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Originally published August 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 15, 2008 at 7:40 AM


Ron Judd

Celebrate Michael Phelps, but take care with "greatest ever" label

It's a tempting trap, and many commentators are falling into it. They watch Michael Phelps rack up gold after gold and come right out with...

Seattle Times staff columnist

It's a tempting trap, and many commentators are falling into it.

They watch Michael Phelps rack up gold after gold and come right out with it: "The greatest Olympian ever."

What Phelps is doing is momentous and awe-inspiring. He is a one-in-a-million physical specimen who has by sheer will honed himself into a one-in-a-billion competitor. When he retires, perhaps after the 2012 Games, he may well be wearing the crown.

But to proclaim him King of All Things Olympic today is to ignore 100 years of achievement by athletes, some of whom have won more medals over a longer period of time.

Some are ahead of Phelps in sheer medal numbers, some behind. But all competed in sports that arguably take a greater toll on the body than swimming. And most compete in sports with fewer medal opportunities:

• Paavo Nurmi, the "Flying Finn." In three Olympics between 1920 and 1928, he won 12 medals, nine gold, at distances from 1,500 to 10,000 meters.

• America's Carl Lewis won nine golds in both track and field events, including an unprecedented four consecutive golds in a single event, the long jump, from 1984 to 1992.

• Ukrainian gymnast Larisa Latynina won nine golds in gymnastics in three Olympics between 1956 and 1964. Her 18 total medals is the all-time Olympic record.

• German kayaker Birgit Fischer-Schmidt won 13 medals — eight gold — from 1980 to 2004, competing in the last at age 42.

• Sir Steven Redgrave of Great Britain won rowing gold in five straight Olympics, from 1984 to 2000 — in three different boat classifications.

And what of winter? Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie won 12 medals, eight gold, at distances between 10 and 50 kilometers at three Olympics, to stake his own claim for "greatest ever." Other athletes have medaled in completely separate sports, and still others have won 13 or more medals.

Swimming, frankly, is an easy place to amass medals, because of its sheer number of similar events. Over the years, the basic swim stroke has been broken into four subcategories: freestyle, butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke. All but the breaststroke, arguably, are variations on a muscle-training theme. That's why a great freestyler like Natalie Coughlin is a great butterflyer and a great backstroker; it's a natural transition.

Imagine if swimming's same-distance, different-stroke format applied to other sports. It's safe to assume that if Lewis had been able to run 100-meter races, say, backward, or with one arm in the air, he would have won those medals, too. Swimming adds to this medal haul by piling relay races atop the individual events to a greater degree than other sports.

Of the eight golds that Phelps is likely to win in Beijing, three are in relays, where he benefits from swimming with one of the world's top teams.

One could even argue that, impressive as it is (gasp), Phelps' Beijing performance is not even the greatest single-Olympics performance by an American athlete.

Remember Eric Heiden? In 1980, the speedskater won every race at every distance — from 500 to 10,000 meters — laid before him, to capture five gold medals.

And consider the distances: Heiden's races ranged from 500 to 10,000 meters. His longest race was 20 times longer than his shortest. It is the equivalent of an Olympic runner winning the gold medal in every event from 100 meters to the 10K.

To excel at both, you need the fast-twitch muscles of a sprinter and the aerobic capacity of a distance runner. That just doesn't happen. Heiden's feat has never been duplicated by another athlete; few have bothered to try.

Phelps, by comparison, swims distances ranging from 100 to 400 meters — a factor of four. You could argue that his need to master four strokes makes what he does more special than the single motion of speedskating — even if you believe that a sprint stride is the same as a miler's stride (it isn't). But the fact that three of the stokes are quite similar removes some of that awe. And two of those, the breaststroke and backstroke, only come out of the quiver for at most one lap, when Phelps swims individual medleys.

Granted, this is all apples/oranges stuff. But I would argue that Heiden's variety in distance is even more impressive than Phelps' variety in technique. Swimming has an 800-meter race, a 1,500 meter race and now a 10k open-water swim, too. Why doesn't Phelps enter those?

Easy. Even if scheduling made it possible, they're too radically different to train for. No sane person would attempt it.

Celebrate Michael Phelps. He's doing the impossible this week in Beijing. But let's not forget that Eric Heiden has already done it.

Ron Judd: Read his Olympics Insider blog at:

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