The Search for Greatness: Does Phelps belong? From WhatIfSports.com image

The Search for Greatness

Does Phelps belong?
By Shawn Kumar
August 18th, 2008

The Baltimore Bullet, Michael Phelps dominated the field in Beijing in the 29th Olympiad. The severity of how he beat his competitors has made people talk. With his 14 Gold Medals and 7 new world records, and more to come, can he be considered the best athlete of all time? All his recent success has prompted agencies to dish out top 10 lists of the best athletes ever. Phelps has made the lists, and many talk about him being the best ever, but can he really be the best ever? Jordan? Tiger? Wayne? And now Phelps? Where does Phelps rank among the greats? Or does he not belong at all?

It is certainly safe to assume that Phelps does belong based on his accomplishments, but to measure how great athletes are can be difficult unless the definition of greatness is explained. Analyzing how the athlete performed compared to their competition is the first and most important aspect. Second are the accolades the athlete has received and third is any change the athlete has brought about. May it be for more exposure to a sport, making people gape in awe for their performances or influence others around them to become better.

One thing is for certain, times have changed. People back then didn't take vitamins every morning, train six hours a day or push themselves to be better because everyone around them was improving. People back then didn't try to work as hard to get that new blockbuster, multi-million dollar contract. These days, it’s part of the normal life of a professional athlete. Its been built into them since they started showing interest in the sport that you are supposed to work harder, better, faster, stronger (thank you Kanye). There is a reason that every time a new top 10 list comes out, people start arguing and post their comments about how stupid the writer of the article is; everyone has his or her own opinion and rightfully so.

To truly measure the greatness of an athlete, it has to come from how great the individual was in comparison to his competition during his/her reign in the sport. Having said this, here is my top five athletes of all time:

5. Michael Phelps

He is already the best Olympian of all time with a record 14 gold medals and likely many more to come. Phelps says he will participate in the 2012 games in London but with not as tough a schedule. He has to be considered ONE of the best swimmers ever, but in reality probably is; the guy has size 14 feet and plate size hands, his torso matches that of a man who is 6-feet-8-inches while he stands at 6-feet-4-inches and his wingspan is at 6-feet-7-inches. While no one can say for sure that Phelps could beat Spitz, or Chad Johnson for that matter (skip to 3:50), head to head both in their primes, based on world records and repetitions of time from Phelps, it is not a stretch to assume that Phelps is the greatest swimmer that has ever lived. With six world records already in the Olympics, he has proven how the only competition he really has is himself. Over the years his status on this list will slowly grow as he continually crushes competition, but still, to be at the five spot ahead of people like Ali, Jordan and Armstrong says enough about his greatness.

4. Wayne Gretzky

In his rookie season he won the Hart Memorial Trophy (NHL's MVP), his first of eight in a row! He was the youngest to reach 50 goals in a season. At the end of his second season he won the Art Ross Trophy (NHL Leading Scorer), his first of seven in a row! In his third season he also broke a 35-year-old record of 50 goals in 50 games, which he did in 39 games. That same season he got the record for most goals in a season with 96. He broke the 200 point mark for the first time en route to becoming the first hockey player ever to be the AP Male Athlete of the Year. Over the years his new records kept increasing; he broke his assist record three more times, and by his retirement he had 40 regular season records, 15 playoff records, six All-Star records, four Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythe Awards (Playoff MVP), five Lester B. Pearson Trophies (Best Player voted by peers), five Lady Byng Awards (Best Sportsman), 10 Scoring titles and nine MVPs. Is there any question he was the greatest hockey player ever?

3. Tiger Woods

Tiger, in my opinion, has done more for his sport than any other athlete in history. Who, before Tiger came along, would actually watch golf? Besides his importance to the game, the guy has become the most dominant figure in his sport. By 2010 he is supposed to break the barrier as the first billion dollar athlete. Not to mention in every tour event he has been on he is almost always the favorite. The folks in Vegas continually take him over the field. That is domination- to put money on a single individual versus 40 others. Since he entered golf in 1996, he has won 14 major championships in 12 years, four behind Jack Nicklaus’ 18 in 28 years. He has 65 PGA tour wins (third all-time); the most career wins and more career championships then any active player; the youngest with a career grand slam (won each of the four possible majors); and youngest to 50 PGA wins. He has been atop the world standings more weeks then any player ever and has won the PGA Player of the Year nine times as well as AP Male Athlete of the Year a record tying four times. Of course no one knows for sure how he will be after he returns from knee surgery next year, but if he hasn't changed it is only a matter of time until he surpasses Nicklaus and is universally known as the greatest golfer ever.

2. Jim Brown

Many know Brown as the elite running back who played for the Cleveland Browns for nine years from 1957-1965. His nine magical years with the Browns garnered him nine Pro Bowl selections, nine All-Pro Selections, three Pro Bowl MVPs and three NFL MVPs. When he retired he was the NFL career leader in yardage, touchdowns, rushing touchdowns, all-purpose yardage and had the single season rushing record. He was able to do all this by age 29. Those records have since been surpassed by other greats like Emmitt Smith and LT, but then again, from then until now the seasons have gone from 12 games to 16, so it makes sense. While at Syracuse, Brown lettered in baseball, basketball, lacrosse and football. He was offered a minor-league contract to play for the New York Yankees. He garnered first team All-American in both football and lacrosse and actually tied for a record 43 goals in 10 games. He is considered the best lacrosse player to ever live and is in the Hall of Fame for lacrosse. Is there any question that a man accomplishing all these incredible feats by age 29, dominating his competition and then leaving it all behind while still young, is one of the greatest athletes?

1. Jim Thorpe

Thorpe is widely considered to be the greatest athlete that ever lived, and rightfully so. Thorpe's accomplishments in the world of sports are so extensive it is hard to detail in a short description. Thorpe could do it all and without practice or effort. In 1907, while walking past track and field athletes, Thorpe beat the high jumpers with a 5-foot-9-inch jump in regular clothes. While in college at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Thorpe participated in football, baseball, lacrosse and ballroom dancing. Sure you may snicker, but in 1912 he even won the inter-collegiate ballroom dancing championship. His swift legs made him a gem on the football field. In games he used to run through people not once, but twice, just to prove a point. He not only ran but was a defensive back, place kicker and punter for his team and was known to drop kick 50-yard-plus field goals easily. He led his college to a national championship and once ran back to back 90-plus-yard touchdown runs when the prior was recalled for a penalty. He beat the powerhouse Army single handedly and even injured future President Eisenhower while he was trying to tackle Thorpe. Eisenhower’s praised Thorpe until his death: “Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”

Thorpe was named an All-American in 1911 and 1912. He later went to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm where he participated in the pentathlon and decathlon for the first time. The times, lengths and heights in each of his events would either rival or beat those of today. He left with gold medals in both events easily against people that trained for years. When presented, King Gustav V of Sweden spoke with him saying, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world." Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King." Along with many other accomplishments, he went on to play professional football, baseball and basketball. He led his football teams to three championships and drew in thousands. He even kicked a 95-yard punt to seal a game at one point. Never has the world seen an individual with as much raw talent and skill as Thorpe and perhaps never will again. His dominance in all his ventures makes him the true legend that he will always be remembered for.

In the end it will always be hard to compare the greatest athletes when they are from different sports. The best way to measure greatness is by waiting until an athlete’s only competition is themselves. That they dominate their sport so much that the only challenge they have is them, the only records they can break are their own, and the only place they can go is up.

Other Great Notables for the List Include:

  • Lance Armstrong
  • Michael Jordan
  • Pele
  • Bill Russell
  • Muhammad Ali

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