Is Michael Phelps Really THE BEST? Maybe Not.

My swim cap is off to Michael Phelps.

He is a sick athlete and a true source of pride for the swim community and America in general. He’s won 22 Olympic medals over an 8-year period during three Olympics. He has set and broken a ridiculous number of world records and has (except for one minor bong incident!) behaved like a true gentleman. He is a young man that any mother would be proud of and an athlete who will be remembered forever.

But (and here come the boos) I question whether or not it’s fair to laud him as "the most decorated Olympian in American history".

Why? Let’s look at it this way. There are currently 17 events in which male swimmers can compete at the Olympic games. The Olympic Committee breaks down swimming into individual races, relays, medleys, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters and the list goes on. In total, Phelps could have competed in 51 Olympic events during his Olympic career. In reality, he won 22 – pretty impressive. Looking at it another way, he won a medal in 43% of the events in which he was eligible to compete and he won Gold in 35% of his eligible events.

Olympian Michael Phelps Credit Image: © Kai FõSterling/EFE/

Now let’s look at someone like Misty May-Treanor. She is an amazing beach volleyball player (not to mention the fact that, when she runs, nothing jiggles!). She has also competed in the Athens, Beijing and London summer Games, just like Michael Phelps. Yet her sport only offers one competition per Olympics, rather than the 17 offered in swimming. It is just Beach Volleyball.  There isn’t a medal for Beach Volleyball on Hot Sand, Beach Volleyball at Dusk or Beach Volleyball with a Slight Breeze.  Yet Misty has won a Gold medal in each of her three Olympics. Thus, her success rate is 100% of all possible Gold medals available in her sport compared to Phelps’ 35%.

Do you see where I’m going with this? They’re both amazing athletes yet, of course, Phelps is going to be “more decorated” because his sport offers more decoration. Does that make him a better Olympian?

I think playing up his “most decorated” status is an unfair comparison to other Olympians who are at the top of their game but whose sport doesn’t offer as many competitions. I say we continue to give Phelps his props, but chill out on the superlatives. He is clearly THE BEST swimmer our nation (and perhaps the world!) has ever seen. But to call him the best athlete or the best Olympian or the most decorated Olympian is an unfair comparison. It only serves to belittle the amazing efforts put forth by all of the other amazing US Olympic athletes whose sports don’t offer as many events per Olympics as swimming.

Phew – feels good to get that off my chest.


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