Considering The “Greatest” Olympian


Two-time Olympic gold winner and head of the London Olympics Sebastian Coe started an unexpected uproar a few days ago with some a well-intentioned comments about Michael Phelps: “You can probably say that clearly, self-evidently, in medal tally he’s the most successful. My personal view is that I am not sure he is the greatest, but he’s certainly the most successful. That goes without saying.”

The whole discussion, Coe declared, was “A global pub game. You could go around this entire room, we’d all come up with different interpretations on that. But you’d have to say he’s up there. But whether he’s the greatest, in my opinion, probably not.”

Certainly if anyone is entitled to make a judgment on this, it’s Coe, and we don’t know what his opinion would be now that Phelps has won two more gold medals for a record 17. His total “medals tally” (I love that phrase) is 21, also a record.

Still, it’s impossible to compare one sport to another, particularly since swimming offers so many more opportunities for medals than other sports. But if such a pub argument is worth making, it’s worth establishing some ground rules.

First, I think the debate should only include athletes in essential Olympic events and leave out, say, badminton, synchronized swimming, and horse dancing.

Coe included four greats on his list: Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who achieved a perfect score in Montreal in 1976; five-time gold medalist rower Steve Redgrave; two-time decathlon champ Daley Thompson; and, finally Jessie Owens. Oddly, Coe neglected Carl Lewis, who won a total of 9 gold medals.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know enough – and I don’t think anyone knows enough – about all these sports to declare an overall winner. But for a combination of dominance, longevity and versatility within his sport, the greatest has to be Michael Phelps. I would, however, like to bring two athletes into the debate who I’m not seeing mentioned anywhere.

The Cuban Teofilo Stevenson – actually, his last name was Lawrence, but he never went by that – was the greatest Olympic boxer I ever saw and thoroughly dominated the heavyweights in the 1972, 1976 and 1980 games. There aren’t any gold events for a boxer except winning the last fight, so there’s no way Stevenson could possibly match someone like Phelp in medal count. But if you’re talking about the best over an 8-year period of time – and I maintain that’s harder for boxers than for athletes in any other sport – Teofilo must be near the top.

Perhaps I should also mention that Stevenson, who died at age 60 of a heart attack this past June 11, was never allowed by the Castro government to box professionally. Every knowledgeable boxing fan I know, including the late boxing historian Bert Sugar, thought that Stevenson could have been the heavyweight champion of the world.

One more name that for some reason seldom is remembered: Jim Thorpe. Everyone knows the name Jim Thorpe, but I think few understand what he
actually accomplished in the 1912 Olympics. He won the pentathlon, which is 5 events, and the 10-event decathlon (I never have understood why you just get one medal for enduring all those events. They ought to toss a swimming competition in there and declare it the Olympics Supreme All-Around Test).

Anyway, the hypocrites who ran the International Olympic Committee at the time retracted Thorpes’s amateur status after it was publicized that he had taken a few bucks for playing semi-pro baseball (Thorpe never hid this fact). His medal status was restored posthumously in 1983, 30 years too late for Thorpe to know he had been vindicated. He played professional baseball and football, but never got a chance to compete in the Olympics again.

I don’t know who the greatest Olympian of all time is. If you say Michael Phelps or Carl Lewis, I wouldn’t put up much of an argument. But no Olympic athletes ever performed with the grace under pressure that Jesse Owens showed in front of Hitler in Berlin in 1936, and any roster of all time Olympic greats that doesn’t include Stevenson or Thorpe is bogus to me.