Make room on Baltimore's 'Mount Rushmore' of sports

Phelps belongs there with Johnny U., Brooks, Cal and Ray

Michael Phelps doesn't have to climb the mountain anymore.

He has reached the highest of Olympic heights. He is the most decorated athlete in the modern history of the Olympic Games. He is, by just about all accounts, the greatest swimmer who ever lived.

So, the only thing left to do is bring the mountain to Michael.

It has become a fun subject of sports debate to consider which local icons belong on the “Mount Rushmore” of athletic achievement for a particular geographic area, and — in Baltimore — that discussion just became a little more interesting.

That's because it wasn't a particularly controversial topic until Phelps went from just being the most dominant swimmer in Olympic history to the athlete with the most medals in 116 years of Olympic glory.

B-more's fab four are pretty obvious. Johnny Unitas is perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time. He's got to be up there. Brooks Robinson is generally regarded as the best defensive third baseman in baseball history. No question about him. Cal Ripken Jr. is baseball's ironman, and a homegrown career Oriole. Ray Lewis might be the greatest linebacker ever to put on a set of shoulder pads.

Good luck chiseling one of those guys out of the mountainside to make room for Phelps. It would be a lot easier to pull one of the presidents out of the real Rushmore.

C'mon, does anyone really believe that Teddy Roosevelt is our fourth-greatest president?

The easiest thing to do would be to leave well enough alone. The Olympic excitement will eventually wane and you're not going to end up trading blows with some drunk in Fells Point by insisting that Brooks and Cal and Johnny and Ray-Ray are alone at the top of Baltimore's sports pantheon. But it's impossible to discount what Phelps has achieved over his Olympic career or dismiss him from a conversation about who might be the greatest athlete in the history of Charm City.

Of course, about now, somebody is wondering where Babe Ruth fits into this equation, but we're talking about athletes who spent the bulk of their careers representing Baltimore. The Babe is probably the greatest athlete to be born here, but he made his name in New York so he'll have to settle for a museum.

The case can be made that Phelps is the Babe Ruth of swimming. With the U.S. team's victory on Saturday night in the 4x100 medley relay, Phelps will come home with a career total of 22 Olympic medals. More amazing is the fact that his record 18 golds are exactly twice as many career gold medals as the four athletes (Paavo Nurmi, Mark Spitz, Larisa Latynina and Carl Lewis) who are tied for second place.

If you want to take the Ruthian comparison a little further, Phelps even had a brief bad-boy period after he emerged as a global superstar with his eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, but he settled down to resume his swimming career and take over the Meadowbrook swimming complex. He has said he will retire from competitive swimming after these Olympics, but his long-term impact already is being felt in London.

South African gold medalist Chad le Clos said minutes after edging Phelps in the 200-meter butterfly that Phelps was his “inspiration and role model.” And back here in the States, the next generation of U.S. hopefuls are using Phelps as motivation as they drag themselves out of bed each morning to train for 2016 and beyond.

Swimming's new golden girl, teenager Missy Franklin, said Friday of Phelps: “What he's done is incredible, and it's helped people rethink the impossible.”

No one doubts the Phelps legacy here in Baltimore, but the head of the London Games — two-time gold medalist Sebastian Coe — said Wednesday that he didn't consider Phelps to be the greatest Olympian just because he has won the most medals. That's probably fair, considering the historical significance of Jesse Owens upstaging Adolf Hitler in 1936, the legendary performance of American Indian Jim Thorpe in Stockholm in 1912 or any number of other terrific Olympic performances, but it doesn't change anything.

Phelps definitely belongs on our Mount Rushmore of sports, and since there's no way that we're going to remove one of the four Baltimore icons who are already up there, there's only one way to settle this.

We're just going to need a bigger mountain.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com


Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, “The Schmuck Stops Here,” on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts “The Week in Review” Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal.com.

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