By degrees, the enormity of what Michael Phelps is doing becomes apparent.
It is curious to watch Phelps smile an “oh well” grin as the operators of the public-address system in the Water Cube mangle the American national anthem during his medal ceremony, lopping off the beginning and end – perhaps intimidated by the fact that President George Bush is in the building.
For many if not most athletes at these Games, that single moment – at last watching their flag rise – is the culmination of a lifetime of effort.
For Phelps, it could happen seven more times in the next seven days.
That this is possible – that there is a human being on Earth for whom this is not an absurd statement – is astounding.
Every stroke in an Olympic pool threatens chaos and surprise. Already on the first morning, world records are falling – two in four medal events. Nations from Korea to China are slowly overturning swimming’s world order.
Like Phelps, American Katie Hoff entered in this morning’s 400-meter individual medley as the world-record holder. She finished third. Both Stephanie Rice of Australia (gold) and Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe (silver) broke her record.
Brendan Hansen entered this morning’s 100-meter breaststroke as the world-record holder. He finished fifth in the two semifinals. Norweigan Alexander Dale Oen came within a whisker – 0.04 seconds – of breaking his world record.
Phelps, of course, made his own statement in his 400 meter individual medley, shaving 1.41 seconds off the world record – his own, of course. But the next three mornings might well decide how many golds he will win.
The United States is by no stretch of the imagination assured of winning the two freestyle team relays on Monday and Wednesday. And in Athens, Phelps took bronze in the 200 meter individual freestyle, scheduled for Tuesday morning here – though he did win the event at last year’s world championships.
At other venues and for other human beings, a gold medal – a single gold medal – would make these Games and their athletic careers an unqualified success.
Then Michael Phelps reminds us of what an extraordinary athlete he is.