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You're reading: Olympics: Is Phelps the greatest Olympian?

LONDON - Who has been the greatest Olympic athlete since ancient Olympia's multi-sports festival was revived in Athens 116 years ago?

The debate was reopened on Tuesday, July 31, when Michael Phelps
anchored the U.S. men’s quartet to a sweeping victory in the
4×200 metres freestyle relay at the London Games.

Consequently, Phelps overhauled Soviet gymnast Larisa
Latynina’s previous record medal tally of 18 to a standing
ovation at the London Aquatic Centre.

“Is he the greatest of all time?,” shouted the venue
announcer as Phelps and his team mates walked around the pool
displaying their gold medals.

Possibly, would be the honest if unsatisfying answer once
the euphoria has dissipated.

The Michael Phelps of 2012, the light visibly fading, is not
the phenomenon who won a record eight gold medals in Beijing
four years ago.

So far he has failed to win an individual gold and also
failed to become the first male swimmer to win three successive
titles when he finished second in the 200 metres butterfly final
earlier in the evening.

Still, at the age of 27 and with three events to come in his
fourth Olympics before he retires, he will be the most decorated
athlete in Games’ history and acknowledged as the best men’s
swimmer.

Latynina, 77, whose father died in the battle for
Stalingrad, hailed from Ukraine and competed for the Soviet
Union in three Olympics, starting in Melbourne in 1956.

She is one of only two women to win the all-around gold
twice, a tribute to her versatility of which she remains justly
proud.

Phelps has similar advantages to Latynina in the number of
events he can enter, primarily the boon of covering the same
distance with four different stroke.

Track and field athletes run, throw or jump but rarely
combine the two, apart from the men’s decathlon and women’s
heptathlon which are in themselves specialist events.

ULTIMATE ACCOLADE

Two male athletes ran and jumped to Olympic titles in
intensely competitive events.

The incomparable Jesse Owens won gold medals in the 100,
200, long jump and 4×100 metres relay at the 1936 Berlin
Olympics, a performance replicated by Carl Lewis at the 1984 Los
Angeles Games.

Owens had no opportunity to compete in another Games after
World War Two started in 1939 and in those amateur days athletes
rarely had the means to take part in more than one Olympics.

Lewis competed in four Olympics and such was the purity of
his technique that he won the long jump gold in each of them,
even though by his final Games in 1996 the speed and elasticity
had inevitably diminished.

In an interview with Reuters television on Tuesday, before
Phelps had swum, Lewis declined an invitation to comment on what
he regarded as his own Olympic legacy.

Instead he outlined the opportunities he had which had been
denied to his predecessors.

“I was around when the Olympic Games became modern. If it
wasn’t for the professionalism of the Olympic Games we wouldn’t
see people going three or four or five Olympics,” he said.

“I think that’s great, especially in my sport. When I came
I thought I would maybe go to one Olympics, two at most, because
I would have to get a job like my contemporaries.”

Boxing is another elemental if controversial sport,
featuring in both the ancient and modern Games, but, apart from
the Cubans, its great reputations have been won in the
professional arena.

The greatest of these was Muhammad Ali, who won an Olympic
gold at the 1960 Rome Games.

Ali, aging and ravaged by the cruel advance of Parkinson’s
syndrome, appeared at the London Games opening ceremony.

The reception he received was a tribute to the impact he had
in the fight for human rights in the 1960s and his dazzling
virtuosity in his glorious prime.

Lewis’s greatest days came in Olympic stadiums.

Taking into account his achievements over such a long period
in two different disciplines, he would win the ultimate accolade
as the greatest modern Olympian of all.

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