Why Michael Phelps is Not the Most Dominant Athlete Ever

by Kevin Roberts
on August 12, 2016

It’s tough to appropriately assess athletes sometimes. When we see something or someone special, we instantly compare. We can’t help it. It’s human nature to compete, as these 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio have shown us – and it’s that same human nature that drives us to compare those who compete.

Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all-time. Few will refute that. Others might. Maybe Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, LeBron James (insert your favorite NBA player here) has the better argument.

Wayne Gretzky is the best hockey player we’ve ever seen. Jerry Rice might be the greatest pro football player of all-time. The list, as do the sports and potential “best ever” options, goes on.

The problem we really run into is criteria. What physical attributes makes one great. Which accomplishments are most impressive? Are we grading a player or athlete on their sheer ability, their statistics, their ability to come through in the clutch, their tendency to win (games, titles, medals, etc)?

Why He IS the Most Dominant Athlete Ever

The answer is probably yes to all of that and at some point you just know. For the majority of us, Jordan, Gretzky and Rice really are the best ever for their respective sports.

Now we once again get to see the best swimmer ever (that one can’t be denied) in Michael Phelps just running through Rio like he owns the place.

One would think a 31-year old swimmer would start to regress, too. No, instead, Phelps has been as good as ever, adding four more Gold medals to his long list of epic Olympics accomplishments. And before Rio has passed us by, he very well could add another.

But history has already been made here, folks. That was the case even before Rio, even before Phelps fakes us out with an understandable retirement and then a much-anticipated comeback.

During the first seven days of Rio’s Olympics, Phelps showed us again just how special he is, by securing his 22nd Gold medal and 13th individual Gold medal. That put him in the record books.

He was already there, but that 13th individual Gold medal broke a 2,000+ year old record and now we have to admit it probably won’t ever be broken again.

On top of that, Phelps hasn’t just one Olympics. He’s dominated them all. Phelps has hit the pool four different times for all to see, and every single time he’s captured Gold. He’s also become the first swimmer ever to win Gold at the same event every year he’s competed in it:

So, really, there isn’t an argument that is even needed here. Phelps is the greatest swimmer we’ve ever seen. Given his amazing records and long list of medals, he is probably the best Olympics competitor in terms of sheer dominance as well.

Why He Might NOT Be

The biggest argument against Phelps being the greatest athlete ever is two-fold: the only person that can really stop him is..him. And he’s only dominating at one thing in a specific sport.

It is very arguable that other sports are more demanding, require more strength, speed, explosiveness, awareness, endurance and so many other important attributes that “the best athlete ever” would be required to possess.

Phelps isn’t in the water for more than a couple minutes at a time, if not far less, and he’s not being asked to compete against anyone else directly. His main objective is to best his own times and make sure no one else finishes before he does.

But no one is physically going in front of the guy and using strength, athleticism or strategy to stop him from what he’s doing.

There is one other element to be considered: what makes an athlete?

There are a lot of physical specimens that could be considered amazing athletes. They range all over sports and levels, too, with guys like Brock Lesnar, LeBron James and Adrian Peterson, all in their own way, being total freaks and deserving of that “greatest athlete of all-time” debate.

There are also other athletes that have dominated at their sport and they haven’t necessarily been the biggest, strongest or fastest. Guys like Tom Brady, Pete Sampras and John Stockton come to mind.

There are layers here, especially if we want to look at Michael Phelps as the guy who is more dominant in his specific sport over anyone else in their specific sport. The problem there is that the sport here is way too specific, in that it doesn’t provide the same challenges Phelps might be forced to tackle head on elsewhere.

The Verdict

There is no getting around the anti-Phelps argument. He is mostly just facing himself and there isn’t much strategy (if any) that can be put in place to actually stop him.

All anyone can do is be better than him. Since they can’t (or so far haven’t been), it’s easy to see he’s the best swimmer. Whether or not he’s the best Olympic athlete we’ve ever seen is open for debate, but that alone is purely opinion based. Your personal take on what Olympics event is the most demanding or impressive can sway that argument greatly.

With all that said, here’s the craziest part; Phelps might not be done. The guy is just 31 years old and technically is still in his prime. Four years from now, he could very well head to Tokyo for his (truly?) final Olympics stand and push everything amazing we’ve seen about him to the limits.

Adding more Gold or breaking even more records won’t really change all that much, though. Phelps is already great and if you don’t buy him being the greatest ever – whether that’s swimmer, Olympian or athlete – you probably never will.

All things considered – there’s absolutely no denying he’s the greatest swimmer of all-time and if we’re to judge Olympians on winning medals (which is, ya know, what we do), there is little argument against that, either.

So, to answer the question, is Michael Phelps the most dominant athlete ever? If we’re talking about one athlete in one sport, then yes. Overall, however, it’s not fair to say he’s the most dominant athlete across all sports.

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