ATHENS -- There are some people who feel that Michael Phelps has been overpraised at these Olympics, that the attention on his medals came at the expense of others. It's a common refrain: Phelps was not the only guy in the pool. But I refuse to apologize for the fact that Phelps is the best swimmer you or I will ever see. The next time your child wonders what a real Olympian looks like, just turn their head in the direction of the center lane, and say, "There goes one, right there." Phelps is the big kid in the middle, the one who makes greatness seem like a dependable, everyday quality.
Now that his meet is over, there will be lots of nuanced discussion about how Phelps's medal count stacks up to that of Mark Spitz, the all-time Olympic record holder with seven golds. The debate, like all historical comparisons, is exciting but not particularly relevant. Spitz finished first in everything he entered, including four individual golds, but he swam in 1972 against arguably weaker competition. If Phelps's accomplishment here is slightly less golden, with six gold and two bronze medals, it's more versatile. He has scope.
The important point is this: They belong in the same company. Spitz is now the only swimmer to whom Phelps may adequately be compared. This became evident when Phelps edged out Ian Crocker on Friday night to win his final individual gold medal, with that enormous come-from-behind lunge in the 100 butterfly. The sheer dynamism with which Phelps moved through the water was one of those experiences the discerning sports observer recognized immediately for what it was: the sign of real greatness.
There are certain things you don't forget, athletes whose power is so instantly visceral that your inner tuning fork goes off. John Elway throwing a football. Steffi Graf walloping a forehand. Watching Phelps swim is a similar experience, provoking a sharp intake of breath. Everything I know in my 20 years of watching and writing about athletes tells me that he's going to be the greatest swimmer who ever lived, if he isn't already. Watch him, and every nerve responds. "Oh," you say to yourself. "He's one of those."
Phelps clearly knows this about himself, which was why he took on Spitz's record in the first place. There will be a lot of debate about that, too, and the wisdom of publicly stating you want to make history. Also, the campaign was no doubt in part a clever marketing ploy. It instantly made Phelps the focal point of the first week of the Olympics, and he remained the focus as he raced 17 times in seven days, counting heats.
Speedo offered a $1 million bonus if Phelps could equal Spitz's gold medal count, and it would be naive to say that Phelps didn't care about the money. He's only 19, but he's already a savvy pitchman. There was that clever little sponsor-friendly remark he got off when he was asked if he was looking forward to breaking training now that his Olympics are over. "It's McDonald's time," he said.
But it's a serious mistake to label Phelps purely a commercial swimmer. Anyone who watched him closely could not question his motives or the genuine depth of his ambition. If Phelps was interested in commerce, for instance, he never would have entered the 200 freestyle against world record holder Ian Thorpe of Australia and defending Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband, almost ensuring himself an early loss. "You know what you're doing, right?" asked his coach, Bob Bowman. Meaning, you could be sabotaging your whole Olympics.
The smart marketing play would have been to avoid the race, because it represented an almost certain defeat on only the third day of the Games. But Phelps burned to see where he stood against the Thorpedo and the Flying Dutchman, the best freestyle specialists in the world. Phelps finished third, ending his Spitzian ambitions abruptly. But that he swam his personal best proved something: It proved he was a game kid who flourished under pressure, instead of folded.
As the meet progressed, it became obvious that the marketing campaign and medal quest didn't mean nearly as much to Phelps as it did to the rest of us, and may have even sort of bugged him. "Can't get away from the numbers," he said, ruefully. But he never complained about the weight of expectations, as he might have. Instead he remained a basically carefree, gangly wet-head of a kid who was determined to enjoy himself, and found his greatest pleasure in a relay.
"In my opinion, I did everything I wanted to do here," Phelps said later. "I won the first gold, and from then it was all for fun."
There are some athletes who are here only because their sponsors made them come. They are Olympians by obligation, not by choice. Phelps is not one of those. "I'm here and I'm able to compete in the Olympic Games for the United States of America, on one of the best swim teams for one of the best nations in the world," he said. "That's an honor."
If there was any lingering doubt about exactly what sort of champion Phelps is, he answered it Saturday evening when he sat in the stands and pulled for his teammate Crocker in the final swim of the Games, the medley relay. Phelps said he wanted Crocker, the superb butterfly specialist who had a disappointing meet due to illness, to be able to redeem himself.
"He deserves another shot to prove himself and he's going to get that shot," Phelps said.
Crocker made the most of that shot; the medley relay team won gold Saturday night in world record time.
But you also have to wonder if Phelps gave up his relay place to Crocker because he was well aware that some felt he had commanded too much of the spotlight. After Phelps's announcement, he and Crocker exchanged a brief word.
"I don't know what to say," Crocker said. "We're going to have to talk about this later."
"Okay," Phelps said. "But I want you to go out there and show the world what you're made of."
With that gesture, Phelps's Olympics was complete. He proved that he could be as great out of the pool as in it.