For Phelps the declaration was that he is the "Greatest Olympian Ever!!" While Phelps has more gold medals that over 100-counties have accumulated in the history of the Olympics, did he ever face the societal and political pressure that Jesse Owens did in Berlin in 1936? Has Phelps ever been referred to as an "African surrogate" and had Hitler root against him? In winning his four-straight golds in the 200-meter individual medley did he ever have to hold a regular "non-swimming" job to make ends meet like Al Oerter did between his four consecutive gold medals in the discus?
Phelps reign as the "Greatest Ever!!" (at least in the eyes of NBC Olympic commentators) was short-lived--as a night later, Usain Bolt was declared one of the "Greatest Athletes Ever!!" after running for less than ten seconds. His third straight gold in that event was compared to the career accomplishments of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan.
Now when we are talking about "athletes" I like to think of people that can do various things in a variety of sports that require different skill sets. That's why--for me--the greatest athletes ever are Bo Jackson and Jim Thorpe. That's it, that's the list. Thorpe won both the Pentathalon (five events)AND the Decathalon (ten events) IN THE SAME OLYMPICS!! He also played professional baseball and professional football--being inducted into that sport's Hall of Fame in Canton. Bo Jackson was an All-Star in Major League Baseball and the National Football League IN THE SAME YEAR!! Plus, he ran track in college and qualified for the NCAA Championships--WHILE ALSO PLAYING ON THE AUBURN BASEBALL TEAM!!
I will grant you that Jim Thorpe would never catch Michael Phelps in the pool--but would Phelps come close to competing with Thorpe in 15 different Olympic events--and then play two completely different sports professionally after that? And in his prime, Bo Jackson probably could have stayed within a second of Usain Bolt on the track--but do you think Bolt could hit within .100 points of Jackson's MLB batting average? Or amass one-tenth of the yardage he gained carrying and catching the ball in the NFL?
So please, let's keep things in perspective when lauding our modern Olympic heroes. Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are among the greatest in their specialized activities--but let's not start putting them ahead of guys that showed they could do so much more than go fast in a straight line.