London: The year is just eight months old, but in that span Michael Phelps has already lived two lives. Firstly as a swimmer who scaled the heights of humanity, only to crash back to earth as someone who can actually be beaten. And secondly ascending again to the top of Mount Olympus to be recognised as the greatest Olympian ever.
How great is Phelps? The argument can go on and on, as the world is full of cynics. He has medalled in 19 out of 21 Olympic finals. He has 15 gold medals, six more than the next best gold haul and he still has more medals to win.
The only other shock that Phelps can provide is if he drowns in a swimming pool, but we have got to separate fact from fiction. A half-strength Phelps is still good enough to win an Olympic medal (even if it is not a gold), something which a regular Olympian trains a lifetime trying to achieve.
Despite the certainty that he is the greatest ever swimmer and Olympian, Phelps will concede that he is past his best. So high have been the expectations that, when he equalled Larisa Latynina’s total of 18 medals with a silver — he lost the gold by failing to touch the pads faster than South Africa’s Chad Le Clos in the 200m butterfly — the response seemed a bit muted. Has Michael lost his mojo?
The shock of what he had then achieved sank in with the crowds later, when he powered the US team to a gold in the 4x200m freestyle relay.
Nobody can look at a total of 19 Olympic swimming medals (15 golds, two silvers and two bronze) in the cabinet and attest that they came by way of a generous donation from the International Olympic Committee. Sportsmen do not become legends simply by virtue of opinion. Achievement is the pre-requisite and Phelps’ resume speaks volumes.
Names like Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi are being thrown into the debate on who could be the greatest, but the arguments are token at best. Those who are prolonging the coronation are simply trying too hard.
In truth, it must be accepted that the sight of a fallible Phelps in London can be a jarring and incongruous sight. He missed a medal in the 400m IM, an event he has dominated for over a decade. At best he could have been compared to Michael Jordan playing for the Washington Wizards after coming out of retirement, or Sachin Tendulkar opening the batting for the India A team. Four years is an eternity in the life of a sportsman.
After burning up the water in the pool at Beijing, Phelps could have been pardoned for thinking that he had nothing left to achieve. He wanted a life out of the pool and for two years he lived it in abundance. Discipline and self-control were put away in the locker room. He could be excused for embracing that mindset: who wins eight golds in eight Olympic events, topping the previous six won in Athens?
The fact that Phelps hauled himself back into the water once more to sketch out the familiar arrangement of gruelling training regimens, though the sparkle from the flame that kept the body and the spirit alive was getting gradually weaker, speaks volumes about his commitment. Bigger men have surveyed the battlefield, weighed up their options, and walked away from it all.
Phelps arrived in London and suddenly in the span of one race the swimming world had found a new successor to him: Ryan Lochte.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown as they say. The pronouncement was premature. Lochte faltered in his next race as if in a reminder that to be great one needs to be consistent. He realised that the difference between being a legend and just a winner lies in micro seconds. This is where Phelps’s stature gets magnified. He has been doing this steadily for the past three Olympic Games, minus all the international meets that he has represented the US in, starting from Athens in 2004.
Let us be fair and eulogise him for what he has done. Let us not gauge his worth as the greatest Olympian ever simply by the number of gold medals he has won, or the races he has lost, and perhaps could lose before these Games are over.
Every silver and bronze medal that Phelps has won has been part of his quest in going for gold. He has never settled for anything less. It is only in the Olympics that an athlete has the honour of participating for three medals. There is a certain dignity in finishing second, or third.
Phelps has transcended his sport, even though it continues to provide him with reality checks in London, he has become the barometer of excellence in swimming. The disappointment of not winning a gold medal alone can at best be described as relative. So let us embrace the memories he has given us through the three races that he has left and recoil from his achievements in them.