Claim: Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time

So is Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian of all time? Well the problem here is how you define the term “Greatest”. Now please do not misunderstand where I am going with this, because last night, he did something truly amazing. With the help of his teammates in the 4x200m freestyle, he won his 19th Olympic medal, and his 15th gold – and that is more than anyone else in the entire history of the Olympics.

So that makes him the greatest? Well, if you just count medals then sure, that is a “Yes”, because it is indeed a stunning achievement.

Ah but wait, Robert Colvile points out in the Telegraph today

Jesse Owens is the greatest Olympian ever, for standing up to unimaginable political pressures, and meeting with dignity the disgusting behaviour of the American sporting and political establishment at home on his return. Cathy Freeman is the greatest Olympian ever, for coping with a nation that piled unimaginable expectation upon her shoulders, even getting her to light the Olympic torch, and finding a way to reconcile her Australian and Aboriginal identities in the process. Nadia Comeneci is the greatest Olympian ever, for being, literally, perfect. Tommie Smith and John Carlos are the greatest Olympians ever, for showing that there are more important things in life than sport. Eric the Eel and Hamadou Djibo Issaka (the rower from Niger) are the greatest Olympians ever, for proving that coming last is no disgrace. The Jamaican bobsled team are the greatest Olympians ever, for redefining the boundaries of which countries play which sport. Britain’s Helen Glover and Heather Stanning are the greatest Olympians ever, for the way they’ve made me feel as I write this very paragraph.

… and you know what, I agree, the term “greatest” can have a lot of different meanings, it is very subjective.  There is not one specific “Greatest”, but rather a whole host of “Greatest” for many different reasons. All those that take part are part of the greatness that is the Olympics and have chosen a path that requires a degree of courage and dedication that is beyond the imagination of most of us humble mortals.

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