In his story for Tuesday, ESPN.com writer Bill Barnwell set out to find the best American athlete for every year since 1912, awarding the Best American Athlete Championship Belt to the person who "won" the year.
The results? Babe Ruth held the title as best American athlete for 10 years, while Tiger Woods came away with six titles, Michael Jordan had five-and-a-half, and Muhammad Ali had four. Check out the criteria and results here.
Here's your chance to weigh in: Who is the most accomplished American athlete ever?
For the record, here are Barnwell's thoughts on the topic:
"Michael Phelps is the greatest American athlete of all time. He's the greatest Olympian of all time and it's not particularly close: Phelps has 23 gold medals and nobody else has more than nine. The idea that the number of events in swimming inflates Phelps' statistics doesn't really hold much muster. If it were that easy, why haven't any swimmers before or after Phelps come close to matching Phelps' totals? Ian Thorpe, the best swimmer in the world in the era immediately preceding Phelps, won five golds. Matt Biondi ended up with eight. Jenny Thompson, the most decorated Olympic female swimmer in history, also won eight. Spitz won nine. He might have won more had he kept swimming after the 1972 Olympics, but he didn't.
If Phelps was narrowly ahead of the competition -- if he had 10 or 11 gold medals -- maybe the inflation case would hold up. But 23 to nine is a landslide. Nobody has won four gold medals in a single Olympics more than once. Phelps has done it four times. Nobody won eight medals in a boycott-free Olympics before Phelps. He did it twice, both in these 2004 Olympics and again in 2008. To the extent that we can compare athletes across different sports, Phelps has dominated swimming in a way that no other American athlete has dominated his or her sport at the highest level over a longer period of time. And if you're not picking Phelps because it's impossible to make those kinds of comparisons, you can't pick anybody else."