Oerter, not Phelps, the greatest Olympian: historian

Mon Jul 25, 2016 4:13pm EDT
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By Andrew Both

(Reuters) - An Olympic historian disagrees with a widely held consensus that American swimmer Michael Phelps is the greatest ever Olympian.

Phelps holds the record for career gold medals at 18, followed by Soviet gymnasts Larisa Latynina (nine) and Nikolai Andrianov (seven).

But as Bill Mallon points out, swimmers, gymnasts and runners, among others, benefit greatly from being more easily able to pile up medals in several events.

But discus throwers and pole vaulters, to use just a couple of examples, can win only one gold medal every four years.

Mallon, while freely acknowledging the greatness of Phelps, rates discus thrower Al Oerter the greatest Olympian.

Oerter, who died in 2007 at the age of 71, won four consecutive gold medals from 1956-68, a feat matched only by fellow American Carl Lewis (long jump, 1984-1996).

What sets Oerter apart, according to Mallon, is that he was an underdog in three of those Olympics, and a co-favorite in the other. He perfected the art of peaking at the right time.

"Oerter never won the U.S. Olympic trials," Mallon, a co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians, told Reuters. "Yet he won each gold with an Olympic record and a personal best."   Continued...

Michael Phelps of the U.S. poses with his gold medal after winning the men's 4x100m medley relay final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre August 4, 2012.  REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File photo