With the greatest sporting event in the world just a few sleeps away, I want to try and answer the burning five ring question- who is the greatest Olympian of all time?
What even constitutes being considered- number of gold medals, number of Olympic Games attended or simply a monumental performance which left onlookers gasping and grabbing their jaw from the tartan, the bottom of the pool or the back of a net? I believe it’s all of the above.
So who are the candidates?
Without doubt, the two best ever athletes to perform at their chosen sport, have competed at the Olympics. Cassius Clay boxed his way to Olympic fame amid racial controversy and then he came out of his cocoon to fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee, as Muhammed Ali and rule the boxing world.
The 1992 Dream Team, speaks for itself. It is without doubt the best team to ever compete and there will never ever be a team as good as this American basketball, as long as the Olympics is held. The team was Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin and David Robinson. And it also included Michael Jordan- who I believe is the greatest ever sportsman and the greatest ever athlete to compete at an Olympic Games.
However, as winning a gold medal in the Olympics for basketball isn’t the pinnacle of the sport, Jordan can’t be the greatest Olympian ever.
Swimmer, Michael Phelps has the most Olympic gold medals of any competitor with 14 and holds the record for most number of gold medals at a single Olympics, with 8 in Beijing, overtaking countryman Mark Spitz’s haul of 7 at the Munich Olympics.
Romanian, Nadia Comăneci was the first woman to ever score a perfect 10 in gymnastic and she went on to do it numerous times.
Adjectives such as ‘legendary’ are appropriate to describe the performances of Jesse Owens, Dawn Fraser, Daley Thompson and Ian Thorpe. The rivalry between Lord Sebastian Co and Steve Ovette was infamous and while these two runners both collected gold, they are not the greatest Olympians.
Sir Steven Redgrave takes a silver medal as the greatest Olympian. The British rower won a remarkable five gold medals at five consecutive Olympic games; from 1984-2000. An almost unique feat. The reason I list Redgrave as second on this list, is because he was in a team event and didn’t win these medals, alone. Redgrave trained for his final Games, Sydney, with type one, diabetes, making his last gold even more remarkable.
But the greatest ever Olympian goes to Carl Lewis. In arguably the most competitive era of sprint racing and long jump, Carl Lewis dominated time and time and time and time again. By the time his career had finished he had nine gold medals and one silver in his trophy cabinet. Lewis matched Jesse Owen’s feat from 1936 by winning the 100m, 200m, long jump and then being part of the 4x100m relay. 1988 he prevailed in the most famous 100m race ever run with Ben Johnson. His long jump victory in Barcelona, beating Mike Powell who had broken the long standing world record the year before, was testament to his determination to be number one again, in his pet event.
At age 35, Lewis qualified for his 5th Olympics and again soared through the Atlanta air to victory in his long jump event for his ninth and final Olympic Games gold medal.
Will there ever be an athlete like Carl Lewis again compete at the Olympics? I don’t think so.