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The Week In Sports: Olympian Greats


Time now for sports.


MARTIN: Michael Phelps had his crowning moment last night and won what might just be the last gold medal of his career. He helped the U.S. men's team win the 4x100 medley relay, the team setting an Olympic record in the process. It caps an unparalleled Olympic career and gave Phelps as 23rd gold medal, 28th overall. That's more medals than any other Olympian in history, which has led some people to call him the greatest athlete of all time.

Our friend Mike Pesca, host of "The Gist" podcast, is here to say maybe, maybe not. Hi, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: Hello. How are you?

MARTIN: Hello. I'm well. You're such a...

PESCA: Because we needn't (ph) someone in the sports media universe to say something about Michael Phelps other than...

MARTIN: He's not getting...

PESCA: ...I can't believe this guy's part dolphin.

MARTIN: He's so amazing. He's so amazing.

PESCA: He is so amazing.

MARTIN: I mean, he is amazing.

PESCA: I'm not saying he's not so amazing.

MARTIN: OK. OK. What are you saying? What are you saying?

PESCA: So here's my case.


PESCA: So what they say about Michael Phelps, we could get to greatest athlete. First of all, don't you think the greatest athlete should at least demonstrate an ability to run? We don't know if Michael Phelps can run.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PESCA: Let's just table that for a second. He participates in the sport of swimming, and he dominates this sport. And he has longevity, which is amazing. And the dominance of his sport, that is unparalleled. But the thing about swimming is it offers more opportunities to win medals than any other sport.


PESCA: First of all, there's just the medal count. There are 16 events for a man or a woman to enter. Now, in track and field, there are 12 events. But when you think about track, the 1,500 is so impossibly different from the 100. Yes, in swimming, the sprints are different from the longer events. But it's not as different. I would say that for a track athlete, it's like a difference in species - a difference in phylum, whereas for a swimmer, it's difference in species, a small difference.

MARTIN: I got you.

PESCA: So yes, there's more of an opportunity to win events. Then, let's look at the fact that...

MARTIN: Oh, you're not done.

PESCA: ...He's an American.

MARTIN: I thought you were done. OK.

PESCA: No, I got a lot.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PESCA: Let's look at the fact that he's an American. If he were - as great a swimmer as he is but British, he would certainly have won fewer team gold medals. Maybe one of those silvers actually would have been gold. If he was from Mozambique, he'd win almost no team gold medals, so that's something. And then there's the fact...

MARTIN: OK. So he's an American, and he's a swimmer. OK.

PESCA: He's an American. He's a swimmer. And some of the events in swimming - like, if you look at the history of the 200 and 400 individual medleys - huge overlap. So what I'm saying, it's a skill set where, if you've demonstrated those skills, it doesn't guarantee you'll win a gold - and he does because he's an amazing swimmer - but there's just not the equivalent opportunity for other athletes to add to that total to challenge him to be the, quote, unquote, "most decorated athlete of all time"...

MARTIN: I got you.

PESCA: ...Like he's a gingerbread house or something.

MARTIN: I got you. So it's just he's the triple threat. I mean, it's just everything came together for him. It's his sport. It's the events he competes in in his sport, and it's his national identity.

PESCA: It's - it's his - yeah. It's his greatness. And - well, also - you want to add this to it...


PESCA: ...Everyone - if we're talking about track, everyone in the world runs. And if you're a fast person, you get identified and funneled into fastness. There are probably potentially great swimmers who either don't know how to swim, who don't have the resources - Ledecky and Phelps both from Maryland. You have to pay dues. You can't just swim outside like in some places.

MARTIN: You're saying it's easier to spot running talent than it is swimming talent.

PESCA: I'm saying the greatest runners are essentially running against every human on earth. And the greatest swimmers are only swimming against the pool - pardon the pun - of...

MARTIN: A small pool (mocking laughter).

PESCA: ...Potential other elite swimmer. Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: All right. So we should look ahead, though, because we've been captivated by swimming events for the last little bit here. But we're going to move now to track and field. Anything we should look out for, in particular?

PESCA: Well, the men's 400 will give its medal. That is always a good event, once around the track. But of course, the 100, the world's fastest man. And as we talk about things like greatest athlete or most decorated Olympians, those seem sort of subjective. But he is, whoever wins this, does achieve the highest top speed. He is the world's fastest man. And there is a very good chance it will be Usain Bolt again - so captivating, love that guy.

MARTIN: All right. We'll leave it there. Mike Pesca, that's your name. It's been so long. I haven't talked to you in so long, I almost forgot your name. He's the host of "The Gist" podcast at Slate. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: Thank you, Rachel Martin.

MARTIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.