Michael Phelps not best Olympian ever? So says chief of London Olympics

Sebastian Coe, revered British Olympic long-distance runner and head of the London Olympic organizing committee, said other athletes' Olympic achievements might be more impressive than those of all-time medal leader Michael Phelps. 

Luke MacGregor/REUTERS
Olympic Games chief Sebastian Coe listens during a news conference in the Olympic Park at the London 2012 Olympic Games Sunday.

Lord Sebastian Coe, two-time British Olympic gold medalist and chief of the London Olympic organizing committee, has said the unthinkable.

Michael Phelps, in his estimation, is not the greatest Olympian of all time.

Later today, American officials are expected to announce the termination of all diplomatic relations with Great Britain, withdraw embassy staff from London, and issue a new deck of "most wanted" playing cards with Lord Coe as the joker. 

For the record, his exact words, as reported by The Associated Press, were: "He is certainly the most successful. That goes without saying.... But whether he is the greatest? In my opinion, probably not."

How could Coe possibly say this? How do you argue with 19 medals – especially when three more are certainly not out of the realm of possibility here in London. On the all-time Olympic medal table, Phelps is threatening to lap the field. 

Well, the argument goes something like this:

Imagine you are the best triathlete the world has ever seen. You win gold in every Olympics you enter, and you do it emphatically. You run faster, you cycle faster, and you swim faster than everyone else in the field. You compete, the world gasps, and your competitors are left to suck the fumes of your greatness.

In the end, you will win, what – three gold medals, at the very most? On one very important level, you are equal with Phelps: You are the greatest athlete in the history of your sport. In the great medal argument, however, you are not even a bug on Phelps's windshield. 

Coe, it would seem, would be particularly open to this argument as a runner in the 1500 meters – not an event that allows athletes to pile up the Olympic hardware.

The fact is, medals are a fickle measure of Olympic greatness. They tell a story, but not all of it. Swimmers, gymnasts, and – to a lesser degree – sprinters and track cyclists can simply win more medals than other Olympic athletes. That's not to diminish their achievement in the slightest degree, but when we get into the apples-and-oranges business of comparing Olympians across sports, it has to be a part of the discussion.

And now we have a sense of where one person – who knows rather a lot about the Olympics – falls.

So who does Coe favor? As long as we're in the mood, let's examine his candidates to unseat Phelps as the best Olympian ever.

• The first of his homer picks is British rower Steve Redgrave. Pro: Redgrave won five gold medals and a bronze over five Summer Olympic cycles, showing complete dominance of a sport over two decades. Con: No matter how good a rower you are, you always need a partner or a team to win, unless you're competing in the single sculls, which Redgrave did not. That complicates the conversation somewhat. 

• His second is Briton Daley Thompson, a two-time gold medalist in the decathlon in 1980 and 1984. Pro: Picking a decathlete is a natural, as decathletes are considered the best athletes in the world – like Phelps, competing at a high level across many events. Con: Both of these were boycotted Olympics, meaning he had no American competition in one and no Eastern Bloc competition in the other. American Robert Mathias also won the Olympic decathlon twice, in 1948 and 1952.

• He also suggested Jesse Owens, the African-American sprinter who won four golds – in the 100 meter, 200 meter, 4x100 relay, and long jump – at the 1936 Berlin Games. Pro: Owens's performance was a seminal moment in the history of the Olympic movement, refuting Adolf Hitler's creed of a superior Teutonic race in front of the man himself. He also had no chance to compete again because US athletic officials controversially withdrew his amateur status. Con: There is no way of knowing if he could have maintained that level of success.  

• Last, he mentioned Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who became the first gymnast to receive a perfect 10 score. Pro: Like Owens's performance in Berlin, Comaneci's perfect 10 in Montreal is a moment etched into Olympic history, and her nine medals (five gold, three silver, one bronze) over two Olympic Games show excellence over time and in different events. Con: She might not even be the best Olympic gymnast ever. Soviet Larisa Latynina competed in three Olympics (1956, 1960, and 1964) and won 18 medals (nine gold, five silver, and four bronze). Latynina also has the rather impressive achievement of winning five out of six titles while four months pregnant – though that was in a world championships. 

What does all this mean? Not much.

Coe did make one less controversial statement.

‘‘This is the global pub game,’’ he said. ‘‘Who is the greatest Olympian of all time? I could go around this whole room, we’d all come up with different interpretations on that."

That is certain.

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