It’s true -- the world witnessed athletic greatness when Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic Champion in history with the gold medal medley relay on Sunday in Beijing. He has now accomplished what no other participant in the Games has been able to do and, as ESPN columnist Jemele Hill argues, redefines greatness.
Tread water lightly, though -- many athletes truly have not been able to win eight golds. Not because they couldn’t, but because the opportunities didn’t exist.
There is no doubt that Phelps is a magician, a mega-star, a multi-talented freak in the water. His focus, his motivation, his ability to deal with pressure, and his routine set him apart…as well as his sportsmanship and gentlemanly dealings with the press who would like nothing more than to get closer to him than his tight, world-record breaking swimsuits. But, comparing him to the preeminent athletes of all time? In traditional team sports? When there is only one championship per year? Come on. That is almost as ridiculous as the media’s portrayal of the newest fastest-man-in-the-world’s reputed pre-celebration during the 100-meter sprint. (A scene that was hyped up in the media and, by the time it was televised on NBC, had to be shown in slow motion just to catch the reported chest pounding).
Why do we need to rethink greatness? Phelps is great. Like, ludicrously great -- there is no argument.
But comparing him to Michael Jordan or the greatest athletes in other sports in history?! If MJ had a shot to win eight competitions related to basketball in one year, is it not thinkable that he would? How about a new Olympics sport featuring basketball skills and a classic Jordan in his prime? Picture this line-up over a 7-day period:
2) Free Throw Contest with Eyes Shut
3) Slam Dunk Championship
4) Defensive Stopper Game
5) Hot Shot Field Goal Shooting Match
6) Fundamental Footwork Competition
7) Most Creative In-Air Finish Moves
8) 5-on-5 Championship
These add up to eight separate events. And I bet he’d have a good chance at taking all of them – especially if he was committed to achieving greatness, by the preceding definition set-forth that includes “athlete”, “mental toughness”, and “limits”.
I was extremely elated and relieved when Kobe Bryant questioned the interviewer during the NBA Finals when the latter asked, yet again, about the comparisons between Kobe and Jordan. Bryant responded with a plea hovered around a smile and a “let it go” attitude. He asked that the discussion be halted because there is no other Michael Jordan.
There is no other Jordan. Just as a colleague of mine reported recently that there is no other Pistol Pete in response to the Ricky Rubio eagerness. No other Joe Montana or Tiger Woods or Wayne Gretzky or Lance Armstrong or Jackie Robinson or Lusia Harris or Althea Gibson. (Talk about enduring strain and mental toughness? One certainly has to include the last three. Read William C. Rhoden’s book).
By no means am I suggesting that Phelps’ accomplishments be undercut. I’ve dedicated the past week to him, his regiment, his words, and his training. I haven’t missed an interview. But to question other greats in comparison to him? Insane. Others don't train like he does because there aren’t opportunities to win as much as he does.
Dara Torres was determined to enhance her performance. Age doesn’t matter, especially when one continues to train and has all of the resources available to be at the top of her game. Impressive, yes. Impossible, no.
Let us be proud to witness such intensity, concentration, and determination. But do not underestimate what other renowned performers have accomplished. Great can always become greater, particularly when there are unprecedented goals and new technology-- just look at the world records falling on a daily basis.
Phelps captivated us, but don’t let his mastery hold us captive.