Rick Telander’s greatest Olympian ever: Michael Phelps
BY RICK TELANDER firstname.lastname@example.org August 11, 2012 8:16PM
US swimmer Michael Phelps swims the butterfly leg in the men's 4x100m medley relay final during the swimming event at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 4, 2012 in London. AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS XAVIER MARITFRANCOIS XAVIER MARIT/AFP/GettyImages
Updated: September 13, 2012 6:25AM
LONDON — I’ll try to be civil because the young man I’m debating (now seasoned with an Olympic-salt-and-pepper beard) also is named Rick. It’s a good name. Pity some Ricks need logic help.
To wit, Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian. Ever.
Shall we start with facts?
Phelps has more Olympic medals than anyone, in any sport, no matter how far back you want to go. Daigoras of Rhodes, a bad-ass boxer, and his tough sons Akusilaos and Damagetos, boxers and pankration stars, were all the rage in the fifth century BC. But there is no evidence they won as many medals as Phelps, as a family. Zeus, in whose honor the Games were begun, threw a lot of long-distance darts when displeased, but he was a spectator, not a competitor. So he’s out.
That leaves … Phelps.
Not only does Phelps have 22 Olympic medals, he has 18 gold ones. To give you an idea of how crazy that is, consider that it’s nine more than the next closest athlete, former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, and a dozen more than Usain Bolt. Yes, there a lot of races in swimming, but Phelps has won them in distances from 100 to 400 meters, and in multiple strokes. If Bolt wants more golds, he should run the 400, the 800, the hurdles, the long jump.
Talk about endurance and focus? Phelps has won gold medals in races that were less than an hour apart. Consider also, the eight golds he won in one Olympics at Beijing in 2008. That’s a record that, I believe I can safely say, nobody’s going to break.
Yes, Phelps is a freak of nature, a land animal meant to swim. His legs are short, his arms long, his torso longer, his knees are double-jointed, his elbows bend backwards and his ankles rotate several degrees beyond the norm. But every champion in every Olympic venue — at least those with plenty of competitors — is a freak.
Kevin Durant, Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, Behdad Salimikoradasiabi, David Boudia, David Rudisha — all have features that the rest of us don’t. But to say Phelps is good in the water simply because of his physical gifts is to miss most of the point. His tenacity and desire are epic. In training he swam at least 80,000 yards a week, practicing for six hours a day in two sessions, six days a week. A lot of the rest of his time was spent sleeping.
He ate up to 12,000 calories a day just to keep the engine in his 6-4, 185-pound boat pumping. Breakfast? How about three fried egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions, and mayonnaise, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast, three pancakes, two cups of coffee. Then he would burn it up.
In these Games he started out with a fourth-place finish in the 400 IM, and there was a buzz that it was over for him, he was just another superstar who had hung on too long and let the kids catch him. But he came back with four gold medals and two silvers, going out with a gold in his final race — the 400 medley relay with a butterfly leg that kicked everybody’s rear.
Yes, Bolt has set the world record in two track sprint races and a relay. But Phelps has set so many world records, then broken them, it’s absurd. That he was a prodigy was announced when he swam in his first Olympics in 2000 in Sydney and finished fifth in the 200 fly. He was 15, the youngest male to make a U.S. swim team in nearly 70 years. Seven months later, still only 15, Phelps set the world record in the 200 fly, the youngest male ever to do such a thing.
Yes, Bolt has a lot of gyrations, a nice deep voice and a bubbly persona. But entertaining people when you’re not racing is not what makes you the greatest Olympian. Don’t we have enough reality show stars as it is? Doesn’t Bolt strike you as a typical NFL wide receiver who wandered into a track stadium?
Then, too, what do we do about drug rumors? Maybe Carl Lewis is an old crabby sprinter, but his words carry some weight. Veteran drug gurus like Victor Conte and Angel “Memo’’ Heredia have stated publicly that no runner can win an Olympics without being doped on the way. Busted Kenyan runner Mathew Kisorio said in a London interview that Kenyan doctors routinely dope that country’s athletes. “It’s the same all over the country,’’ he said.
Maybe Phelps doped, too. An angry Chinese doctor made that claim, based on nothing but Phelps’ stardom, earlier in these Games. If Phelps started on EPO or ’roiding at age 15, wow, that would be some sick news.
But other than some hits on a college bong a few years ago and some drinking tales, Phelps, now 27, has been a darn good role model.
And as an Olympian, young Rick M., he stands alone.