I have been frequently discussing the overused terms “the best ever” and “the greatest of all time” with a few of my office colleagues lately. I’m personally not a fan of the saturated term “GOAT” to represent greatest all-time, and I agree wholeheartedly that our generation is too quick to crown everyone the best who ever lived in everything from Olympic swimming to watermelon seed-spitting.In sports history, perspective means everything. You can’t put a Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez on a podium or in a cellar until you consider the careers of Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. There’s no reasoning in giving Tom Brady all the glory unless you recall the success of Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. And, yes, how can you elevate LeBron James without re-examining the work of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
But maybe our best hope at capturing the essence of greatness in an athlete’s career can be achieved by doing the opposite of that method: not sticking so closely to comparisons to what others did or didn’t do. Maybe it’s like golf, where you compete as much against yourself and the course as the other players, and we must judge an athlete’s outcome by everything we know about only them.
We can certainly take that route to draw conclusions on the excellence of swimmer Michael Phelps’ storied career.
* He has the stats. The number of total medals is so astronomical there is no comparison. His Olympic medal count has now surpassed 25 total and 21 gold. He is unquestionably the most decorated athlete in Olympic history based purely on numbers.
* He has the staying power. He did swim in Sydney in 2000, but Phelps first started appearing on the medal stand in 2004 in Athens. He arguably peaked in 2008 in Beijing, where he won eight gold medals in eight attempts. There was a bit of a “slip” in London in 2012, if you can call six medals a “disappointment” as Phelps himself did. And now in Rio in 2016, he has seemingly returned to the Games better than he was four years ago.
* He has the global exposure. In five Olympic Games he has appeared on four continents. If the sports gods would have allowed him to enter the scene at 11 years old, we could’ve made it five continents in 20 years with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. But he’s an American athlete to begin with, so he’s not missing the headlines here in North America.
* He has weathered the storm. Phelps has faced questions in the pool, about his will to win and his competitive relationships and tactics in regards to other swimmers, and he’s faced questions outside the pool, such as the media images of his drug use after Beijing. Here I must make a comparison to Tiger Woods because it bears noting at the very least. When news of Woods’ improprieties came out and he started to battle that, along with health problems, his life and his game changed forever. He’s still not made it “back” years later. Phelps has returned to the pool and continued to win.
You may not like Michael Phelps. You may not care about competitive swimming. You may disagree with any of my points, and that’s fine with me. I’m not saying Phelps is the greatest ever or the GOAT. I’m not saying he’s better than other athletes in other sports only in his generation, and he is certainly in that discussion. But I say with conviction that Phelps is a truly legendary athlete, one who we will talk about for decades to come. For Phelps and for those of us who have watched him throughout his career, that is enough.