Kosuke Kitajima: Greatest of All Time?

Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer

GILLETTE, New Jersey, April 9. HOW do we begin to determine the greatest swimmer in history? Should there be specific criteria established? Is it a distinction that belongs to a multi-event performer? Or, can a specialist be awarded the title? More, how do we compare athletes across eras, especially when the sport has changed dramatically in terms of training methods and technology, just to cite a pair of shifts we have seen?

After Kosuke Kitajima unloaded a pair of scintillating performances in the 100 and 200 breaststroke events at the Japanese Olympic Trials, discussion took off on the Swimming World website concerning Kitajima's place in history. As an athlete chasing third consecutive Olympic titles in both breaststroke disciplines, something no man has completed in any event, he undoubtedly belongs among the best ever.

But, where exactly does Kitajima belong? Where does he belong in the overall picture of the sport? Where does he belong among his gender, as it is appropriate to develop various lists for comparison — combined, men and women? Before we delve into this topic, this much is simple: There won't be a unanimous outcome, which actually is a beautiful thing. Debate is always a positive.

Let's start with my take on Kitajima. While I still believe — firmly – that his victory in the 100 breaststroke at the 2004 Olympics in Athens was aided by an illegal dolphin kick, you have to respect his longevity and ability to shine when it matters most. We're talking about a guy who may not have the greatest of results in between the Olympics, but who hits his peak on the biggest stage.

There's something to be said for a man who has been a premier performer for more than a decade and who, a few months shy of his 30th birthday, continues to produce career-best times. Should he win gold in London in either the 100 breast or 200 breast, he'll join exclusive company. Only Dawn Fraser (100 freestyle) and Krisztina Egerszegi (200 backstroke) have won an event at three straight Olympics, something Kitajima will attempt to accomplish. That pursuit, too, will be undertaken by Michael Phelps in the 100 butterfly and 200 butterfly and, potentially, the 400 individual medley.

Because of his longevity and shining Olympic moments, Kitajima belongs in the conversation as a top-10 swimmer of all-time, and a top-five performer among men. However, Kitajima does not belong in the conversation for being the No. 1 swimmer ever. That discussion, in my opinion, should be limited to athletes who have extended range, which from this vantage point encompasses at least two different strokes or prolonged excellence – as exhibited by someone such as Tamas Darnyi – in the individual medley.

Taking this approach, the selection pool for Greatest of All-Time (GOAT) suddenly shrinks. For the men, it comes down to Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz and Tamas Darnyi. We don't need to go into Phelps' portfolio, for it is as complete as any the sport has seen. Honestly, I don't know how there can be an argument against Phelps for the No. 1 spot. Yet, for the sake of discussion, Spitz boasted dominance in the freestyle and butterfly and Darnyi, before Phelps arrived, was the undisputed greatest we had seen in the medley events.

For the women, my contenders for the greatest ever come down to Tracy Caulkins, who would have had a finer Olympic resume if not for the boycott of the 1980 Olympics, and Egerszegi, whose backstroke prowess was complemented by an Olympic title in the 400 IM. A case can also be made for Janet Evans, who bolstered her distance-freestyle excellence with an Olympic crown in the 400 IM.

So, there are my contenders. Surely, a few of you are sitting there trying to figure out why I have left Fraser and Ian Thorpe out of the equation. More, what about Shane Gould? First, it is not an anti-Australian sentiment, for I love that country's history in the sport and wish swimming could hold a similar profile here in the United States. Rather, my criteria for No. 1 hinges on multi-stroke success and longevity. Fraser and Thorpe lack in the first category while Gould comes up short in the second category.

As indicated earlier in this column, one of the best parts of athletic discussion is its argumentative nature and the energy it brings out in dedicated fans. What I look for in a No. 1 performer is not what another seeks. However, I stay loyal to my criteria. Let's hear what some of you have to say.

Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn