Michael Phelps: The history of the greatest Olympian ever

The American swimmer has competed at five Olympic Games

Michael Phelps: The history of the greatest Olympian ever

Picture by: PA Wire / PA Archive/Press Association Images

American swimmer Michael Phelps is undoubtedly the most successful Olympian of all time.

The 31-year-old swimmer became the first male American to compete in his fifth Olympics in the swimming pool in the past week and has already won three gold medals. To put Phelps' Olympic record into context, it is worth comparing him to other countries, not athletes.

If Phelps was in the all-time Olympics medal table, he would be ahead of countries such as Jamaica, the Czech Republic, Pakistan and Nigeria. His 25 medals beats the combined totals of Zimbabwe, Costa Rica, Malaysia and Cyprus. Phelps' medal count is just four less than Ireland has won in its entirety.

Despite competing in Sydney in 2000, as a 15-year-old, the Baltimore native failed to win an Olympic medal until Athens four-years later. In Australia, the teenager came fifth in the 200-metre butterfly. That experience would prove invaluable to Phelps in the following years.

Although best remembered for his feats in Beijing in 2008, it was four years previously, when a teen aged Phelps hit the public's consciousness. In his first bid to beat Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single Olympic Games, Phelps left the Greek capital with six golds and two bronze medals.

The bid to beat Spitz's 1972 record came unstuck in his second event, when he won a bronze medal in the 4×100-metre freestyle relay. That was quickly followed by another bronze in the 200-metre freestyle event which was won by Australian Ian Thorpe. Phelps went on to win gold in his following five events to be the star of the Games. By the age of 19, 'The Baltimore Bullet' was already an Olympic legend.   

2008 was to be where Phelps secured immortality. He broke the World Record in his first race, when he won the 400-metre individual medley. His most iconic moment came when he wasn't even in the pool. Phelps swam the first leg in 4x100-metre freestyle relay and watched as Jason Lezak came from behind to beat France to the gold medal. Phelps' celebration has become his most famous moment as a swimmer.

The 200-metre freestyle, 200-metre butterfly were both won in the following two days. The butterfly win was especially tough, as Phelps claimed his goggles leaked with water in the second half of the race. Hours after winning the butterfly final, Phelps won the 4x200-metre freestyle relay to win his fifth gold of the Games.

Serbia's Milorad Cavic almost became the villain of the Games, as Phelps swam his seventh final. The Serb lost the 100-metre butterfly final by 0.01 seconds. It was the first race of the Games where Phelps did not break a World Record.

Despite Phelps' win, the Serbian team appealed the result with pictures split by 1/100th second used to confirm the result. The Baltimore native equaled Mark Spitz's record from 1972.

The eight gold medal turned out to be a procession. Phelps won the 4x100-metre medley relay swimming the penultimate leg. Phelps' butterfly moved the Americans ahead of Australia into the gold medal. That position was never lost.

After the history of 2008, Phelps decided to pull back his commitments in London. The eight race schedule was lowered to seven and the-then 27-year-old won six golds and two silvers. His first race, ended in disappointment as he finished fourth in the 400-metre individual medley, behind compatriot Ryan Lochte. It was the first time Phelps failed win a medal since in debut in Sydney as a teenager.

Despite the fourth place finish, normal service would not resume until the third race as Phelps and the Americans won silver in the 4x100-metre freestyle relay. It was his first ever silver medal in the Olympic Games.

His first silver, was quickly followed by another. South African Chad le Clos shocked Phelps to win the 200-metres butterfly. The race is best remembered for the reaction of Chad's father Bert on BBC after the win.

Despite losing to le Clos, Phelps became most-successful Olympian of all time. He won his first gold of the Olympics in the 4×200-metre freestyle relay.

Further golds followed in the 200-metre individual medley, 100-metre butterfly and the 4×100-metre medley relay. He retired after the Games as the most successful swimmer at three Olympics in a row and with 18 golds, two silvers and two bronze medals.

Two years later, Phelps came out of retirement to try and qualify for Rio de Janeiro. At the American trials earlier this year, he booked his spot in Rio joining Dana Torres as the only American swimmer to compete at five Olympiads.

He was given the honour of being America's flag-bearer ahead of the Opening Ceremony. It was the first time he would attend the event.  He even admitted that this Olympic Games meant so much more to him than just winning medals.

"For Sydney, I just wanted to make the team. For Athens, I wanted to win gold for my country. For Beijing, I wanted to do something nobody else had done. In London, I wanted to make history. And now, I want to walk in the Opening Ceremony, take it all in, represent America in the best possible way and make my family proud. This time around, it's about so much more than medals."

Already Phelps has won three gold medals in Brazil, including the 200-metre butterfly title he lost to le Clos in London. The medal tally stands at 25, with 21 golds, with more expected to come.

If Michael Phelps was a country, he would lie in 40th place overall medal tally of the Olympic Games since 1896. Nothing more needs to be said.