Evening Standard

Can we please get away from this pointless debate over whether Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian. Yes, he has won more medals than any other – 19, 15 of them gold – but that does not justify giving him the crown. For a start, it is difficult to compare athletes of different generations.

And it is one thing doing it in the same sport. But to compare athletes from different sports makes no sense.

Phelps sport gives him an advantage denied to all other athletes. A swimmer can compete over the same distance in different styles more than once, something that it is not possible on the track.

So Phelps can over the same distance do the freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke and a medley which combines them all. As many track and field athletes have pointed out, they would have many more medal chances if they could run in more than one race just by varying how they ran: backwards, or with one hand tied behind their backs or held over their heads.

Phelps is a great swimmer but the greatest Olympian remains Jesse Owen. His four golds in 1936 came in Nazi Germany where, as a black man, he was considered subhuman. Owen took sport to a new level.


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