Good as Gold? Much Better.

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By Sally Jenkins
Friday, August 15, 2008


The ghosts are hanging around Michael Phelps's head, along with the flags and sponsor signs. Some day he'll be an Olympic phantom, too, his performance here a flicker, and maybe then we won't worry so much about sizing him up and trying to place him in the gallery of champions. We'll simply be glad to say we saw him swim in person -- even if we didn't know quite what to make of him.

The subject of Phelps's place in the pantheon of greatness isn't premature: The 23-year-old has now won more Olympic gold medals than any athlete in history, by three and counting. His victories have become so programmatic that it's difficult to relate to; he makes winning look as inevitable as toast popping up. Only rarely do we get a glimpse of his competitive burden, as we did in the discontented expression on his face after his victory Friday in the 200-meter individual medley, over Laszlo Cseh and USA teammate Ryan Lochte by almost two and a half seconds. It was Phelps's sixth gold and sixth world record (1 minute 54.23 seconds) of the Summer Games, but the look told us more about Phelps than any record or medal could. The look said Phelps doesn't swim against others; he swims against his best self.

He had crushed his competition, and yet he said, "I just tried to hang on; that's all I wanted to do." Moments after the medal ceremony, Phelps dropped his latest neck decoration into the pocket of that odd overcoat and went back to the pool deck for the semifinals of the 100 butterfly, the Saturday finals of which will be his last individual event. Swimming at this point has become a matter of hacking out the world record splits, and then gasping at the finish like a fish yanked out of the water. "There's never relief," he said. "Tomorrow is going to be a very tough race."

Greatness is a vague, overly broad word that describes everything from Henry VIII's waistline to a rather famous local wall, but it certainly fits Phelps, still famished for victories as he closes in on an unprecedented eight golds in a single Olympic meet. The sport historians are out in force, picking through past records and feats and arguing his value compared with the other greats he has surpassed this week: Carl Lewis in track and field, Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi, Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina and swimmer Mark Spitz, each of whom won nine golds.

What's the fairest measure of greatness? Everyone has a personal own standard -- big deal, you may be thinking, all Phelps does is swim back and forth. Figure skating fanatics would tell you the greats in their sport are at an inherent disadvantage because only one medal is offered per quadrennial. Sonja Henie was a great Olympian, too, who won everything she entered, three consecutive golds from 1928 to 1936. Johnny Weissmuller may have really been the greatest swimmer of all, but he could enter only four events in 1924, sweeping all of them. Same with Jesse Owens in Berlin in '36, and speaking of Owens, what about those who had significance beyond their sport?

Most swimmers believe that whether Phelps gets his eight or not, the challenge he took on here is historically unprecedented. Spitz set world records in everything he entered in Munich in 1972, but he was limited to four individual events. Phelps has entered six, plus two relays. By the time the Games end he will have swum 17 times totaling 3,300 meters over nine days. It was clear from his enervated victory on Friday that he is using up every last bit of himself in the attempt.

To Phelps's personal coach, Bob Bowman, the margins of Phelps's victories set him apart. He's setting records by three and four seconds in events usually decided by fractions.

"I think if it was over today he's the greatest Olympic who ever lived," Bowman said. "I do think it's difficult to compare, but I think in terms of sheer dominance in his events and the times he's putting up it's hard to argue. Of course, I'm a swimming coach."

U.S. Coach Eddie Reese, who has coached 22 Olympians to 21 golds, including Aaron Peirsol and Ian Crocker, says, "Never seen anybody like him. Nobody in any sport can win like he wins. . . . What drives him is not the quest for eight. If he can win something, he just goes for it."

That reflexive drive every time he hits the water is the quality that will probably linger most when he look back at Phelps's performance here. Ultimately, the argument about his numbers, times and records is a soulless one because it doesn't really sum up the man. His medal count will endure, sure, but the shape of his competitive face and personality is what's really worth remembering.

The exercise of comparing medals is unrewarding no matter who the subject. Were Nurmi's medals better than Babe Didrikson's? Who cares? It's far more pleasant and useful to simply remember them more for who they were, than what they did. Nurmi, 'The Flying Finn,' nearly killed himself in the 1924 Games with his effort as he won five golds. He had just 26 minutes to rest between the 1,500 meters and 5,000, and set world records in each.

Didrikson won two golds and a silver in track and field in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics only because she was limited to three events. She didn't take up golf until 1935 and merely helped found the LPGA.

The medals discussion actually obscures Phelps rather than illuminates him. Ironically, if he has had an iconic moment, one that truly suggests who he is, it was not a solo medal performance. It was his unselfconscious explosion when he was threatened with a loss in the 4x100 free style relay. Phelps's scream of elemental force as the Americans won on the still scarcely believable final leg by Jason Lezak is the impression of Phelps we'll carry away from the Games.

That, and his oddities. The ankle length parka that suggests the extent of his thoroughness. The way in victory he stretches out that strangely marine torso -- the wide, flat chest and hipless legs of a stingray -- and then issues a sweet smile around crooked teeth, and struggles to frame a few inarticulate sentences. What is it that makes this innocuous, oddly shaped young man perform such a rhythmic beat of excellence through the water? That's the subject really worth discussing.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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