Michael Phelps is not the greatest Olympian of all time. He is not even the greatest US Olympian of all time. He is the greatest swimmer of all time and he does have the most medals in Olympic history. Those are facts and they are indisputable. However, the greatest Olympian of all time is Carl Lewis.
Carl Lewis, the track and field superstar, is the greatest Olympian of all time for several reasons. First, Lewis qualified for 5 Olympic teams. He was denied the possibility of competing in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow because of the US boycott. However, he went on to compete in four other Olympiads: Los Angeles 1984; Seoul 1988; Barcelona 1992; and Atlanta 1996.
Second, Carl Lewis won nine gold medals and a silver medal over the course of those four Olympic Games. Carl Lewis only competed for 10 Olympic medals over those four Olympics. 90% gold is a pretty good success rate. It could have been higher but the 4x100m relay team dropped a baton in qualifying for the 1988 finals; which cost Lewis an almost assured gold.
Third, Lewis is the only person to ever defend a 100m gold medal and a long jump gold medal. He won the 1984 gold medal in the 100m and then repeated in 1988 after a controversial race where it turned out that Ben Johnson, the original winner, was disqualified for steroids. Lewis also won the long jump gold in those two Olympiads and then again in 1992 and again in 1996.
Lewis is one of three athletes ever to win one event, the long jump, in four straight Olympics. The other two are Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom and American discuss thrower Al Oerter. The long jump is obviously a much more impressive event to repeat four times and again, it could’ve been five if he was allowed to compete in 1980.
Fourth, Carl Lewis equaled the achievements of the legendary sprinter Jesse Owens from the 1936 Berlin games where he won four gold medals; 100m; 200m; long jump; and 4x100m relay. Lewis did this in Los Angeles in 1984.
Lewis’ 1984 four gold medal achievement is essentially the equal of Michael Phelps historic eight gold medals at 2008 Beijing. Phelps also had six gold and two bronzes at the 2004 Athens Games and has since won two more gold in London 2012 and counting. However, he also didn’t medal in an event and got silver in two other events. Plus in 2000 Sydney, he didn’t win a medal, albeit he was only 15 and the youngest man to qualify for the Olympic swim team in 68 years.
Swimming gives many more chances to win each Olympiad and swimming is easier to sustain over a longer period of time. Plus a swimmer can start earlier. For instance, Phelps qualified at 15 or on the women’s side, remember Janet Evans, who started by winning three gold medals at 16 in Seoul.
Michael Phelps records are amazing, they really are. However, I cannot say that he is the greatest Olympian or even US Olympian of all time. Carl Lewis has to be considered the greatest for his consistency throughout four Olympiads and the fact that he was robbed of a chance at a fifth. Not to mention, he really should be credited with bringing the Olympics back to the forefront of the American people.
The 1968 Mexico City Olympics are best remembered for the controversial black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand; which turned many people off. 1972 was forever marred by the killing of the Israeli Olympians in Munich. Montreal 1976 was generally considered the worst Olympics in history and 1980 in Moscow was a US boycott.
If you’re an Olympic historian like me, then there are really only two lasting images of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Those are Mary Lou Retton winning gold in Gymnastics and of course, the great Carl Lewis equaling the record of the iconic Jesse Owens who won four gold medals in the face of Hitler in 1936 at Berlin.
Carl Lewis made the Olympics in Los Angeles and he unfortunately along with Ben Johnson made them in Seoul in 1988. What else can you remember from the 1988 Games? Matt Biondi and Janet Evans? Roy Jones Jr. getting screwed by the judges in a boxing match? The US men’s basketball team losing? 99% of people have no recollection of those events but they remember the Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson race and the subsequent disqualification.
When Lewis won the gold in long jump and the relay in Barcelona 1992 it was great. However, when he reached down deep and won the long jump in 1996 at age 35 in Atlanta where he had no business winning, it cemented him as the greatest Olympian ever. His feats will be tough to equal.
It is tough to compare sports, especially when there are so many more opportunities to win in swimming. The Soviets can also claim the best Olympians were their gymnasts back when they were pumping them full of steroids but I don’t think so.
Carl Lewis is the greatest Olympian of all time and perhaps the greatest athlete of all time (He was actually drafted by the Chicago Bulls of the NBA and the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL but never played in either league). If you don’t think so, let’s see whom the USOC picks to light the flame at the next Olympics in the United States. I’ll bet the house its Lewis and not Phelps.