- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2008

ESPN, as it often does, has initiated the water-cooler topic of who is the greatest American athlete ever after Michael Phelps secured eight gold medals at the Beijing Games.

As riveting as Phelps was - he is easily the dominant story line of these Olympics - the debate is spurious.

Jim Thorpe, born in 1887 in a one-room log cabin near Prague, Okla., remains the best American athlete ever, and it is not really close if you consider how accomplished he was in multiple disciplines.

Phelps is the best there ever was in a swimming pool, but Thorpe showed that no sport was beyond his grasp.

When Thorpe won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon in the Stockholm Games in 1912, he already was a well-known football star at the Carlisle (Pa.) Indian Industrial School.

His performance in the Stockholm Games prompted King Gustav V of Sweden to declare, “You, sir, are the world’s greatest athlete.”

No subsequent American athlete ever has been as multitalented as Thorpe. Bo Jackson, whose professional career was curtailed by injury after being a three-sport standout at Auburn, comes closest to Thorpe.

Michael Jordan is possibly the best there ever was in basketball, but his foray into baseball at the minor league level was unremarkable, and he soon returned to what he did best.

Thorpe was not merely a gold-medal winner in the Olympics. He was a two-time football All-American who was a running back, defensive back, punter and kicker. He also competed in baseball, lacrosse, track and field and ballroom dancing at Carlisle.

Thorpe eventually spent six seasons in the big leagues, most of them with the New York Giants. He also played professional football, his favorite sport, and was among the charter class of 17 to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.

Thorpe was adept at anything that attracted his interest. He possibly could have been a worthy swimmer if circumstances had led him to the sport.

The legend of Thorpe has dimmed with time, as it one day will with Phelps, whose stunning exploits in Beijing are receiving the nonstop devotion of the 24/7 news cycle.

What Phelps accomplished in Beijing - his victory in the 100-meter butterfly by a fingernail defied reason and the naked eye - is expected to be durable.

The Phelps scorecard: eight gold medals, seven world records and one Olympic record. And Phelps produced a personal-best time in each event.

His performance is likely to endure in the fashion of Joe DiMaggio’s seemingly unbreakable 56-game hitting break.

It is the new standard of swimming - so long, Mark Spitz - that requires not just an extraordinary individual talent but gifted teammates as well.

Phelps earned three gold medals in relay events, an element that could thwart a swimmer equal to him in the Olympiads ahead.

Or as Australian swimmer Grant Hackett said, “We’ll never, ever see it again.”

If the athletically gifted teach us anything, though, it is that “never” often means until the next time.

Spitz possibly could have won eight gold medals in Munich in 1972 if the 50-meter freestyle event had been part of the competition.

With Phelps celebrating his eighth gold medal with his teammates, the Beijing announcer said, “The Beijing Olympics has witnessed the greatest Olympian of all time - Michael Phelps of the USA.”

That is fair enough. Phelps stands above the iconic Olympians of the past: Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Johnny Weissmuller, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Spitz.

But Phelps as the No. 1 American athlete ever?

That is hyperbole being fanned in the moment of all things Phelps, an enthralling competitor who claimed the Beijing Games as his.

Even the three silver medals of 41-year-old Dara Torres became a footnote to Phelps.

In the annals of the greatest American sportsmen, Phelps is up there, just not at the head of the list, which starts with Thorpe.

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