Michael Phelps: The greatest Olympian ever?

How the star swimmer in the Beijing Games measures up

Michael Phelps is dominating his sport like no athlete has done before, said Linda Robertson in The Miami Herald. The 23-year-old swimmer has left rivals behind at the Beijing Olympics, destroying five world records in five days and winning five gold medals by “Secretariat-like margins of victory.” Now that he has outdone the 20th century’s Olympic legends by winning his record 11th career gold medal, it's fair to ask whether the “sea creature“ with the big ears is the best Olympian in history.

It’s “unfair” to compare yesterday’s champions to Phelps, said William Saletan in Slate, because of a host of “unfair” advantages today's swimmers enjoy. The pool in Beijing is extra deep, reducing drag, and the new LZR Racer swimsuits—designed by NASA scientists and computers—let today’s competitors glide through the water easier than swimmers did when Mark Spitz set the record of seven golds in one Olympics 36 years ago.

“Fine,” said Sacha Zimmerman in The New Republic’s The Plank blog, “maybe Phelps in a shallow pool with no LZR suit wouldn’t beat Mark Spitz’s times (but I bet he would!).” The point is that through some “perfect storm of science and muscle” the man poised to break Spitz’s record by collecting eight golds in one Olympics is rocketing through the water with “record-breaking, jaw-dropping, inspirational performances” that are changing our conceptions about what is humanly possible.

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But Olympians in other sports have done that as well, said Jere Longman in The New York Times. Carl Lewis won the long jump in four consecutive Olympics, and gymnast Larysa Latynina won 18 Olympic medals, nine gold, for the former Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s. It will be tough this year for Phelps to end the debate about who's the greatest Olympian in history, but he'll have another shot in the London Games in 2012.

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