IT WAS amusing, last week, watching the oh-so-cool athletes and officials and coaches—the ones who so often blame the media for hype—go giddy at the mere mention of Michael Phelps. You thought nothing could top Tigermania? Think of the 2008 Olympics swim competition as a nine-day Jonas Brothers concert, with awestruck adults replacing shrieking 10-year-olds. "He's going to do something extraterrestrial," panted supposedly impartial FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu before Phelps's final race. No, British freestyler Simon Burnett declared, "he's not from another planet. He's from the future." After losing Saturday's 100-meter butterfly final to Phelps by .01 of a second, Milorad Cavic of Serbia described how "frightening" he found Phelps; on Sunday, Australian breaststroker Leisel Jones dismissed her haul of two golds and a silver to call Phelps's performance "my highlight. I couldn't care less about my own swims."
This is an article from the Aug. 25, 2008 issue
So, yes, it made some sense for swim legend Mark Spitz to go on NBC and call Phelps "the best Olympian of all time." Never mind that Phelps had just matched, not beaten, Spitz's once-untouchable single-Games record of seven golds at the time; number 8 was inevitable. In anticipation of Phelps's 14 career Olympic gold medals—the most ever—nine-time Russian medalist Alexander Popov intoned, "He is the best. Admit it. Just write it down: He is the greatest in history."
But I can't. It's not that I'm against a good old-fashioned anointing; just last fall I stated that Roger Federer plays tennis better than anyone does anything (and have been looking quite the genius since). Yet for all the intergalactic references to Phelps in Beijing, he is not the greatest Olympian in history—not yet. Oddly enough, though, his monumental display in Beijing does make him the rare Olympian to enter the discussion of the greatest athletes ever, up there with Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Jim Brown, Pelé and Wayne Gretzky.
Confused? Bear with me. I know Federer can't beat an egg these days, but this time I'm sure I've got this right.
The Games are a quadrennial event, sports' most glorified and pressurized one-off, and this infrequency is central to Olympic hagiography. Ringheads rightly resist giving the crown to Phelps, who began his medal haul four years ago in Athens, making the case instead for U.S. track star Carl Lewis, Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi, British rower Steve Redgrave or Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina because they won their medals in at least three Games. To be an alltime Olympian, you can't just be 23 and dominate over a four-year span. You have to age, battle time and remain on top.
On the other hand, the Olympics is also swimming's ultimate championship, and as such it allows us to compare Phelps with athletes who excelled in World Series, World Cups, Super Bowls. Fact is, Phelps has ruled his sport for six years, breaking more than 30 world records in various disciplines against the deepest competition in history, thriving as much in a team construct as he has alone. He looked increasingly drawn as he got closer to his goal of passing Spitz, but the pressure seemed to ease whenever he was in a relay. Phelps played cards and video games with his U.S. teammates; when they hit the blocks, he came off as just one of the boys.
Beijing also demanded a resourcefulness that only the best can access. Phelps's goggles filled with water during the 200-meter butterfly final. Like Cassius Clay, who in 1964 took the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston despite fighting two rounds with his eyes clouded by liniment, Phelps fended off panic and prevailed. In Saturday's 100-meter butterfly final he made the turn in seventh place and began chasing down Cavic. Like Jordan against Utah in the '98 Finals, you watched thinking, He'sgottodoit, hecan'tpossiblydoit, mygodhe'sdoneit! It was a finish as great as anyone's in any sport: Cavic gliding to the wall as Phelps went for broke and chopped down with a final half-stroke to win by the slimmest margin possible.
Is he the best athlete ever? Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds seemed worthy, but accusations of performance-enhancing-drug use have made them suspect. In the accumulation of major titles, Tiger was supposed to overtake Jack Nicklaus and Federer was supposed to catch Pete Sampras; injury and a loss of form, respectively, have stopped that talk for now. Give Phelps four more years, and then we can have another conversation. If he stays healthy and clean and continues to break records through the 2012 London Games' end? It won't matter in which category—Olympian or athlete—you place him. There will be nothing left to discuss.
If you have a comment on Michael Phelps's place in Olympic history, send it to SI.com/pointafter.