These are not flush times for the US: unemployment, austerity measures, unstable currency; a bad credit rating. While it may be a small consolation, at least they have been experiencing robust growth in one sector: Olympic swimming. In this category the Stars and Stripes has cornered the market as the London Games will attest.
Who does one credit for such unprecedented success? In retrospect, perhaps, a certain Michael Fred Phelps II. In the world of swimming, however, that name is whispered in reverential tones and almost, always in one word: Phelps.
At 27, Phelps’s face shows a lot of mileage. In sporting terms he is a fossil but his aura at London keeps getting bigger. While some speak of him with respect and fear, others display a childlike awe.
Critics and swimming experts don’t quite know how to classify the debate: the whole Michael Phelps what? Situation? Dynamic? Phenomenon? The terms still don’t do him justice. The legend is approaching near-mythic proportions.
The big man from Baltimore has, over the course of three Olympic Games, inspired a generation of swimmers in America who have taken to the water simply because they believe his feats can be emulated. This contribution must be put into perspective however: while a veritable cottage industry of swimming talent has emerged, and they are showing off their skills with winning performances in the pool at London, by no stretch of the imagination can any of them go on to emulate the feats of Michael Phelps in the Olympic Games.
Just to be mentioned in the same breath as Phelps can be the death sentence for any swimmer. Ryan Lochte, America’s next big hope, knows all about this. Lochte had the performances to show for it, which included a few stunning defeats to Phelps. The Olympics, however, turned out to be a different story. The pressure of expectation ensured that Lochte buckled at key moments in the pool at London. The medals were coming, but there were just not enough gold: something which Phelps had won six of at Athens and eight in Beijing. Ironically, Lochte’s unprecedented lethargy comes at a time when Phelps is in the twilight of his career, but the latter gave Lochte a tutorial by breaking the world record in the 200m individual medley. In many ways it was a coronation as well as a dethroning, except that Phelps is giving up the throne at a time when no suitable successor has been found. World swimming is not ready for the transition after Phelps’ departure.
Phelps hasn’t just inspired swimmers back home. The most noteworthy acknowledgement came from South Africa’s Chad Le Clos who beat him, by a touch, in the 200m butterfly. Astounded by his own feat, he paid tribute to the legend saying, “Sounds crazy, but I thought I was Michael that last turn,” Le Clos said. “He’s everything to swimming. I can’t believe what just happened.”
Incredible as it may sound, Le Clos was a sixth grader in school when Phelps was setting fire to the pool at Athens. His victory is a testimony to the legacy that Phelps leaves behind. In many ways this is the American’s biggest triumph. After the post-race formalities were over TV cameras showed Phelps steering Le Clos around the pool and making him aware of how a champion is expected to behave, with the fans, media and photographers.
That Phelps was ever going to be able to emulate his feats in Beijing is irrelevant, what should be applauded is that he turned up to make it a fitting swansong. To move past the all-time Olympic medals record of gymnast Larisa Latynina of the former Soviet Union. This is an indication that there was no insecurity in knowing that the past was never going to be repeated: that there would be no fear in losing. He committed himself to every race irrespective of the result. The present and his efforts to emphasise his fading authority was all that mattered. In doing so, Phelps underlined his commitment to the Olympic spirit despite his mega status. He did it the way he felt he should because in the end respect matters more than the medals. It stays for a lifetime.
Fittingly enough, the citizens of the city of Baltimore, Phelps’s hometown, have renamed a street after him called the ‘Michael Phelps Way’. It somehow seems to fit.