Going into the Olympics, the media was touting Michael Phelps as having a chance to become the greatest Olympian ever by winning more Olympic medals than any previous athlete. Now that he has set the record, they have anointed him as the greatest Olympian ever. I am willing to stipulate that he is the greatest Olympic swimmer ever, but I think that anyone with a sense of history would dispute the title greatest Olympian ever. Let's look at a few examples:
JIM THORPE won the decathlon and the pentathlon in a single Olympics, and may very well have won more in subsequent Olympics had he not been disqualified for having played semi-pro baseball.
JESSE OWENS won four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, putting the lie to Hitler's "Master Race."
AL OERTER, a true amateur, won gold medals in the discus in four consecutive Olympics, setting an Olympic record each time. Did I mention that he was the first Olympic track and field athlete to win four consecutive gold medals in a single event?
TEOFILO STEVENSON dominated Olympic boxing during the Cold War era, winning three gold medals as he destroyed every opponent in his path. Anyone who ever watched him box would tell you that he could have entered the ring against Muhammad Ali with a real expectation of winning.
ALEXANDER KARELIN went undefeated in international wrestling competition from 1988 to 2000, winning twelve European championships, nine world championships, and three Olympic gold medals. His string of wins came to an end in the 2000 Sydney Olympics when he was defeated by American Rulon Gardner and had to settle for a silver medal.
All these Olympians, and probably many more of whom I am unaware, have an equal or better claim to "Greatest Olympian." In my estimation, a great athlete must show more than athletic excellence. Extremely gifted athletes, to be considered great, must display good character and social significance. I'm willing to stipulate a six way tie on the criteria of athletic ability and good character, but on the criterion of social significance, Jesse Owens is the greatest Olympic athlete of all time.