"It’s like he was part fish." That’s what a friend of mine from theMaryland suburbs said about the young Michael Phelps. He was in a swimclub with the multiple gold medal winner, and still shakes his headremembering how the prepubescent future star was in a league of his own."You could just tell. It was sick." (That’s a compliment.) Now Phelps isracing less against his competitors than against history. In his quest to win a record eight gold medals, Phelps has already won three gold medals andset three world records. As the New York Times wrote, "Michael Phelps is not just gunning for Mark Spitz’s record of seven golds, he seems intent on winning all his races in world-record time, as Spitz did in 1972."
Racing the 200 meter free style, Phelps not only became the firstswimmer to break one minute forty-four seconds, but he also broke one minute forty-three. The contrast with Natalie Coughlin could not have been greater. Coughlin won the gold in the 100 meter backstroke, becoming the first woman inhistory to win that event in consecutive Olympics. She barely held offKirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe. Coughlin struggled, and looked at differentpoints like she was shading from one side of the lane to the next. Butwhere she–and Phelps–dominated was in the use of the dolphin kickwhen they made their turns. This is the part of swimming that makes theviewer think that they are watching some form of Darwinism on fastforward. The swimmers flip over and unless the underwater cameras areshowing computer fakes, like the opening fireworks display, they writhetheir bodies like they are doing a submerged electric worm, and coveraquatic ground with the speed of white sharks. Coughlin in particularlooked like she was going to lose and then did a last unorthodox dolphinkick to barely outpace Coventry. You’d have to see the replay on this, if you at all value the beauty of movement. Yet we were rooting for Coventry whosesuccess at these games has brought cheers to Zimbabwe, which is currently mired in violence and political strife.
It raises the question though, if Coventry had won, would we even haveseen the race? One of the bizarre contradictions of the games is thatthey are meant in theory to promote internationalism, yet televisioncoverage has historically been focused almost exclusively on US athletes. During this year’s games this tendency has been even more egregious, with long tape delays and cold war rumblings combining to produce a spectacle that feels more like sports as propaganda than sports as bridge-builder.
The casual observer would never guess that the US has to this point wonalmost half as many golds as China (13-7) and leads in the overall medalhunt by only one medal. If the US actually loses to China in the great chasefor gold, will NBC even tell us? Are athletes from other countries aselectrifying as Phelps? Hopefully, an intrepid reporter in Beijinglaboring without internet access will find a hearty carrier pigeon whowill let us know.