One man's opinion: Phelps not the best ever

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Why does Phil Hersh hate Michael Phelps sooo much?* 

Could everyone please stop hyperventilating about Michael Phelps?
Yes, he now has won more gold medals than anyone in Olympic history.
No, that does not make him the greatest Olympic athlete in history.
In fact, he doesn't even make my top five.

So begins an opinion piece that appears in this morning's Chicago Tribune, written by the venerable and knowledgeable Phil Hersh, who knows his way around the Olympic rings as well as anyone.

Before we go down the rabbit hole, full disclosure: Hersh is a colleague and we work for the same parent company. In addition, we're working out of the same office in Beijing, and he's sitting five feet away from me as I type this. Also, I happen to like Hersh (and he actually worked at the Baltimore Evening Sun from 1972-77).

Even more full disclosure: I think Hersh might be suffering from sleep deprivation. Here's the five Olympians he says are better than Phelps:

1. Carl Lewis, United States, track and field

2. Paavo Nurmi, Finland, track and field

3. Larisa Latynina, Soviet Union, gymnastics

4. Birgit Fischer-Schmidt, Germany, kayak

5. Steven Redgrave, United Kingdom, rowing

Just so you know, I'm not making any of this up. Here's the link again so you can see for yourself. (The New York Times has devoted space to the debate, as well.)

Phelps is on the verge of winning eight gold medals at a single Olympics. In addition, he's set world records in all six events in which he's competed thus far. And he's already won more career golds than any Olympian ever. Ever ever.

But he's ranked below a rower? And a kayaker? I'd have to go buy a stopwatch, but I'd give Phelps a pair of goggles and drop him in the water next to a motorboat and still pick him to coast to victory.

Here's part of Hersh's rationale:

It is easy to win multiple medals in swimming. The sport is far more forgiving on the body than track or gymnastics. And Phelps does not yet have the long-term record of the others.

That sounds fair. And I'd be willing to entertain the argument that Lewis might be as accomplished as Phelps. I don't think so, but I can understand the argument. The other four? A stretch. 

This morning I asked Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, if Phelps wins all eight gold medals here in Beijing, should he be considered the greatest Olympian ever?

"I think if it was over today, he's the greatest Olympian who ever lived," said Bowman, not needing to pause and think about it.

"I do think it's difficult to compare [the different sports], but in terms of just sheer dominance in his events and the times he's putting up and what he's doing now in two Olympics -- really three, but two where we won medals -- I think it's hard to argue."

Not for Hersh, it isn't.

And if that wasn't enough for you, Hersh also penned a supplemental piece, in which he stated that Phelps winning eight gold medals here wouldn't even qualify as the best performance at a single Olympics. He prefers Jesse Owens (four golds in 1936), Emil Zatopek (the Czech long-distance runner who three races in Olympic times over an eight-day period in 1952) and Eric Heiden (the speedskater who set records at five distances in 1980).

So there you have it. The floor is now open...


* - For the record, Hersh insists he does not hate Phelps. Nor does he hate Baltimore. He's been asked to present evidence to support these claims. I'll keep you posted.

Brief update: Jacques Rogge, the IOC's top boss, yesterday said Phelps' name belongs aside Olympic legends, but he did not rank his favorites. "The Olympic Games live around superheroes," he said. "You had Jesse Owens, you had Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis and now you have Phelps. And that's what we need to have."