Greatest Olympian ever? Greatest Athlete Ever? Sorry Phelpsie, but I’m not drinking that Kool-Aid.
Look, what Michael Phelps has done for the United States and for Mikes everywhere is tremendously honorable. And the fact that he aced 8 separate events after all of the hype and media build-up goes to show his ability to perform in the clutch. But what Phelps has in terms of work ethic, muscle recovery, and freak athleticism, he lacks in long term historical significance.
The most commonly heard complement to Phelps’ physical talents is that he’s about 20 years ahead of his time. But by that logic, it’s seems inevitable that someone else is going to come along with a shorter muscle recovery time, longer arms, and giant flippery feet.
You see, while hard work and athleticism are the virtues desired in an Olympian, these attributes are the easiest to eclipse. After a short time, memories begin to filter out the numbers, but leave behind the stories, those moments that manage to break through the glass cage in which these athletes perform, and force the viewer to address real issues. It’s why people remember not Jessie Owens’ racing times, but how he showed up Adolf Hitler in front of his all-Aryan superteam. And it’s why photos of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists to the sky in Mexico City in 1968 resonate, while photos of Valeri Borzov, the 1972 200m gold medalist, fails to maintain a ring.
When people look back twenty or thirty years on his Olympic performance, they will clearly see Phelps standing on the top of the medal podium eight separate times. But after downloading the “Best of Michael Phelps: 2004-2012” onto their futurePods, viewer will casually file it away ahead of Mark Spitz, and behind the next great swimmer. Meanwhile, online sales of Jessie Owens, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and the 1992 Dream Team videos will continue to hang around the top 5.
Meanwhile, where is Michael Phelps’ statement? The man is articulate, and he attends an accredited university. The world is at his feet, or at least on its knees in front of him. You’re telling me he doesn’t have anything insightful to say about anything? The 14 gold medals around his neck would buoy him from any statement short of calling for the destruction of the Chinese government or advocating children being beaten in the streets. He’s bound to make more in corporate sponsorships by keeping his mouth shut, but it’s not like the guy will have to work a real job at any point in his life. Even at his worst, he can pull a Mark Spitz, and milk his gold medals for decades before the well runs dry. But turning down a chance to make a meaningful statement when he has a captive audience in front of him? That’s only going to hinder his greatness. Because greatness requires the courage to do and say the right things regardless of the present-day consequences.
Instead, Michael Phelps is leaving Beijing early in a private jet, content to land gently into an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with hundred-dollar bills and Wheaties boxes with his face on them. It’s a fate enviable by most people, but not by the truly greatest of Olympians.