Commentary

The numbers don't lie: Phelps is the best swimmer ever

Updated: August 17, 2008, 8:45 AM ET
By Amy Rosewater | Special to ESPN.com

Are there any superlatives left to describe Michael Phelps?

A year ago, ESPN.com asked the question: "Who is the greatest swimmer of all time?" This was after the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia. We created a swimming index: a mathematical, yet still debatable, system of calculating swimming greatness.

[+] EnlargeMichael Phelps
Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesMichael Phelps won an unprecedented eight gold medals in a single Games in Beijing.
Phelps, the freakishly perfectly built swimmer from Baltimore, won't be relinquishing his top spot -- at least not for a long time. Some believe that won't change in our lifetime, especially after he bettered Mark Spitz's record of seven golds in one Olympics.

Even Spitz, who won seven Olympic gold medals and set as many world records 36 years ago at the 1972 Games in Munich, has been awed.

"It goes to show you that not only is this guy the greatest swimmer of all time and the greatest Olympian of all time, he's maybe the greatest athlete of all time," Spitz told The Associated Press after Phelps matched his 7-for-7 Olympic gold medal record. "He's the greatest racer who ever walked the planet."

If Spitz can say that, then we figure there's no doubt that Phelps is No. 1.

According to our calculations, Phelps has trounced the rankings, earning a whopping 286 points. That's 119.5 points more than the 166.5 earned by Spitz. And we might have to update these numbers again in four years should Phelps continue his march through the record books at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Just to get an idea of how impressive Phelps has been in Beijing, consider this: He racked up 92.5 points just in these Games alone. Those points include five individual Olympic gold medals (50 points), three Olympic relay golds (7.5 points) and world records in four individual events (200 free, 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 fly for 35 points).

Some other interesting updates to our list: Aaron Peirsol jumped from No. 8 to No. 4 after capturing a gold medal in the 100 backstroke and a silver in the 200 backstroke. He now has three individual Olympic golds and two silvers in individual events. Australia's Michael Klim dropped from No. 5 to No. 6; but with no individual Olympic gold medals, we've bounced him from the Top 10. Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, the first man to win the 100 breast and 200 breast in successive Olympics, is new to the list, just ahead of Matt Biondi, who won eight Olympic medals (five in Seoul).

Of course, the main story is Phelps, the man who's been quite lonely at the top.

"The great ones, Jordan, Woods, Montana, seem to not only win, but win in the most dramatic fashion, blending excellence with great theater," NBC's Bob Costas told the U.S. audience this weekend. "Add Michael Phelps to the list."

It's one of the few lists in which he seems to have company.

Rosewater's Swimming Index
Amy Rosewater created the following formula to calculate the greatest male swimmer of all time. Each swimmer has individual scores for individual Olympic medals, relay Olympic medals, individual World Championship medals and world record points.
• Individual Olympic medals: Gold (10 points), Silver (5 points) and Bronze (3 points).
• Individual World Championship medals: Gold (5), Silver (3), Bronze (1).
• Relay Olympic medals: Gold (2.5), Silver (1).
• World record points: 10 points for each world record that is initially set; 5 points for record in same stroke, different distance; 1 point for the swimmer who breaks his own record.
• Overall score compiles individual Olympic medals, relay Olympic medals, individual World Championship medals, plus the amount of the world record points multiplied by two. We multiplied the world record points because we believe that is the greatest measure over the history of the sport.
Swimmer Oly (Ind.) WC (Ind.) Oly (Relay) WR Total
1. Phelps 103 51 10 61 286
2. Spitz 48 -- 12.5 53 166.5
3. Hackett 30 78 1 15 139
4. Peirsol 40 51 5 21 138
5. Thorpe 38 44 6 24 136
6. Klim 5 77 7 22 133
7. Matthes 43 18 2 29 121
8. Gross 35 10 1 36 118
9. Popov 45 29 4 15 108
10. Kitajima 40 23 0 18 99
11. Biondi 33 15 12.5 18 96.5
12. Salnikov 30 20 2.5 21 94.5
13. Hoogenband 38 21 1 15 90
14. Hansen 8 39 5 17 86
15. Weissmuller 30 -- 5 24 83
16. Schollander 25 -- 7.5 25 82.5
17. Crocker 5 29 7.5 12 65.5
18. Hall Jr. 33 6 8.5 0 47.5
19. Lochte 21 21 5 0 47

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.