"You can probably say that clearly, self-evidently, in medal tally he's the most successful," Coe told reporters Wednesday, one day after the American swimmer set the record for most medals won in Olympic history. "My personal view is I am not sure he is the greatest, but he is certainly the most successful. That goes without saying."
[Photos: Michael Phelps]
Coe won gold medals in the 1500 meters at 1980 and 1984 Olympics. He also earned two silver medals in the 800 meters in the same years.
If not Phelps, then who?
"Well, modesty prevents me from," he said, before smiling and quickly adding, "it's a joke, guys."
"This is the global pub game," he continued. "Who is the greatest Olympian of all time? I could go around this whole room, we'd all come up with different interpretations on that. But you have to say he's up there. But whether he is the greatest, in my opinion, probably not."
If Coe went around the room, I think he'd have found mass support for Phelps. I imagine he knows that too.
When pressed, Coe mentioned two Brits -- five-time gold-medalist rower Steve Redgrave and two-time decathlon champ Daley Thompson. He also named Nadia Comaneci, the gymnast who first achieved a perfect 10, and Jesse Owens.
Not among his list: Carl Lewis, Al Oerter, Paavo Nurmi or Larisa Latynina, the woman whose record Phelps bested on Tuesday night.
While I disagree with Coe -- Phelps was the greatest ever after his performance in Beijing; he could have retired then and still been No. 1 on the list -- his belief that Phelps isn't the all-time Olympian is hardly egregious. It's not like he said Phelps wasn't great, just that he's not the greatest.
[Related: Phelps' mom cheers too soon]
There's one reasonable argument that's most popular when diminishing Phelps' place in history: As a swimmer, he has more opportunities to win gold than others. It's a big trump card to play and can't be easily dismissed since it's true. Phelps swan eight events in London. Some great athletes have opportunities to win as few as one per Olympics, like Steve Redgrave. Carl Lewis was as versatile as a track athlete can be and he competed in four events at his peak.
But consider: Every swimmer of the past 44 years (a number of swimming events were added at the 1968 Mexico City Games) has had the opportunity to swim in the same number of events as Phelps and none are within seven medals of him. And that's before Phelps adds two or three to his total count by Saturday night.
That's a small piece of it when compared to the greatness of Phelps' achievements. Just take his total number of gold medals (15) and he'd be tied for second-most medals won of any color.
More Olympics coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
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• Phelps emerges alone atop podium as history's most decorated Olympian
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- Michael Phelps
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