It’s a generally held consensus in the world of sports and beyond that American swimmer Michael Phelps – with 18 career gold medals won across three Olympics – is the greatest Olympian of all time. However, Olympic historian Bill Mallon would beg to disagree.
According to Mallon, that honor should rightfully fall to American discus thrower Al Oerter.
Mallon’s argument? In his opinion, Phelps competes in swimming, a sport that like gymnastics or track and field, enables athletes to accumulate medals quickly by taking part in a number of different events.
But as a discus thrower, Oerter was only eligible to compete for gold once every four years, which he did successfully in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968.
Mallon, who co-founded the International Society of Olympic Historians, also makes the case that Oerter was never really an outright favorite going into any of the Olympics he competed in.
“Oerter never won the U.S. Olympic trials,” Mallon said to Reuters. “Yet he won each gold with an Olympic record and a personal best.”
The only other Olympian to win four gold medals across four separate Olympics in a singular event was Carl Lewis, who won the gold medal for long jump in 1984 and successfully defended it in 1988, 1992 and 1996. But unlike Oerter, Lewis failed to set a new record with each of his consecutive wins.
Oerter died in 2007 at the age of 71. According to his personal website, he was “the only athlete to win the same Olympic event four times in a row, setting Olympic records each time.”
In Mallon’s opinion, Phelps and Lewis are both in contention to stake a claim as the second-greatest Olympian of all time.
The good news for Phelps is that, even by Mallon’s strict criteria, in Rio the American swimmer will have a chance to at least equal Oerter and Lewis’ record of four consecutive gold medals across four Olympics in the same event. Actually, in Brazil Phelps will have two chances to do so twice – in the 100-meter butterfly and 200 individual medley.
Although it’s worth noting that Phelps won’t be the only athlete in Brazil gunning for a chance to join the elite bracket of players to have won four consecutive gold medals in the same event.
Japanese wrestler Saori Yoshida, 33, will also be in the hunt for her fourth consecutive gold. And with an unbeaten record in the Olympics and a 13-for-13 record at world championships, she could be regarded as a more solid favorite to join the four-peat club than Phelps is.