This may not be an era where our politics are covered in glory, but there can be little question that we are living in a time of unprecedented caliber and accomplishment when it comes to athletics.
Technology, resources, nutrition, access and a million other factors have given us modern athletes who keep getting smarter, stronger, faster, bigger and better trained.
And there has never been a time when sports were more influential in our global culture and economy.
So, in 2016, saying that someone is the best in their field of play implies unfathomable levels of talent and composure and tenacity. With so much competition, the likelihood that all those winning traits could come together in one human package in a way that truly sets an athlete apart is infinitesimal, and getting smaller ever day.
This is particularly true of players in sports that are global in scope and participated in widely – sports like soccer and basketball and swimming.
Michael Phelps is making his quadrennial appearance in the Olympic pool and our living rooms and having already gone three-for-three in gold medal-winning performances in Rio, his success forces us to contemplate the epic greatness of his accomplishments.
For me, an athlete needs to be considered in the context of five #GOAT criteria to make the “greatest of all time” short list, and if he were a gymnast, Michael Phelps would fly through this test with perfect scores (16.3s?) across the board.
1. Theirs is a “mainstream” sport – To be in the #GOAT discussion, the athlete’s sport must be internationally popular and easily accessible. Most of the Earth is covered by water and humans have been swimming since, well, since before we were humans.
This year’s Olympics show again that world class swimmers come from every corner of the globe and every type of country: Japan, China, Australia, Hungary, Great Britain, etc. Phelps is the very best in a sport with millions of amazing athletes.
This is the first and easiest box that pretty much every one of my #GOAT finalists would tick. They include: Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods (yes, in his era golf would qualify – can’t say the same for Jack Nicklaus, who played much of his career at a time when golf was a pretty elite affair and the US dominated the sport), Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Muhammad Ali (yep, boxing in his day, but no more), Tom Brady, Jim Brown, (ok, our kind of football is really just an American thing, but hey, the US is large and diverse and some of our best athletes play the sport so there you go), Lionel Messi, Pele and Willie Mays (see football above).
2. They transformed their sport – Wayne Gretzky did it. So too Jordan. And Tiger Woods and Jim Brown and even Federer. Through power or size or style all raised the bar and forced everyone in the sport, from coaches to trainers to competitors, to think differently about the prototype for future success. Phelps’s extraordinary physique – ridiculously long arms and trunk, giant flipper feet on short speedy legs – and a dolphin-like technique shattered the sport’s norm and continues to be the standard all seek to emulate.
3. They transcended their sport – Did their greatness reach people beyond the court/pool/field? If Phelp’s has a weak spot, this would be it.
He is no Muhammad Ali – an icon, a movement, a moment in the American experience – nor a brand like Jordan. Aside from some unfortunate Mathew McConaughey-like high jinks, and his most recent work popularizing that weird cupping thing that everyone pretends to have known about, Phelps certainly has less claim on the zeitgeist. But really this is kind of a meaningless category so I’m not even sure why I included it other than wanting to include those last two items, cupping in particular.
4. They dominated over an extended period of time – No flash in the pans here. Phelps has been an Olympic swimmer since 2000, when he was a tender 15-year old. He’s been a star in international competitions ever since. What other athlete has been the best at what they do in such a sporting market over a 16 year period?
5. An unmatched record of performance – Here, the most decisive category, Phelps really pulls away from the field. He’s got 21 gold medals and counting, 25 Olympic medals total – both records. He is the current and former world-record holder in multiple events.
Individual performers (swimming, tennis, golf) get a bit of an advantage because they have more control over their destiny – so Serena and Fed and Tiger must get our attention. Michael Jordan and Tom Brady’s league titles and individual stats are awfully compelling. Some might pick nits and take points from individual-sport athletes, arguing that team sports guys must tap greater skills working within a complex system, but I’m not listening. Phelps is the best.