Who Is The Greatest Summer Olympian Of All Time?


With the closing ceremony for the Rio games in the rear view mirror, it’s time to process some of the recent results, and appoint the greatest summer Olympian of all time…

Who Is The Greatest Summer Olympian Of All Time?

As simple as that task seems, it proves much more difficult when you dive into the rich history of the games and all the variables associated with each individual athlete and their performances. With the closing ceremony for the Rio games in the rear view mirror, it’s time to process some of the recent results, and appoint the greatest summer Olympian of all time…

The 2016 games in Rio sparked plenty of ammunition for this debate. Two living legends were carving out unprecedented Olympic history on the track and in the pool, reaching unimaginable heights. Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps have set the bar so high for measurable performance at the Summer Olympics, that it may never be bested in your children’s lifetime.

Bolt captured the hearts of millions by contributing to his Olympic legacy in Rio, obtaining his ninth career gold medal in as many tries in Athletics. Dating back to Beijing in 2008, gold is the only medal colour he’s ever known over the course of three Summer games. Usain Bolt is, without question, the greatest Olympic sprinter of all time.

Phelps contributed to his unprecedented medal count in 2016, dominating in the pool once again and increasing his career total to a record setting 28 Olympic medals (23 gold, 3 silver, 2 bronze). The next closest Olympian, Larisa Latynina, is 10 medals behind. Michael Phelps is, without question, the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time.

These legendary performances by Bolt and Phelps have taken us down a slippery slope of a debate over the greatest Summer Olympian of all time…

So, shameless click bait aside, who is the greatest of them all?

This is one of the most subjective athletic debates you could ever embark on… Trying to compare accomplishments in Athletics with Swimming may be an exercise in futility. It’s virtually impossible, and can’t be reflected in a valid conclusive answer, in any measurable calculable formula. One sport is done on land, while the other, is done in the water. The sports don’t intersect, save for the Triathlon, leaving for an unfair debate.

What is the measure for the greatest? Gold medals? Total medals? Longevity? World Records? Marketability? National pride and prejudice?

The deeper we dive and marinate on this topic, the more subjectivity comes to the surface. When discussing the greatest Summer Olympians ever, it’s clearly a decision of preference over an actual measurable statistic.

I’m going to make a decision, but you’re going to have to read until the end of my piece to get my answer.

That being written and understood, lets take a quick look at some of the historical contenders, and anoint them a special title in the grand scheme of things, before revealing my choice of the greatest Summer Olympian…

Greatest Complete Athletic Performance Ever At One Olympiad (1936) –  Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens gave the single greatest performance ever at one Olympic Games. If you haven’t heard the Owens story by now, I would be legitimately shocked. The legend from Oakville, Alabama, won four gold medals in Berlin: 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay, and Long Jump. Owens was the most successful athlete at the games and is credited with single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. It was a performance for the ages on so many levels, and must continue to be recognized for eternity.

Greatest Complete Long Distance Performance Ever At One Olympiad (1952) – Emil Zátopek

The “Czech Locomotive” won three gold medals in distance events during one week at the Helsinki Games. Zátopek won the 5000m, 10,000m, and the Marathon (breaking an Olympic record even though he had never officially run one before). This trifecta of brilliance in distance running has never been matched since, and probably never will. It’s beyond comprehensible what Zátopek accomplished at those distances, over that short period of time, at one Summer Olympiad.

Greatest Performance Ever In One Event, At One Olympiad (1960) – Abebe Bikila 

No matter what you accomplish athletically in your career, chances are you will never touch what Abebe Bikila did on the streets of Rome. Dude ran the marathon barefoot and won, setting an Olympic record in the process. You can’t talk me out of this being the greatest single event performance ever, in one event, at the Summer Olympics.

Greatest Summer Olympian Of All Time – Honorable Mentions

Here is where things get slightly derailed… So many incredible performances over the years tainted by discontinued events, history, competition size and personal preference. It’s almost impossible to award any one Olympian the nod over others due to the sands of time and the wide variety of their events. I’m going to attempt some quick blanket shout-outs before we make our decision…

Larisa Latynina (Soviet Union) Gymnastics 1956-1964 – (18 total medals, 9 gold)

She holds the record for the most Olympic gold medals by a gymnast, male or female, with 9. Her total of 18 Olympic medals was a record for 48 years until she was bested by Phelps. She held the record for individual event medals with 14 for 52 years until, you know… Phelps again.

Paavo Nurmi (Finland) Athletics 1920-1928 – (12 medals, 9 gold)

The “Flying Finn” dominated distance running in the early 20th century. Nurmi set 22 official world records at distances between 1500m and 20km, and won nine gold and three silver medals in his twelve events in the Olympic Games. At his peak, Nurmi was undefeated at distances from 800m upwards for 121 races. Throughout his 14-year career, he remained unbeaten in cross country events and the 10,000m.

Ray Ewry (United States) Athletics 1900-1908 – (8 gold medals)

‘Ol Ray was the business back in the day in the Standing Long Jump, Standing High Jump, and Standing Triple Jump. All events have now been discontinued, but he was the man to beat in the early 20th Century. Ewry’s eight Olympic gold medals in individual events (i.e. non-relay), was the record, all alone, for 100 years and 23 days—from July 23, 1908, until Phelps won his eighth on August 15, 2008.

 Edoardo Mangiarotti (Italy) Fencing 1936-1960 – (13 total medals, 6 gold)

In 2003, the International Olympic Committee awarded Mangiarotti with a Platinum Wreath, with a document which stated that: “Edoardo Mangiarotti’s total of 39 gold, silver & bronze medals in Olympic & World Fencing Championships which earns him the distinction of being the greatest Fencer in that sport’s history.” Respect.

Greatest Summer Olympian Of All Time 

It’s almost too easy to give the crown to Bolt or Phelps and call it a day. Both are in the conversation, but they really only do one thing incredibly well. If you think about it, Bolt performs for less than 40 seconds at each Olympiad (in his respective finals) to obtain his medals. Somehow, being the world’s fastest man is something special, while middle and distance running gets little to no respect. Conversely, events like the Decathlon and the Triathlon, which are a much more difficult and grueling test, fall victim to the media’s bias and proper recognition.

Traditionally, the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” has been given to the person who wins the Olympic Decathlon. This has been won at the past two Olympics (London, Rio) by American Ashton Eaton, who holds the world record in the event. The Decathlon is a two day event, incorporating (First day) 100m, Long Jump, Shot Put, High Jump, and 400m; (Second day) 110m Hurdles, Discus, Pole Vault, Javelin, and concludes with the 1,500m. Competitors are scored for their performance in each event according to a table established by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

But no swimming? Huh? Why not? Still tough to measure by these standards for my taste.

How about the Triathlon?

The Olympic Distance (swim: 1,500m – bike: 40km – run: 10km) is clearly the measure for Summer Olympic greatness then right? Britain’s Alistair Brownlee has won gold at the past two Olympics and has legitimate claim for the title. However, the lack of additional Athletic events in the competition takes away from the overall versatile Olympic measure. This leaves us in a slight quandary…

My take on this coveted nomination is quite simple, there hasn’t been an event invented yet to measure the Greatest Summer Olympian. Since that’s the case, nobody will be awarded the handle of Greatest ever. Not Bolt, not Phelps, not Eaton, not Brownlee… Just because you run really fast, or swim really fast, only makes you a one-trick pony. The Decathlon is a great measure, but there are no swimming events in the competition. The Triathlon is a solid test and measure, but the spirit of the original games is lost without the inclusion of all the Athletic events from the Decathlon.

The way to remedy this measure is to introduce a new event that will debut in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Games. It will be a hybrid event combining the Decathlon, the Triathlon, and a few other competitive components from a variety of sports to complete the event. The winner will be declared the ‘Greatest Athlete of the Games’, and then, after about a century or so, we can present the title of ‘Greatest Summer Olympian Of All Time’ to someone based on 100 years worth of results.

Here’s how the (yet to be named) event would break down, taking place over the entire Olympiad:

100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m, 5000m, 100m Hurdles, Long Jump, High Jump, Pole Vault, Shot Put, Discus Throw, Javelin Throw, 50m Swim, 100m Swim, 200m Swim, 400m Swim, Triathlon, Diving, Archery & Rowing

We should probably start planning now, seeing that the next Olympiad is less than four years away.

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Follow author: @Phil_Jones2020




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