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Sports fans, as a whole, have been suckered in. Debates about whose favorite player reigns supreme is nothing new, but the need instantly quantify an athlete’s place in history is a phenomenon intensified by the Talking Heads. We no longer have 24 hours to enjoy an accomplishment before we have to rack and stack their performance against history. The problem is not the debate, but that battle lines are drawn, hyperbole and insults serve as ammunition instead of facts.
Part of the joy of Michael Phelps’s performance was the opportunity to look back and learn how his performance compares to other Olympic greats. Phelps has, at minimum, established himself as the best all-around swimmer in history. This fact is quantifiable. He holds records in individual strokes as well as medley events, a rarity not seen since Gary Hall Sr., who held three individual world records to Phelps’s four, but never won a gold medal. To date, no one has broken Phelps’s individual records except himself, a fact made more impressive considering he’s held three of them for five plus years.
Limiting Phelps’s greatness in today’s day and age is unacceptable. The titles of Greatest Olympian and Greatest Athlete are now mandatory discussion points. People try to quantify his accomplishments against those of Jesse Owens, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, et al. The topic is not a bad one, except that most people lack the breadth of knowledge to discuss them, while all taking different sides. Defenders of Owens play the Nazi card, while neglecting the awe-inspiring day he had at the Big Ten Championships. Others attempt to quantify Phelps’s medals v. Woods’s Majors, assuming a 1:1 medals to majors ratio. This ratio would put Padraig Harrington (3 majors) on the same level with Russian Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin (3 Olympic Gold Medals), a beast of a man that went undefeated from 1987-2000. These apples to oranges comparisons are as limitless as they are difficult, and too often spiral into a chorus of “nuh uh,” “you can’t be serious,” and “you must be joking.”
It’s ironic given all the hard work that these athletes put in to their craft, is offset by the lack of effort put in by the people that state their case. The discussion should be entertaining, a challenge to place someone in the hierarchy of history, but the need to anoint one is a futile effort that, like so many arguments, is often “won” by those that yell loudest. We should embrace these opportunities to learn about the greats before our time or to revisit their achievements. The fun should lie in learning that Johnny Weissmuller was undefeated, revisiting Edwin Moses’s winning streak, and hearing what others have discovered. The joy of debate should be the discussion, not the result.