Numbers may lie in measuring Phelps’ ‘greatness,’ but it’s worth an argument

UPDATED: SUNDAY, AUG. 5, 7:30 p.m.


(AP Photo/David Goldman)
Michael Phelps is seen embracing a teammate on a TV screen after the U.S. won the men’s 4×100 meter medley relay today as pedestrians look on outside a restaurant. Want to start a pub argument? Claim Phelps isn’t the greatest Olympian of all time.

Olympic historian David Wallechinskywas having lunch today in London, sharing a table with U.S. Olympic legends John Naber and Bruce Jenner, when the subject of “greatest Olympic athlete of all time” broke the tape of their discussion.


“Jenner was kind of complaining,” said Wallechinsky. “He said, ‘People ask me all the time how many medals I won.’ And the answer: Just one.”

That’s it?

Not that the 1976 Olympic decathlon gold-medalist doesn’t deserve to be in the conversation – aside from deserving another kind of medal just for having to endure the spotlight of being married-in Kardashian related.

But should Jenner’s singular career gold automatically penalize him in a debate about all-time Olympic glory-seeking, especially when measured up against Michael Phelps’ heavy-medal batch of 22?

The last of ’em may have come in today’s 4×100 relay — boosting the astronomic total of 18 golds in a career that spanned the 2004, ’08 and ’12 Summer Games, twice as many golds as anyone in Olympic history.

“What Phelps has done is fantastic,” insisted Wallechinsky, the Santa Monica-based, best-selling author of “The Complete Book of the Olympics” anthology series as well as the current president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “But being the person with the most medals doesn’t make you the greatest.”

Like, Larisa Latynina?


Because we’re only recently aware of the Russian gymnast’s 18 career medals from 1956 to ’64 — a time when we aren’t even sure TV was even invented – when the big goofball in the Speedo sped past her this past week in the career medal haul speaks to that.

But then again, did you know — 14 of Latynina’s medals came from an individual performance, one more than Aquaman?

Here’s how Wallechinsky sorts out quality over quantity:

== Since nine of the top 12 and 15 of the top 18 all-time medals winners are either swimmers or gymnasts, they’ll always have an advantage with multiple opportunity.
“Jenner has every reason to be angry,” said Wallechinsky. “He’s exactly right. What else can he say (about career medals won)?

== Current swimmers have an even greater advantage – they can make a living at it these days. After Mark Spitz won his then-unpredicted seven swim medals at the ’72 Games, “we’ll never know what he could have done in 1976 because he had to get a job,” said Wallechinsky. “Same with Don Schollander (who won five golds and a silver combined in the ’64 and ’68 Games, but was finished at age 22).”

== Most of the medals Phelps has won in his career are in events that didn’t exist when someone like freestyle swim star and future Tarzan impersonator Johnny Weissmuller won five golds at the 1924 and ’28 Games — not to mention a bronze in water polo in ’24.

== Wallechinsky also considers what he calls the “universality factor.” Meaning, if you’re good at something that billions of other people can attempt, it means more.

Carl Lewis winning in the long jumps and the sprints – everyone has probably tried that,” said Wallechinsky of the man who has 10 golds and one silver from ’84, ’88, ’92 and ’96. “Very few have tried to get in the pool and swim the 200 butterfly stroke.”

So who would Wallechinsky endorse at this point on the all-time super-ist list?

Jenner? Lewis? Jesse Owens? Even Eric Heiden?

He’s also quite sweet on Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn” who ran away with nine golds and three silver in 1920, ’24 and ’28, ridiculously ranging from the 1,500 to 5,000 to 10,000 meters with things on his feet you may not even consider to be shoes by today’s standards.


All we can say for certain is Phelps is the most decorated. He’s got enough medals to go with the tinsel, bulbs and garland to light up a Christmas tree for years.

“I really don’t have a No. 1,” Wallechinsky finally admits. “I’d put Phelps in my top five.”

On one condition.

“Now, if he comes back a fourth time (in the 2016 Games in Brazil) and wins the 200 individual medley – then he goes right to the top of my list.”

If eventually forced to pick just one, Wallechinsky may be able to blame on Rio.

UPDATE: Wallechinsky writes his own column on the matter of who’s greatest (linked here).

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