great-est: (noun) a person who has achieved importance or distinction in a field.
Michael Phelps is a pretty great athlete. So great, in fact, that during the Olympics various media were running stories on Phelps being the greatest Olympic athlete ever and there were several online polls asking who was the greatest Olympic athlete.
As far as I'm concerned, there is no greatest Olympic athlete ever.
I'm not trying to take away from anything Michael Phelps has accomplished because he has accomplished quite a bit and he's worked hard to get where he is and he's earned it all. And when he came to these Olympics, his goal was to win eight gold medals, topping the seven won by Mark Spitz back in 1972. It took 36 years for an athlete to top this feat. In that time, things changed, as they happen to over 36 years. Better training regimes, better diets, better fitness programs, even better swimsuits all contribute to creating an athlete good enough to top Spitz's performance. But it took 36 years. By saying Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympic athlete ever is to take away from what Mark Spitz accomplished. And, really, is Michael better than Nadia or Mary-Lou? Is he better than Carl Lewis or Donovan Bailey? Is he better than Ian Thorpe or Dara Torres? And there are so many more...
While I don't think he's the greatest Olympic athlete ever, I do think he is the greatest Olympic athlete of his generation. And he will continue to be a great athlete and he will compete again in London in 2012, but who knows when the next "greatest" thing will come along and suddenly nine gold medals at one Games becomes the new standard.
Michael Phelps did (and will do) great things. He's fun to watch. He made history. And he deserves his accolades. But there will be others who will also deserve accolades when they accomplish great things. Why do we need to take away from Michael Phelps (or Mark Spitz or Nadia Comeneci or Carl Lewis) by calling the next person "the greatest ever"?
Up next: blue - of judges, judging and being judged