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Is US flag-bearer Michael Phelps the most successful Olympic swimmer?

Few know of 1920s star Johnny Weissmuller

Michael Phelps swims prior to the start of the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games at Olympic Aquatics Centre in Rio on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. (Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports)
Michael Phelps swims prior to the start of the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games at Olympic Aquatics Centre in Rio on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. (Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports)
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Editor’s note: Tom Ecker of Cedar Rapids is an Olympic historian.

 

U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps is the best-known Olympian in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

Not only is he the most decorated Olympian in history, with 18 gold medals, he also was selected to be the Opening Ceremonies flag-bearer for this year’s team.

Phelps had planned to retire after the London Olympics in 2012, but he has been training hard since then in an effort to make a comeback at the age of 31. But even though Phelps has amassed a record 18 gold medals, is he really the most successful swimmer in Olympic history, as many have said?

In 1924 and 1928, Johnny Weissmuller, who later starred as Tarzan in the movies, won a total of five gold medals, three in 1924 and two more in 1928. There were only six Olympic swimming events in the 1920s when Weissmuller was competing — five individual races and one relay. That means he won half of the gold medals in 1924 and one-third of the gold medals in 1928.

Then, in the 1950s and ’60s, the governing body for Olympic swimming, the International Swimming Federation, decided to add 15 additional events to the Olympic program, so more swimmers would be able to win medals. The number of different swimming events is now 21.

If Michael Phelps had been allowed to swim in only the six events available to Weissmuller, he would have won a total of three Gold medals in three Olympics, and those would have been only in the 800 meter freestyle relay. He would not have won a single individual swimming event.

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