For Michael Phelps, eight is great
Phelps captured an unprecedented eighth gold medal at these Beijing Games by helping the U.S. 4x100-meter medley relay team to a victory in the final event of an Olympic swimming program that will be difficult to match for drama, world records and, ultimately, perfection.
The 23-year-old Baltimorean with the pterodactyl-like wingspan, the voracious appetite, and the flipper-sized feet managed something many, including retired Australian swimming superstar Ian Thorpe, said couldn't be done.
Phelps won five individual races, four of them in world-record times and the other, Friday's 100 butterfly, by a mere 0.01 of a second. He helped the Americans win a trio of relays, the 400 and 800 freestyles and Sunday's in Beijing time, in which a different swimmer used each of four strokes — backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle. And in doing so he established himself as the greatest medal-winner at a single Games in the 112-year history of the modern Olympics.
"When some people said it's not possible and it can't be done, I think that's when my imagination came into play," Phelps said recently. "And I thought I had a chance to do it. (Coach Bob Bowman) and I talked about it, and we were able to get here through a lot of hard work. It's been fun."
Between Athens in 2004 and Beijing, Phelps has collected an astounding 14 gold medals and a pair of bronzes. And he said he'd like to return for at least two more Olympics.
The eight gold medals in this Olympiad broke Mark Spitz's previous record of seven, set in 1972.
Not surprisingly, for the last several days, the dominance Phelps displayed here has left athletes, coaches, fans and media members trying to assess his place in sports history.
"It goes to show you that not only is this guy the greatest swimmer of all time and the greatest Olympian of all time, he's maybe the greatest athlete of all time," Spitz said, according to the Associated Press. "He's the greatest racer who ever walked the planet."
U.S. swim coach Eddie Reese was dining in the athletes village last week when British swimmer Simon Burnett sat down beside him to offer an unsolicited opinion.
"I think I've figured out Michael Phelps," Burnett told Reese. "He's not from another planet. He from the future. His father made him and made a time machine. Sixty years from now he's just an average swimmer. But he has come back to this time to mop up."
The Olympic Games are a little like the sidewalk in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater. Big stars come and go, leaving behind their footprints for future generations to peruse.
With a week remaining, there's little doubt that the largest and most lasting imprint on these 2008 Summer Games will be left by Phelps' size 14s.
"He is the greatest sportsman ever to walk the planet," British swimmer Liam Tancock said, after finishing eighth in Phelps' 200 individual medley victory Friday.
Alexander Sukhorukov, whose Russian team was thumped by Phelps and the Americans in Wednesday's 4x200 freestyle relay, said the superstar was "just a normal person. But he is maybe from a different planet. A planet from a different galaxy," said Sukhorukov.
The sports mountaintop's occupants vary from generation to generation, country to country. Michael Jordan lived there for a time in the eyes of most Americans. So did Carl Lewis, Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain, Jesse Owens, perhaps decathletes like Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias, and others whose names and nations might be less-familiar.
In the 21st century, or at least until Phelps made his super-Speedo splash here, it was generally conceded that golfer Tiger Woods occupied the penthouse on that summit. Now he might have a roommate.
"He reminds me exactly of Woods," said Dan Hicks, NBC's swimming announcer here who anchors the network's golf coverage. "He doesn't want to just beat you, he wants to destroy you."
Suddenly, Phelps has been thrust into the middle of all those unanswerable sports discussions that stimulate but ultimately frustrate.
Is he the greatest swimmer ever? The greatest Olympian? The greatest athlete?
The consensus seems to be yes, maybe, and who the heck knows?
It is impossible, of course, to compare athletes from different eras, different sports, different cultures. Statistics don't translate from sport to sport. Tastes and skills vary.
Who's to say Jordan was greater than Larissa Latynina, the Cold War Soviet gymnast who won 18 medals, nine gold? Or that Ruth dominated his sport any more thoroughly than Paavo Nurmi, the legendary "Flying Finn" who won nine gold and three silver medals from 1920 to 1928? Or that Chamberlain's 100-point game in basketball or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in baseball aren't greater achievements than Phelps' 14 gold medals in the pool?
And how do you quantify an international soccer superstar like Brazil's Pele, who was as much a spiritual force in the game as a statistical one?
"We'll never really know the answer to questions like that," said Tancock. "But however you rank them, Michael can't be far down the list."
The man with the 79-inch wingspan has won 14 gold medals in the world's most truly international showcase; that's five more than Lewis, Nurmi or any other Olympian.
Phelps came to Beijing intent on passing Spitz's 36-year-old record of seven golds in a single Games. But his string of world-record swims and victories quickly eclipsed Spitz and everyone else in the discussion about the best swimmer ever.
"He defies description, in my opinion," said Pablo Morales, who won three golds as a U.S. swimmer. "There is no historical precedent for what he has accomplished, how he is accomplishing it, his body of work. You have at once a supremely gifted athlete with a willingness to endure unmatched levels of preparation. Plus, he's a fantastic competitor, mentally tough, and someone who appears to get even better in the face of a tough challenge."
Veteran Italian swim coach Alberto Castagnetti agreed.
"I think he's undisputedly the greatest swimmer of all time," he said. "He's stratospheric. In technical terms and in terms of mental preparation, I've never seen anyone like him."
Spitz swam just two strokes — freestyle and butterfly. Other greats in the pool, from Don Schollander to Janet Evans to Thorpe, just can't match Phelps' mind-boggling accumulation of world records, world championships and gold medals.
If he does compete at future Olympics, it's likely the swimmer who took up the sport as a hyperactive 7-year-old would end all the arguments about who is the greatest, something even his eight gold medals here hasn't yet accomplished.
Olympic historian David Wallechinsky told the New York Times that he thought Lewis and Nurmi still surpassed Phelps.
As for the greatest athlete in the world? That's still anyone's guess.
"I hate to compare swimmers to players in the NBA or NFL," said Reese, "but I will say that there's nobody in any sport that can win like he wins. He's not just winning, he's crunching world records and crunching the field."
Phelps' margins in four of his five individual victories were immense, the swimming equivalents to Woods' romps at the 1997 Masters and 2000 U.S. Open.
Phelps won the 400 individual medley by 2.32 seconds. The margin was 1.89 seconds in the 200 freestyle, 0.67 in the 200 butterfly, and 2.29 in the 200 IM. His 47.51 leadoff lap helped the Americans beat the French in the 400-freestyle relay and, with Phelps swimming leadoff again, the Americans destroyed the Russians in the 800-freestyle relay by 5.14 seconds. Swimming with backstroker Aaron Peirsol, breaststroker Brendan Hansen and freestyle anchor Jason Lezak, the United States won again.
The magic nearly ended Saturday when Phelps appeared defeated in the 100 butterfly by Milorad Cavic despite a furious comeback. But somehow he had beaten the Serb to the wall, by 0.01 of a second.
Whatever his status on the lists that fascinate sports fans, there's no denying that Phelps was the Beijing Games' star attraction through its opening week.
President Bush and his family saw him win the 400 IM on Sunday. NBA superstars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were in the stands at the ethereal Water Cube on Wednesday when Phelps won the 200 butterfly and helped the United States to an 800 freestyle relay gold.
And NBC, which has been showing Phelps' morning finals live in American prime time, said its ratings were through the roof.
"We are breaking records that are 20, 30 and nearly 50 years old," said Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal.
Even the Chinese fans, for whom swimming ranks far below sports like ping-pong, soccer and gymnastics in popularity, have developed an appreciation of the 6-foot-4, 185-pound American.
"He is like a god," said Shanghai resident Hu Zhang, who attended Friday's events and whose assessment would end all the arguments. "Does any other swimmer ever climb the step" of the medal podium?