Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2016

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Health and Sport Studies

First Advisor

Susan Birrell

First Committee Member

Catriona Parratt

Second Committee Member

Thomas P Oates

Third Committee Member

Horace Porter

Fourth Committee Member

Travis Vogan


On August 4, 2012, white American swimmer Michael Phelps was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the international swimming federation in recognition of his Olympic achievements. The unprecedented award – a specially commissioned sculpture – proclaimed Phelps as “the greatest Olympian of All Time.” This title may, at one level, be perceived as a benign honorific bestowed upon an extra-ordinary athlete. On another level, the title should be viewed as a result of the hidden ideological work done by and through discourses of swimming in America, discourses that are always racialized, classed, nationalized, and gendered.

Michael Phelps is the point of entry to unpack how modern sport and the Olympics reproduce these dominant views and processes that lead to contemporary social inequalities. My focus is an examination of the power relations that enabled and produced him as the Greatest Olympian of All-Time. Phelps’s phenomenal performance in the pool is undeniable, but I argue that the ensuing adulation and recognition results as much from his privileged position as a white American man as from his hard work, skill, and determination. This dissertation unpacks and explains how these processes work in the contemporary sporting world.

Scholars have long argued that sport is a site for understanding how race, class, gender, and nationalisms are performed and/or constructed. In this dissertation, I take a critical cultural studies approach to demonstrate that, from an ideological and cultural point of view, Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time because he is the physical and symbolic embodiment of the modern Olympic movement, a movement founded upon 19th century ideals of humanism, liberalism, and modernity that continues to stabilize and reinforce dominant views of race, gender, class, nationalism and sexuality.

To make this argument, I first historicize the sport of swimming itself. As one of the sports at the first Modern Olympics in 1896, swimming is an ideal site for understanding the modernization process through sport. Swimming has long been dominated by white athletes, and I deploy the recent concept of the sporting racial project to grasp how modernization is a racialized project fundamental to constructions of institutional racism. Next, I examine media representations of Michael Phelps in the early 21st century. These representations reveal the role of sport in popular imaginations of the nation and, specifically, the importance of the white male sporting hero in constructions of America in the post-9/11 world. Then, I explore and contextualize notions and meanings of “amateur” and “eligibility” within late 20th and early 21st century structures of Olympic swimming, including the complex and contradictory relationships between inter/national governing bodies. Finally, I show how these three seemingly independent processes involving race, class, gender, and nation are interdependent and fundamental to modern sport and the Olympics.


Michael Phelps, nationalism, Olympics, sport studies, swimming, whiteness


ix, 155 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 135-155).


Copyright © 2016 Matthew Ross Hodler