Michael Phelps: Will his Olympic medal records ever be broken?
Sure, everyone loves a bit of Michael Phelps hyperbole, but it is almost inconceivable that his Olympic career gold and total-medal marks could be broken in any foreseeable future.
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But 22 career medals – 18 of them gold. It is hard to see how anyone will ever match those. The latter is so astounding as to be almost indecent.Skip to next paragraph
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Put one way, Phelps now has as many gold medals as the second most decorated Olympian of all time – Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina – has medals.
Realistically, only a swimmer could even consider trying to match these marks. There simply aren’t enough medal opportunities in other sports.
Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, and Marion Jones were the Phelpses of track and field, and the most they could win was four medals in any one Olympics – 100 meters, 200 meters, 4x100 relay, and long jump. They would need to win gold in each of those for five consecutive Olympic Games to top Phelps.
Chief of the London organizing committee Sebastian Coe suggested British rower Steve Redgrave might be the best Olympian ever simply because he won one gold medal in five consecutive Olympics. To suggest that a track athlete could do the same in four events strains common sense to the breaking point.
Moreover, what Ms. Latynina did in gymnastics is now almost certainly impossible – at least in women’s gymnastics. She competed in the first of her three Games at age 20 and her last at 28. Today, that seems almost comic. American Shawn Johnson, also age 20 and with four Olympic medals already to her name, tried to make her second Olympics this year and couldn’t. The same was true of Beijing Olympic medalists Nastia Liukin (22) and Alicia Sacramone (24).
So could a female gymnast not only qualify for three Olympics but win gold in every single event (team, all-around, beam, bar, floor, and vault) each time? No.
Even so, she would have only tied Phelps.
Men’s gymnastics offers a scenario more feasible, but only slightly. Men do more frequently compete in multiple Olympics, and they have more events in which they can medal (eight). So take the Russian Unified team’s Vitaly Scherbo, who won six gold medals in 1992 (team, all-around, rings, high bar, parallel bars, and vault), and mix him with Japan’s Sawao Kato, who won medals in three straight Olympics (1968, 1972, 1976), and voilà, Michael Phelps in a singlet.
Of course, Kato won only eight medals, and Scherbo competed in only one more Games, and didn’t win a single gold (though he did win four bronze medals).
At the moment, no gymnast is even near Phelps's universe. Kohei Uchimura, who some consider the greatest male gymnast all all time, is competing in only three events here – team, all-around, and floor. He won two medals in Beijing (neither gold), meaning if he stays on his current pace he can look forward to topping Phelps’s career medal count at the 2040 Olympics.
No word yet on whether Phelps is planning to attend the ceremony.