I’ve just completed two posts on the Hall of Fame and the chances of two particular players (Hideo Nomo and Mike Stanton) making it to Cooperstown. I’d been contemplating those two posts for quite some time, but held them until the Olympics for a reason. I fully anticipated and expected that Michael Phelps would win enough medals to become the all-time leading medal winner in Olympic history. I also knew that would lead to the following assertion, “Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever.” Well, maybe he is, but not for the reason implied above.
Implicit in the “greatest Olympian ever” comment is the belief that winning the most medals makes one the greatest Olympian. As proof of the fallacy of that argument, I offer you Yogi Berra. You may not know this, but Berra has more World Series rings than anyone else, ten. Joe DiMaggio had nine, Willie Mays had one, Babe Ruth had seven, Lou Gehrig had six, Stan Musial had three, Sandy Koufax had four, and Ted Williams went oh fer. Based simply on the number of rings (or medals) Berra is the finest of the lot, topping DiMaggio by one and the others by several.
Does anyone really consider Berra the greatest player ever? Seriously? There is some dispute as to whether he’s the greatest catcher ever (Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella, Mickey Cochrane, among others who occasionally appear above him on lists). That alone makes it difficult to choose him as the greatest ever player. The biggest problem is the larger than life figure that is Ruth, not to mention the other players listed above who may be (or may not be) greater than Berra.
So could we please give ourselves a little perspective on Phelps? Maybe he is the greatest Olympian ever. Or maybe it’s Jesse Owens because of what he overcame to become a champion. Or maybe it’s Jim Thorpe because of the specific medals he won. Or maybe it’s Jackie Joyner Kersee who did the same thing Thorpe did in women’s sport. Or maybe it’s Carl Lewis who won a slew of medals in track and field. Or how about Al Oerter who won the discus four Olympics in a row?
My point is simply that for all Phelps’ greatness, it’s not dependent solely on his medal count. He is the most dominant sportsman in his discipline. That doesn’t make him the greatest sportman (or woman) overall.