Eight gold medals. Seven world records. And most remarkably,transforming laps in a pool into must-see-TV. Michael Phelps has truly exceeded the hype and has derserved every accolade he’s received. In slightly over thirty total minutes of swimming, Phelps defied our imagination about the athletically possible. Even NBC, so terribly awkward in its coverage of China, so self-censoring when broaching the politics of these games and so hackneyed when relaying the little soap opera vignettes about individual athletes–handled the Phelps story with gusto.
Now the only question left is the one without an answer: is Phelps "thegreatest Olympian ever?" This is what’s known as a "sports radioquestion." It’s the kind of idiotic discussion point that has a commercialvalue precisely because it can be debated forever without any resolution.Phelps as "greatest Olympian" may turn out to be what finally supplants"Does Pete Rose belong in the Hall of Fame?" on countless call-in shows and in corner bars.
Since every sports yakker on the street has his or her opinion on this,I might as well give mine. The case for Phelps lies in the unprecedentedeight gold medals (and the record fourteen for his career overall), hisremarkable mental and physical endurance and the fact that he bestedthe greatest swimmers in the world using a variety of strokes. In an eraof sports specialization, he is swimming’s Bo Jackson.
And the case against Phelps as Pharaoh of the Games? Most obviously, thenumber of medal wins (what some commentators have called "the Great Haul of China") is a bogus metric since swimming has many more events in which to win gold medals. No track star would ever be given the chance to compete inas many and as varied a number of races as Phelps. Marathoners of course can winonly one, so the medal count argument is thin.
Then there is the problem with the sport itself. Swimming has become avictim of its own success at the Beijing games, under a cloud of suspicionbecause of the sheer number of records that have fallen. No one is alleging that Phelps or other swimmers are using any illegal performance enhancers. It’s the legal ones that are raising the questions.
The theory most bandied about is that the new Speedo Lasik suits turn normal men and women into aquatic hybrids, giving them everything but gills. Even the fabric is juiced. What if Phelps isn’t the best swimmer. What if he just has the best tailor?
But it’s hard to be too cynical. If you told me a month ago that I’d bewatching swimming, in rapt attention, I would have sued you fordefamation. If you told me baseball and football stadiums full of peoplewould be watching and cheering on the butterfly stroke on jumbotrons, Iwouldn’t have believed it.
But is he the best Olympian ever?
For me, I stand with former NBA star and commentator Charles Barkley.When the Round Mound of Sound was asked that very question, he named twoothers: Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Sounds good to me.