in the heptathlon in 1984, 1988 and the 1992 Games. If we elevate Jim Thorpe as one of the greatest athletes of all time, Jackie deserves it as well for dominating the most well-rounded Olympic competition.

Oh yeah, she also has a gold medal in the long jump and medaled in 4 Games (bronze medal in the long jumps in 1992 and 1996). Well-rounded, dominant and as a friend told me, elite decathletes and heptathletes can often be medal contenders in more than one event*


  1. But Carl Lewis is a drugs cheat? So how could you even think to compare him with Michael Phelps?

  2. Apparently the drug test came from cold medicine, not exactly a performance enhancing supplement like Ben Johnson. If the USOC cleared it, then so be it. It's questionable but we can also assume that Lewis was clean during the Games where he was tested often.

    I'm simply comparing accomplishments. Lewis never tested positive for anything again nor had a hint of suspicion during his career. Considering how easy that is to find in track, it's still fair to compare him to any Olympian in history, let alone Phelps.

    1. Oh the United States Olympic Committee cleared it....

  3. Yeah but it was a band substance, obviously there must be some benifit in taking it. He failed 3 tests during the 1988 US Olympic trials.
    Well anyways Phelps has won yet another gold, so you may wanna update the blog. Thats an amazing 17 Gold. Amazing to think the guy's only 27.

    1. I remember a couple years ago somebody got punished for testing positive. The culprit? Sudafed. Quite a few things can give you a positive test without necessarily being performance enhancers.

      And the post has been updated. It's remarkable what Phelps has done. One gold shy of tying Latynina's total medal count - that's astounding. He's gonna be one heck of a coach if he decides to pick it up.

  4. I supose, yet in the link it on my first comment says, he tested postive and yet still was allowed to compete, which under international rules at the time should have prevented him from competing in the Seoul games two months later, but he did compete.
    He had tested positive for banned substances but he claimed he was just one of "hundreds" of American athletes who were allowed to escape bans. It was just one big cover up.
    Yeah Phelps has one another gold tonight, though not an individual one. Hes retired now, and yeh would be a great coach.