Who is the best Olympian ever? See the survey on the left.
My vote is not the obvious Michael Phelps. Great? You bet. Greatest? No. I say Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish runner who achieved gold medals is such varied distances as 1500 meters to the 10,000 meters. He would have competed in the marathon had it not been for stringent financial rules (he was ruled a professional in an era that looked more seriously at money than Phelps' million dollar empire era).
Carl Lewis based his skill on sheer leg speed. He had lots of it, but it is a very different thing than excelling in a middle distance event and a long distance one. Add to this the sheer physical endurance of performing in the needed preliminary heats and finals, and Lewis becomes behind Nurmi.
It is not uncommon for a runner to be very good at both, but to win at both is entirely different. Lewis was a one-trick pony.
Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps are similar to Lewis in that they had a core skill. Amazing? Impressive? Wow. Totally, but, no Paavo Nurmi.
Give Phelps his due, but don't forget Nurmi.
"Nurmi won a total of nine gold and three silver medals in the 12 events in which he competed at the Olympic Games from 1920 to 1928."
Gold 1920 Antwerp 10000 m
Gold 1920 Antwerp 8000 m cross country
Gold 1920 Antwerp 8000 m cross country team
Gold 1924 Paris 1500 m
Gold 1924 Paris 5000 m
Gold 1924 Paris 5000 m cross country
Gold 1924 Paris 5000 m cross country team
Gold 1924 Paris 3000 m team
Gold 1928 Amsterdam 10000 m
Silver 1920 Antwerp 5000 m
Silver 1928 Amsterdam 5000 m
Silver 1928 Amsterdam 3000 m steeplechase
"...retired American track and field athlete who won 10 Olympic medals including 9 golds, and 10 World Championships medals, of which 8 were golds"
Gold 1984 Los Angeles 100 m
Gold 1984 Los Angeles 200 m
Gold 1984 Los Angeles 4x100 m relay
Gold 1984 Los Angeles Long jump
Gold 1988 Seoul 100 m
Gold 1988 Seoul Long jump
Gold 1992 Barcelona 4x100 m relay
Gold 1992 Barcelona Long jump
Gold 1996 Atlanta Long jump
Silver 1988 Seoul 200 m
"best known for winning seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, an achievement surpassed only when Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal of the 2008 Olympics. Between 1968 and 1972, Spitz won nine Olympic gold medals, one silver, and one bronze; five Pan American golds; 31 National U.S. Amateur Athletic Union titles; and eight U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association Championships. During those years, he set 33 world records. He was named World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971 and 1972."
Gold 1972 Munich 100 m butterfly
Gold 1972 Munich 100 m freestyle
Gold 1972 Munich 200 m butterfly
Gold 1972 Munich 200 m freestyle
Gold 1972 Munich 4x100 m freestyle relay
Gold 1972 Munich 4x100 m medley relay
Gold 1972 Munich 4x200 m freestyle relay
Gold 1968 Mexico City 4x100 m freestyle relay
Gold 1968 Mexico City 4x200 m freestyle relay
Silver 1968 Mexico City 100 m butterfly
Bronze 1968 Mexico City 100 m freestyle
"14-time Olympic gold medalist (the most by any Olympian), who currently holds seven world records in swimming."
Gold 2004 Athens 100 m butterfly
Gold 2004 Athens 200 m butterfly
Gold 2004 Athens 200 m individual medley
Gold 2004 Athens 400 m individual medley
Gold 2004 Athens 4 x 200 m freestyle relay
Gold 2004 Athens 4 x 100 m medley relay
Gold 2008 Beijing 200 m freestyle
Gold 2008 Beijing 100 m butterfly
Gold 2008 Beijing 200 m butterfly
Gold 2008 Beijing 200 m individual medley
Gold 2008 Beijing 400 m individual medley
Gold 2008 Beijing 4 x 100 m freestyle relay
Gold 2008 Beijing 4 x 200 m freestyle relay
Gold 2008 Beijing 4 x 100 m medley relay
Bronze 2004 Athens 200 m freestyle
Bronze 2004 Athens 4 x 100 m freestyle relay