16 August 2008

Step Aside Ian Thorpe, Zeus is in the House

Phelps perhaps the greatest

Beijing — It speaks to an athlete’s dominance when people cease comparing him to others in his era. It speaks to Michael Phelps’ rare dominance that the debate has left the pool. And the century.

Is he better than Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in Berlin with Adolf Hitler watching?

Has he surpassed Carl Lewis, who equaled Owens’ four golds in Los Angeles, then won five more in the next three Olympics?

Do we reach back to a Soviet gymnast, Larissa Latynina, from the 1950s? A Finnish distance runner, Paavo Nurmi, from the ’20s? Nadia Comaneci, who was so otherworldly in Montreal that gymnastics scoreboards in ‘76 weren’t even equipped to post her perfect 10s, leaving fans perplexed over judges giving her only a “1.0” on floor exercise?

If Michael Phelps isn’t the greatest Olympian of all-time, he is at least in the argument.

If bling is the determining factor, it’s no contest. Phelps swam to seven gold medals in his first seven events, tying the record of Mark Spitz. He went for eight in the 4x100 medley relay this morning in Beijing.

Phelps’ two-Olympic resume now stands at 15 medals including relays (13 gold, two bronze), nine individual golds, eighth world records and four Olympic marks.

There is dominance. Then there is mind-numbing.

It’s like watching somebody open a laptop computer during the Stone Age.

“The problem,” said FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu, “is we have an extraterrestrial.”

We will forever remember Phelps not merely for his medals but how he got there. He swam the 200-meter butterfly in world-record time despite being partially blinded most of the race, his goggles filled with water. He won his seventh gold in the 100 butterfly, despite making the turn at 50 meters in seventh place. Serbia’s Milorad Cavic appeared to be out front as the two closed on the wall. But Phelps reached out with one of those long limbs of his and touched first.

The goggles. The reach. That special trait elite athletes have in finding ways to motivate themselves, even when sheer ability is good enough. Before the 100 butterfly, Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, told him of a Cavic quote in which the Serb declared: “It would be good for the sport if he loses. It would be good for him if he loses.” That’s all Phelps needed to hear.

Cavic swam a great race. He’s just not terribly bright. What could be better for a sport than having a superstar? What could be better for Phelps?

“Some people said [Spitz’s record] would be impossible to duplicate and that it wouldn’t happen,” he said. “It shows really that anything can happen. [Bowman] is the one who really helped me want to dream about anything. He’s the one who said, ‘Dream as big as you can.’ “

He wanted to change swimming. Check. A friend sent him text messages after the 100 butterfly about seeing the race live — on a JumboTron at a baseball game.

He wanted to change a sport. Instead he changed the argument.

Phelps vs. Spitz? It’s over.

Phelps vs. Owens? Phelps has the numbers. But Owens faced pressures we can’t possible imagine. He won events in two disciplines, running and long jump, whereas Phelps only swims.

Phelps vs. Lewis? Phelps surpassed him in gold medals. (Lewis won nine). But Lewis ran and jumped and competed in four Games. Then again, he didn’t take a daily sledgehammer to the record books. Phelps has done that.

Phelps vs. anybody from decades long ago? There are more competing nations today. But isn’t that true in every sport? Do we throw Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth out of baseball arguments because Barry Bonds faces more and better pitchers?

Nobody has ever dominated his sport like Phelps. But the talent pool is deeper in track than swimming. More athletes from more places.

He is fast — faster than we’ve ever seen and possibly ever will see. But sprints and jumps and long-distance running is so much harder on the body than swimming. Consider: Swimming is used to help runners rehab runners from injuries, not the other way around.

Greatest Olympian ever? The argument can’t be won. At least not yet.

“I’m sure,” Phelps said, “Bob and I can think of some other goals in the next four years.”

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