The Phelps Olympics: An epic fit for ancient Greece

Michael Phelps’s eight gold medals in these Games could help make the swimmer the greatest Olympian of all time.

David J. Phillip/AP
US Swimmer Michael Phelps celebrated with teammates after winning his eighth gold medal in the men's 4 x 100m medley relay.

For a moment Saturday, the great play that was Michael Phelps’s Olympics seemed to have been written by the ancient Greeks themselves.

There was Milorad Cavic, the tragic figure – the Serbian who had so nearly beaten Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly only to find, like Frenchman Alain Bernard before him, that Mr. Phelps’s race to eight gold medals had survived by 0.01 seconds.

There was even a cry to Olympus, so to speak – an appeal of the results. But then, swimming official Ben Ekumbo descended from on high to rebuke Cavic: “It was very clear that one was stroking and one was gliding.”

Phelps’s success in winning eight gold medals, consummated Sunday when the Americans won the 4 x 100 individual medley relay in world-record time, cements his place as the most decorated male Olympian ever and allows him entry into the debate over who have been the greatest athletes of modern times.

Almost without question, he is now “the greatest swimmer in history,” says David Wallechinsky, author of “The Complete Book of the Olympics.”

For the record:

•By the end of the swimming program, Phelps played a part in 47 percent of America’s 17 overall gold medals and three-quarters of its 12 swimming medals. The contribution is made more significant by the fact that no Americans took silver in any of his five individual events.

•His 16 career medals – eight gold in Beijing and six gold, two bronze in Athens – rank him only behind Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina, who won 18 medals in three Olympics from 1956 to 1964.

•His eight gold medals are the most ever by an athlete in a single Games. His 14 career gold medals are also a record. In fact, he nearly equaled the previous record for most career gold medals – nine – in this Olympics alone. The record was held by Latynina, American swimmer Mark Spitz, American sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis, and Paavo Nurmi, a Finnish long-distance runner from the 1920s.

• He broke or had a part in breaking seven world records in his eight events. Only in the 100-meter butterfly did he or his relay team not establish a world record.

Simply by the numbers, his eight gold medals is something that could only be accomplished in swimming or gymnastics, making the debate over whether he is the greatest Olympian problematic.

The reason is that no other sports offer an athlete – no matter how good he or she is – the opportunity at that many gold medals.

“A marathon winner is never going to win eight gold medals at one Olympics,” Mr. Wallechinsky says. “It’s apples and oranges.”

He also notes that the competition for medals is the toughest in track and field, where every nation on earth competes.

That is not to diminish his accomplishment, however. Other swimmers and gymnasts have long had the opportunity to set such a mark. None ever has.

Before the Games began, American swimmer Aaron Peirsol said his goal was to win three gold medals. Then he smiled. “Usually, three would be very good,” he said.

As Phelps said on countless occasions during the run-up to these Games, all he can control is how fast he swims. And when medals were at stake, no one in the world could swim faster.

He won while dominating. In the 200-meter individual medley the silver medalist finished 2.29 seconds behind.

He won while struggling from behind. Only pixelated photos, blown up to three times their normal size, show his bent fingertip touching the wall before Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly. It is estimated that in the 328-foot race the winning margin was one-fifth of an inch.

He even won when apparently suffering an undisclosed “wardrobe malfunction” in the 200-meter butterfly. He won the race in world-record time, of course, but he thinks he can swim it faster.

So he will try.

This is not the end for Phelps. He has said he will keep swimming. Before this Olympics, he kept a clipping of an article that quoted Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe saying Phelps could not win eight golds.

Now, he will think about how his hometown football team, the Baltimore Ravens, encouraged fans to stay in the stands after the end of their last preseason game Saturday night. They showed Phelps’s last race on the jumbotron – something that shows how far swimming has come, he says, and where he hopes it can go from here.

At Sunday’s postrace press conference he said: “I want to raise the bar in swimming even more.”

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