How Michael Phelps Changed My Mind: Now (And Forever?) He Has Become The Greatest Olympian Of All Time

RIO DE JANEIRO – The crowd at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium was different Tuesday night.

It reacted unlike the swimming crowds had the first three nights of the Olympic meet, when the loudest noise had been reserved for Brazilian athletes, none of whom had yet contended for medals. I suddenly felt as if I were at a Passover seder, hearing the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

The difference was a chance to see an athlete for the ages, to see him firsthand in his first individual final of these Olympics, a moment of universal significance, a moment the spectators relished.

When Michael Phelps was announced at the start of the 200-meter butterfly, the crowd roared and roared.

It was that way at the end, too, after Phelps had extracted payback for his loss in the event four years ago. He straddled a lane line, flexed his right arm, put the index finger of each hand in the air. The noise grew. Phelps gestured with his hands, asking the crowd for more, and they responded with fervor.

The victory and the acclaim, for his swimming achievements and his impact on the sport and the Olympics, all of it has combined to convince me of something I had argued against in the past.

Michael Phelps is no longer just the most decorated Olympian of all time and the best swimmer of all time.

He is the greatest Olympian of all time.