First of all, so many athletes crowd in at the door and jostle for space in the Olympic pantheon that before you can name one above all the others, you have to group and categorize them. Second, these discussions invariably fail to give proper credit to the historical greats. “They skew towards the modern athlete, because no one remembers,” says Olympic historian Bill Mallon.
When you talk about greatest Olympic athlete do you mean the one with the most medals? That’s Michael Phelps with his 22 doorknockershanging around his neck, including that masterful, testing eight in a fortnight at the Beijing Games. But Phelps has the advantage of being able to enter multiple events and claim relays. In which case you might prefer Larisa Latynina, whose 18 gymnastics medals for the Soviet Union at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympics were the record for almost a half-century until Phelps broke it.
Do you mean greatest Olympian, as in an athlete who dominated the Games like no other? Did something so unprecedentedly, and anomalously difficult that it will never be equaled again? That’s Eric Heiden, with his five individual speedskating gold medals at the 1980 Lake Placid Games, setting four Olympic records and one world record over a ridiculous variety of distances. By way of comparison, tell Bolt to win a gold in both the 200 and the 5,000 and see what he says.
Do you mean greatest Olympian as in an athlete who won golds at multiple Games, rose to the occasion again and again and exerted his or her dominance over long spans? (If so, you will leave Jesse Owens off the list, but so be it.) That’s Al Oerter with his four straight gold medals in discus, all with personal bests and Olympic records, including his epic feat in 1964 with an injured neck and torn rib cartilage. Unless it’s Carl Lewis, with his nine golds, including four straight in the long jump, or Sir Steven Redgrave with five straight golds in rowing.
Or do you find these definitions too limiting? If what you mean by greatest Olympic athlete ever is someone who displayed such a timeless virtuosity, a combination of agility, stamina, strength, speed, endurance and range that it’s never been matched, well, that’s Thorpe.