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Olympic Poseur: The Greatest

Yeah, but can you wrestle? (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images for Puma)
Yeah, but can you wrestle? (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images for Puma)
Getty Images for Puma

Sorry, Olympic Poseur got derailed in the home stretch due to the problems of NICKNAME REDACTED. It just didn't seem right to talk about BMX biking or modern pentathlon when the Biggest News in the History of LSU Football (if history didn't exist) was going down.

I also promised a debate on the Greatest Olympian Ever, particularly in the wake of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. I feel that Usain Bolt is the greatest Olympian ever and I did my research to put forth a stunning argument on his behalf. I wrote nearly 1500 words on the subject before I stopped and hit delete.

Because the argument misses the point. Who is the greatest ever? It's whoever you want them to be. Who is the best ever?

It is Michael Phelps. He won 22 overall medals and 18 golds. He holds the record for gold medals won in a single Games (eight) and tied for total medals won in one Games (also eight). He's tied for the number of individual gold medals won in one Games (five, tied with Vitaly Shcherbo). He obliterated world records and practically redefined what a swimmer can do in the Games. We saw how difficult even attempting eight races is when Lochte tried the same.

It is Usain Bolt. He won six gold medals in six events over two Olympics. In the process, he single-handedly wrecked American homogeny over the sprinting events. He set four World Records and one additionally Olympic Record. The only time he failed to set a record was in the 200m in 2012, failing to break his own record. And the time was faster than the single greatest performance I had ever seen in one race, Michael Johnson's 200m in 1996.

It is Carl Lewis. Lewis won nine gold medals over four Olympics, and he won the long jump for four consecutive Olympics. He jumped so far, so often that his distances absolutely crush the winning jumps in 2012. The world hasn't caught up to him yet (well, except Michael Powell, who has now owned the long jump world record longer that Bob Beamon). He became the first man to win four track gold medals in one Olympics since Jesse Owens.

It is Vitaly Scherbo. He won six gymnastics gold medals in 1992 for the Unified Team, as the Soviet Union fell apart around him. He was actually from Belarus, and he would represent Belarus in 1996 and win three more medals to add to his impressive haul.

It is Alexander Karelin. He won three consecutive gold medals and was en route to his fourth when he lost in one of the most stunning upsets in Olympic history. He didn't just defeat his opponents, he broke them. Literally. He was a wrestler who didn't just inspire respect, he inspire outright fear from his competitors. Everyone else played for silver for 16 years.

It is Elisabeta Lipa-Oleniuc. Rowing is a national obsession for the British, and their most honored Olympian is Sir Steve Redgrave. Even his five gold medals in five Olympics takes a back seat to Lip-Oleniuc, who won five golds and eight overall medals over a remarkable six Olympics. She debuted as a teenager in 1984, and she won a medal at every Olympics until Athens in 2004. For 20 years, she was an Olympic institution.

It is Paavo Nurmi. Nurmi's 12 medals is still a track and field record, and won nine golds over three games. He also practically invented distance running and won medals in the 1500m, the 3000m, the 5000m, 10,000m, steeplechase, and cross-country. He was banned from the marathon in 1932 for allegedly being professional, and it's the only thing that keeps him from being track's all time leader in gold medals.

It is Lasse Viren. He is the only man to ever repeat as the champion in the brutal 5000m. He also pulled that off while winning back to back golds in the 10,000m. That's a brutal double right there.

It is Alexander Popov. Popov won back to back gold medals in the 50m and both times, he beat a fellow gold medalist in the event. In 1992, he beat the 1988 50m champ, Matt Biondi. In 1996, he beat the 2000 50m champ, Gary Hall. He also won the 100m free in both 1992 and 1996, pulling off a still unmatched sprinting double. Eat your heart out, Phelps. He wasn't able to pad his medal count with a bunch of relays like an American or Australian swimmer can, but he did win nine medals. Most remarkably, he qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympics after getting stabbed in the kidney. He also refused to wear the new swimsuits revolutionizing the sport. He would win the silver medal in 2000 in the 100m freestyle. Greatest. Sprinter. Ever. And a total badass.

It is Jesse Owens. His four gold medals are the standard which Carl Lewis tried to measure himself. Oh, and he did it by showing up two racist societies - Nazi Germany and his homeland. Owens proved that a man should be measured on his accomplishments, not his color.

It is Emil Zapotek. Zapotek won five total medals, four of them gold. But he is the owner of the most unique Olympic record, that I feel is completely unbreakable. Zapotek won three gold medals in 1952 - in the 5000m, the 10,000m, and the marathon. Oh, it was also the first marathon he had ever run in his life.

It is whoever you wish it to be. My tour through the smaller events has taught me that they are all Olympians and that to each competitor, their event is the biggest in the Olympics. Because for them, it is.

I was lucky to share it with them. Thanks for sharing it with me.