It’s already started, the Michael Phelps backlash. Well, perhaps it’s not a backlash, but the media has lost its golden Olympic boy. For the past two months, on the cover of magazines and in any profile of the athletes representing the United States in Greece, the one name that’s placed above all others has been that of Mr. Phelps.
It took two days and the sheen is off. When Phelps placed third today, behind Ian Thorpe and some dude whose name I cannot pronounce, every article I read mentioned one thing. The dream is over, the disappointment for Phelps at this Olympics because his chance at tying, or breaking, Mark Spitz record of 7 gold medals in a single games was over.
Disappointment? Really? All Michael Phelps has done in these games, as far as I can tell, is go 3 for 3. 3 races and 3 medals. Oh, and 1 world record. Of course, what most of these articles fail to mention is that one of his bronze medals came in an event where he didn’t even control his own destiny, but had to rely on the skill and prowess of teammates. His other “disappointment” today came in a race in which Phelps personal best was a full 2 seconds behind the personal best of Thorpe. In the pool, 2 seconds is a matter of miles. In the pool, 2 seconds is a lifetime.
Phelps didn’t take on the 200 because he thought he could beat Thorpe. Actually, scratch that, he probably did think he could win. But Thorpe owns 8 of the top 10 fastest times in this event, he has only lost the event once in the last five years. To say that Phelps was up against it is an overstatement. But Michael did something, even in placing 3rd, that is worthy of our admiration. He entered a race he knew he wasn’t the best at because he wanted to race Thorpe in his prime. He wanted to take Thorpe when he was still considered the best, not with an asterisk, not in an Olympic or two when their 3 year age difference would have meant miles in the pool. He considers himself the best, he wants to be the best, so the 19-year-old bullet, the kid with the floppy Dumbo ears and Eminem on the headphones did what all great athletes do. He challenged the best. In truth what he did is akin to a boxer gaining 20 pounds to jump weight classes to challenge the heavyweight champ of the world. He was, in a sense, outclassed before he ever hit the water. And the most remarkable thing happened. He came in third. He gave Thorpe a run for his money. What an amazing accomplishment.
One headline I read today proclaimed that Thorpe is still the best swimmer in the world. Maybe, but I think that’s overstating things. Thorpe is a remarkable athlete, a hero in his homeland of Australia. But he’s also a specialist. Michael Phelps owns 5 world records. He entered himself into 8 events. He took himself out of one of his specialties, an event he had a far better chance at gold in, just so he could take on the best in the world. Think of being great at 8 different things within your given field. Think about it, because that’s all you can do, because very few of us, perhaps one in every generation, are that all around great, that unique, and you are not one of those people. Very few of us really are. So you tell me who the best swimmer in the world is.
The thing is, these Olympics aren’t even over. When all is said and done, Phelps could have 6 golds and 2 bronze. Or 5 golds, 1 silver, and 2 bronze. Or 4 golds and 4 bronze. Hell, even if he leaves the games with his 1 gold, his 1 world record, and his 2 bronze medals, something that just isn’t going to happen, hasn’t he earned our admiration?
The 8 gold medals was as much our dream, a fabrication of a hungry press that latched onto the dreams of a 19-year-old with balls as big as melons, as it was his hope. We in the press wrote about it, we put him on our covers, we anointed him before the games ever began. If he falls short of that, which he already has, why are we disappointed in him? Why aren’t we marveling at the athletic achievements, letting them take us away from our lives for the briefest moment? Why are we proclaiming defeat for someone who isn’t even finished competing yet?
For me, in challenging Thorpe at his best event, Michael won my admiration. Particularly when Thorpe isn’t getting in the pool on Michael’s terms, facing Phelps in a race he has no chance at winning, as Michael did today.
I haven’t found an emotional connection to these games as I did when I was a kid, to be honest, I really don’t care about them. But I was rooting for Mr. Phelps before the Olympics started, hoping he would bring back those 8 golden trophies. I’m still rooting for him now, admiring him not only for what he was gutsy enough to undertake, but for what he might accomplish yet. His is a unique and awesome ordeal. And, should he fall short this year, there is always 4 years from now. If not then, how about 4 years after that? These, of course, are an eternity in a sport that measures it's winners in fractions of seconds, to a media and public with the short attention span of gold fish. But shouldn't we hold on to his quest just a little bit longer? Shouldn't we ride in his wake for as long as his muscles, his awesome endurance, can carry us along?
I want him to win gold, as much because, with wars and deaths and Bushes around, I like when sports help me connect to things I have a tendency to forget about in my day-to-day life. But I want him to win gold, too, to shove it down the throats of every sideline jockey who proclaimed this third medal of his in 3 events somehow a disappointment. “No,” he can say, “I didn’t read that article. The glare off my gold medals must have blinded my eyes.”