Go ahead and argue over chicken sandwiches and the definition of marriage.
Go on and nitpick the political records of Obama and Romney. Go lay out a case for the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Who.
They’re all worthy topics of discussion, no doubt about it.
But don’t tell me any of them is better than a nice, friendly, you-must-be-crazy, agree-to-disagree sports debate.
When it comes to pondering some of the thorniest topics ever, there’s just nothing like a good verbal joust among sports fans.
And now that we’re more than a week into the 2012 London Olympics, we’ve got ourselves a timeless topic to consider.
Michael Phelps: Is he the best Olympian of all time?
Like so many great sports debates, this one looks like a no-brainer on the surface, the kind of topic a guy might float out there among friends at a sports bar.
Sebastian Coe, a British politician and head of the London Games, got this debate going last week after Phelps surpassed former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian of all time.
“This is the global pub game,” said Coe, who won golds in the men’s 1,500 meters in 1980 and 1984. “Who is the greatest Olympian of all time? I could go around this whole room, we’d all come up with different interpretations on that.”
Pub game? Right-o, mate. It’s one of the all-time great pub games.
Is Phelps the greatest Olympian ever? If you’re sitting around the pub — or the sports bar, or the gym or just out to lunch with a group of friends — that question is followed by, “Are you kidding? Of Course he is.”
However, with a little thought behind it, it becomes, “Yeah, maybe. But what about …”
What about Jesse Owens?
What about Carl Lewis?
What about discus champion Al Orter, track athlete Wilma Rudolph, gymnast Nadia Comaneci, multi-sport star Jim Thorpe, or Latynina, who earned 18 medals — half of them gold — between 1956 and 1964?
Last week, Phelps broke Latynina’s record and just kept going. He’s up to 22 total, 18 of them gold.
With numbers like that it’s awfully hard to argue against him, but like any argument worth delving into, this one isn’t quite so definitive. In terms of sheer hardware, Phelps is way out in front. Of course there’s more to any sports debate than just hard numbers.
Sure, add an athlete’s medal count to the equation, but also put each one in a historical context. What did the world look like when he or she won those medals? What was technology like? Who else was competing? Who wasn’t?
It’s impossible to fairly compare accomplishments from different eras, but that doesn’t stop true sports fans from trying.
Some will argue for Thorpe, who won gold medals in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon events. He might be the greatest American athlete of all time, having played college and professional football as well as professional baseball and basketball in addition to track and field.
Rudolph and Comaneci were pioneers in women’s athletics and their gold medals were truly inspirational. In 1960, Rudolph won three golds in track and field. Comaneci, a Romanian gymnast, won three golds in 1976 and captured the world’s attention with seven perfect 10s. She won two more golds in 1980, the year America boycotted the games.
In terms of longevity, it’s hard to argue with Orter, who won golds in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1986.
As for Lewis, he dominated the games in 1984 winning gold in the 100 meters, 200 meters, 1,600-meter relay and the long jump. He also earned gold in 1988 and again in 1996 at the ripe old age of 35.
Finally — last but certainly not least — is Owens, the transcendent track star who began an American legend at the 1936 games in Berlin.
With Adolph Hitler looking on, Owens did what many at the time thought was impossible. He won golds in the 100, 200, 1,600 relay and long jump, doing so with grace, dignity and ease.
In my mind, this debate has to come down to Owens or Phelps, each an incredible champion in his own right.
Phelps is a modern-day marvel and the greatest swimmer of all time. In a world of 24-hour news and unending social media, he’s the biggest star in the galaxy today.
But considering the world climate at the time and Hitler’s racist views, Owens’ accomplishments — which stood for 48 years until Lewis equaled them — made a statement that still echoes today.
His impact, both socially and athletically, will forever be felt.
It’s impossible to top that.