BEIJING -- On Wednesday,
Phelps should be No. 1 because his total of 11 golds trumps everyone else's and his haul is likely to increase by the end of the week. In 2004 Phelps became the second athlete in history, joining Soviet gymnast
Latynina should be No. 1 because she has won the most total medals, 18, of any Olympian in history. From the 1954 world championships in Rome through the 1965 European championships in Sofia, Latynina spent more than a decade at the head of a sport that usually gives its practitioners three or four years to stay at the top. Besides her medal haul at the Games, Latynina won 14 medals at worlds, including 10 golds, and 14 medals at the European championships, including seven golds. Granted, her era of preeminence took place before the innovators of gymnastics (
Spitz should be No. 1 because he is the first (and still only) athlete to win seven gold medals at a single Olympics, and he surely would have won more had he competed in an era when Olympians could earn more money and extend their careers. After winning two gold, one silver and one bronze at the 1968 Games in Mexico City as an 18-year-old, Spitz made good on his prediction for seven golds, winning every race he entered: two freestyles, two butterflys and three relays. He later became a corporate spokesman and was one of the sport's first athletes to cross into the mainstream, appearing on
Nurmi should be No, 1 because of the sheer volume of meters he ran in winning multiple distance races, something no athlete attempts these days, and also because his career was unfairly cut short when the IOC declared him a professional before the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, where he was due to run the 10,000 meters and the marathon. Nurmi's stamina was unparalleled. At the 1924 Amsterdam Games he won the 1,500- and 5,000-meter races just 26 minutes apart. He also won gold in the individual 5,000-meter cross-country and in team events for 3,000 team and 5,000 team cross-country. (Cross-country running events have long been dropped from the Games' program.) During a U.S. tour in 1925 he competed 55 times over five months and broke 39 records (most recognized, some unofficial) and he set the standard of excellence for every distance athlete that has followed him.
Lewis should be No. 1 because he won golds at four different Olympics and because he may have been the greatest pressure athlete of all-time. Twelve years after being the dominant figure of the L.A. Games in 1984, when he won the 100, 200, 4x100 and long jump, Lewis was no longer the best athlete in his sport. Yet he won the long jump at the Atlanta Games despite placing only third at the U.S. trials that year. Put the chips on the line under the Olympic spotlight and no one in history was better at lifting his game than Lewis. Take the argument about competitive era even further, because track and field is a more competitive sport. Every country in the world is capable of at least producing sprinters. The fastest man in the world is arguably the glamour athlete of the Games.
You could make a case for these other summer athletes, too, on what is definitely an incomplete list: