Is Michael Phelps the Greatest Athlete Ever? How Do We Compare This to Lifting?

Posted on 05 Aug 2012 01:34

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There is a lot of talk about Michael Phelps and his many, many medals. Is he the greatest Olympian ever? Well, it depends on your perspective. As has been said already a thousand times, a case can be made that he is the greatest Olympian ever. But what is true of athletics in general is true of the Olympics. In fact, the Olympics is a case study in athletes with a capital A.

What is an athlete? And how do we compare one athlete to another who competes in an entirely different sport, with different needs of technical skill, energy systems, etc.? Well you can't directly compare them.

Events like the decathlon and heptathlon are sometimes supposed to find the "greatest" athlete. You have speed, you have endurance, you have power production. So, in other words, maybe the greatest athlete is one who can perform at a very great level both aerobically and anaerobically, both in terms of endurance and power, skill and discipline? This leads to the question as to whether athleticism is a generalizable concept or simply the specific level of ability within a discipline.

Call Micheal Phelps the greatest swimmer of all time, you will have a hard time finding good counter-arguments. But what if you think that the greatest should be one who has the greatest endurance? There are a few swimming events that even Phelps could not do well in. And could he do open water long distance?

You are getting my point here, I'm sure. But now that I've brought up different swimming events, remember that not all sports give an athlete the opportunity to win so many medals.

And then there is the viable age. You see, Phelps could keep swimming. He doesn't HAVE to retire. He could still be swimming into his thirties.

Swimming is not quite as punishing to the body as say, gymnastics. Why do we tend to see new gymnastic athletes at every Olympics? Because your viability as a gymnast can be as little as 3 to 4 years! Some longer, sure, but you're not going to find many gymnastic Olympians having competed in the number of Olympics in which Phelps has competed. Just so we're clear, any high impact activity has a shorter range of viability.


Phelps holds up yet another gold medal.
More opportunity plus longer potential career
gives a swimmer ample potential to win medals.
Phelps lived up to that potential.

While I'm on the subject, the peak of a female gymnasts career can be even shorter than for males, because of the body changes that young females experience, which changes their bodies and their center of gravity. Diet and training can "hold off" these changes for a while, but this has consequences. The need to keep body-fat below the threshold to begin menstruation is one such example. The pressure this can put on a young female athlete cannot be underestimated. Even without these changes, the extreme forces the body encounters will not allow you to compete for extended numbers of years at an elite level. You can think of gymnastics as a contact sport. Except the body does not make violent contact with another player but with the floor, beam, horse, etc. And not all that contact is controlled and absorbed. Violent crashes take their toll, and so do controlled ones.

The Story Of Kurt Thomas - Gymnastics is for the Young

You may not know the story of Kurt Thomas. If you saw the movie Gymkata, though, you've seen him. A fantastic and promising gymnast, he was the epitome of what was to become the modern male gymnast: small, compact, great agility and strength. And, he tended to land on his feet like a cat. Kurt was 5'5" and about 130lbs at his full adult size. He came along just when it was becoming clear that this kind of small, compact and powerful stature was the ideal for a gymnast, instead of a large, heavily muscled poser. He is an example of how things have changed in athletics, and just as the ideal body-type for a gymnast was well-represented by Thomas, the ideal body-type for a swimmer, long, lean torso and short legs, is epitomized by Michael Phelps.

The famous trick that we used to always see on the pommel horse, the "Thomas Flair," was invented by Kurt (he also did it on the floor). Another floor exercise move was also named after him: the Thomas salto. He was set to be a phenomenon. He already was, in fact. He made it to the 1976 Montreal Olympics and was sure to win the gold. But he tore some ligaments in his right index finger a few days before the games, and ended up twenty-first in the all-around. A devastating setback, but he went on to win the floor in the World Championships of 1978, the first American in 46 years to win on an international stage. Then, in 1979, he took the gold for high bar and floor; and silver for parallel bars and pommel. And he won silver for all-around. America was back on top after over 40 years of stagnation. Thanks to Kurt.


Kurt Thomas performs the Thomas Flair

He was set to hit the 1980 Olympics with a bang. Then entered President Carter. Carter boycotted the Olympics over the Soviet refusal to pull out of Afghanistan. And the Olympics went on in Moscow without America. And without Kurt. He retired. Did a fairly bad but entertaining movie. Some shows. Some commentary. He coached. But he was bitter and disappointed, as anyone would be. He lost his dreams and in the bitter aftermath he even lost his wife. He announced a comeback for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where he would be 36 years old.

Thirty-six is old for a gymnast. A swimmer, like Phelps, could have a chance. A weightlifter could do it. But Kurt hurt his ankle, shoulder, and wrist during the trials. He finished 16. Not a happy story for a gymnast, but gymnastics is a sport for the young. The bright-side is that he helped usher in the new-age where America was competitive in gymnastics once again.

Of course, there are no rules and it is not unheard of for a gymnast to be competitive into their thirties. In fact, Oksana Chusovitina, of Germany, competed in these London Olympics at 37. She placed fifth in the individual vault. There is also the veteran gymnast of Bulgaria, Jordan Jovtchev, who is 39, but he only trains the rings.

Taking that into consideration, it would be hard to say that a great gymnast was not as good an athlete as someone like Phelps, wouldn't it? And the same can be extended to every sport, where the specifics of the sport provide a different number of opportunities to win awards and a shorter or longer amount of time in which it is possible to compete at an elite level.

Now, I do not think there is anything wrong with saying that you think a certain person is the greatest athlete ever. Just remember that it is subjective and there are many variables. Yes, I think Phelps is one of the greatest athletes of all time. But there can never really be a "greatest" athlete.

How Many Gold Medals Could an Olympic Weightlifter Win?

Not as many as Phelps since they can only win up to three per Olympics. So, a better question is, how many times can a weightlifter be an Olympic champion? History tells the tale:

Dimas Pyrros, of Greece, who is certainly one of the best there ever was, won gold in three Olympics:

1992 Summer Olympics, Barcelona, Spain
1996 Summer Olympics, Atlanta, Georgia
2000 Summer Olympics, Sydney, Australia

Naim Suleymanoglu, from Bulgaria but of Turkish descent, also won three, two in the same games as Pyrros:

1988 Summer Olympics, Seoul, Korea, competing for Turkey
1992 Summer Olympics, Barcelona, Spain
1996 Summer Olympics, Atlanta, Georgia

Kakhi Kakhiashvili, born in Georgia to Greek and Georgian parents, is another great three timer:

1992 Summer Olympics, Barcelona, Spain
1996 Summer Olympics, Atlanta, Georgia
2000 Summer Olympics, Sydney, Australia

Halil Mutlu, of Bulgaria, is fourth but probably not last (lifts for Turkey)

1996 Summer Olympics, Atlanta, Georgia
2000 Summer Olympics, Sydney, Australia
2004 Summer Olympics, Athens, Greece

All of these gold medals say nothing of the numerous other championship titles these lifters won, and the world records they set. Before you think these are anomalies, there are also at least 13 or more lifters (I am not exactly sure) that have won two Olympics. That's not too shabby, either. The first woman to do this was Chen Yanqing of China in 2004 and 2008.

Kazakhstan's Ilya Ilyin, just successfully defended his 2008 title, winning the gold again, breaking two world records, and just being an all-around bad-ass (94kg class). Could he do a three-peat? Sure looks like it.


Ilya Ilyin made it look easy.

If you cared to do some reading, you'd find that weightlifting champions have long and storied careers, even when you do not consider the Olympic games. I just gave you some highlights, we could go at this all day.

How Does this Relate to Maximal Strength

Sadly, there is no maximal lifting competition in the Olympics. Powerlifting would have liked to be included. At first, the reasons for not including powerlifing were complete bunk, such as:

  • Powerlifting does not require enough technical skill, i.e. is not "athletic." Well, rowing a boat isn't exactly rocket science either. How about riding a horse around? I mean really? Each of them requires some skill, but the level of technical skill required is clearly not a factor in Olympic inclusion.
  • Powerlifting just wasn't popular enough internationally. Well, that used to be true, but now, it's probably safe to say that more people follow powerlifting than Olympic weightlifting and many many countries have lifters.
  • I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist but I'm sure there was some special interest involved.

These first three reasons are not really valid anymore. And I don't know whether number three ever was. It would be weird to have two sports with three lifts, but I do not think it would be "confusing" like many have suggested. There are, however, other practical reasons:

  • Meets take forever.
  • Just what the hell is parallel, anyway? Point being, little consistency between organizations.
  • Separate sport for props and supportive gear and non-supportive "pure" lifting? Nobody who competes in the Olympics uses props and artificial aids. Bench shirts, squat suits, etc. would have to go, at a minimum, in order for the sport to ever be in the Olympics.
  • Name makes no sense. Power? If it's not power, what should it be called? History has largely decided that the oh so haughty "fast lift" crowd has gotten their grasp on the words strength and lifting.

Now, before I get the typical angry response: "Weh, I'm so sick of people putting down powerlifting because of the gear, weh" let me say something: I don't care. I do not care if people want to use all this stuff. It really makes no never-mind to me. Do what you want. Lift how you like. But don't whine about not being the in the Olympics if you're unwilling to lift without special gear. Do you think they would let rowing team use tiny outboard motors? Hey, it's a tiny motor, it hardly does anything and you have to know how to use it just right…If powerlifting really wants to be an Olympic sport, then the governing bodies will do what is necessary, which would mean making it a more "pure" sport that does not rely on artificial aids.

That does not mean that there have been changes in technology that have enable athletes to perform better across all of sports. The design of swimming pools has changed, in fact. The the running surface for sprinters is practically engineered for better force transfer so that the athletes can run as fast as possible. But let's be clear, these changes have resulted in miniscule performance differences, in the big scheme of things. Sheer seconds or fractions of a second in times or distances. It if fairly say that the technology of powerlifting has gone for beyond these small improvements, to the point that it has become unrecognizable where the lifter ends and the technology begins, at least for the lay-public, which is what really counts when it comes to the Olympics.

The sport served its own ticket on that score, I'm afraid. If it had been separated out from Olympic Weightlifting early on things may have been different. There used to be many other lifts, not all of which were the fast lifts. But that did not happen and powerlifting emerged as a separate discipline and went down a road that is not conducive to being accepted as an Olympic sport. Sorry to anyone that may piss off but many changes would have to be made before it ever happens.

Let's say powerlifting was an Olympic sport and you were an Olympic powerlifting athlete. What kind of Olympic career could you expect, when compared to something like swimming or gymnastics?

Most people would tend to equate it with gymnastics. That is because they equate the very heavy weights with the same kinds of forces that are involved in gymnastics. Nope. Gymnastic athletes absorb much, much greater forces. Not only gymnastics. Like I said above, any high impact activity involves extremely high forces. Higher, yes, than maximal lifting.

So would it be more comparable to swimming? A bit more, yes.

But wait. It makes more sense to compare it to Olympic Weightlifting, right?

The truth is it's hard to say. Weightlifters have competed into their 50's and beyond! Yes, at the Olympic level. And athletes competing up to and past the age of 35 is a fairly routine occurrence.

In terms of elite level viability, it would probably be safer to compare a maximal strength athlete to a swimmer, as paradoxical as this sounds. But the reasons are a bit different. A swimmer can reach "around his peak" at a fairly early age and then continue to compete into his/her thirties, and perhaps beyond, and make small improvements, even. But does it really compare. Well, look at the Olympic gold medals stats I gave above. I cannot guarantee how perfect my stats are but I can tell you they are not far off. Consider the number of gold medals available, before making your judgement. Remember, Phelps had many races in which he could win a medal. Weightlifters can win three. One for the total, one for the snatch, and one for the clean. It is not likely for a lifter to just sweep all the medals for consecutive Olympics. But that is not the point. We are talking about longevity as a champion, since we can't really compare total medals.

female gymnast on uneven bars

There is a lot more to female gymnastics
than meets the eye.

So, Phelps has been in 4 Olympics, starting in the 2000 Sydney games, when he was 15. He didn't medal there but that is to be expected. At his peak, then, we have 3 Olympics where he won golds (and other medals). Well, we see from the stats above that there have been Olympic weightlifting champions who have also won three Olympics games. So that tells us that it is possible for an Olympic weightlifter to have success for a long career, comparable to Phelps. Another thing I can tell you, and this is very simple and logical, is that the earlier a lifter begins the earlier he/she will reach their peak, and the older they begin the older they will reach their peak. That should seem kind of obvious but the point is that starting older does NOT mean you can never reach your peak and become a champion.

However, for maximal strength, it can take up to age thirty and beyond to reach your peak! Of course it depends on when your start training but similar to Olympic weightlifting, those who start younger do not automatically outstrip those who start older. You catch up.

The confusing part here is that around the age of 30 you start losing strength. That is what you've been told. Well, only if you never train. If you do train, you can keep getting stronger past thirty. And, if you only started training in your thirties, you will easily end up being stronger than when you were 20 and 25, if you play your cards right.

The point? A Olympic powerlifter could be expected to be seen in quite a few Olympics! Being able to root for your old favorite for consecutive Olympic games is always fun.

What Does this Mean for You?

I wonder if you have guessed that I wasn't really talking about the Olympics here. It's weird, but while watching athletes like Phelps can be inspiring to other athletes, it can have the opposite affect on those who have never trained or exercised. There is a perfectionistic fallacy that says, "I'll never be like him, so why even bother."

Maybe you are an older person seeing some very strong lifters and you are thinking something similar. Man, I wish I has started lifting young enough so that I could deadlift 500 like that guy.

I am not going to tell you that if you're 65 you are going to be able to deadlift that 500, if you've never lifted before. You will be more prone to injury than your younger counterparts. You will have a deficit due to muscle loss. You will have more mechanical baggage to overcome. But is it possible? You betcha. Just be careful, don't go too fast, and get some proper supervision.

For those of you who are into your thirties and maybe looking at your 40's? Same thing, but you should be able to get that 500 and it is definitely not too late to get very very strong.

A lot of people will tell me that I am being naive. Eric, they will say, people don't care about being strong. They just want too look good. You're barking up the wrong tree.

Well, to those people, I know some things about the human psyche that you do not. You see, it is inspiring and motivating to people to know that something is still possible, even if they do not wish to achieve it! You may only do strength training for "health" reasons, but if you do it while thinking that "it's too late for me to get strong" this will have psychological repercussions that will limit your engagement and you will be more likely to be one of those people who say, well, I used to lift but I switched to yoga. Don't switch to yoga because you think that you have limited possibilities, switch to yoga because you enjoy it more, it suits you better…you know, for a positive reason. The trap is that if you go into something thinking your outlook is limited, you will never enjoy it like you would if you knew that so much achievement was not only possible, but likely!

This page created 05 Aug 2012 01:34
Last updated 22 Jul 2016 00:13

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