LONDON -- The view from Mount Olympus is not quite as awe-inspiring from the second step. The grand sweep of more than a century of history is less apparent from a lower height.
Michael Phelps, so used to looking up, was looking down at the Aquatics Centre pool deck, waiting for an Olympic medal to be hung around his neck for the 18th time, as many times as any athlete since the world started keeping score 116 years ago. Phelps has posed for the camera often enough during the past eight years that he really should have been more practiced at faking a smile, but the show of teeth looked forced, almost painful. He did not look happy as he pasted on a grin. He looked constipated.
That is the problem with a silver medal if you live in the rareified world.
If you look at silver in the wrong light, it might appear gray.
The business of history is messy, just like life, and in the perfect world of the greatest Olympian -- and brook no dissent on the issue, Phelps is precisely that -- he would have tied Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina with a shiny gold in the 200-meter butterfly, becoming the first man ever to win the same individual event in three straight Olympics. But he seemed caught between strokes, just as he was when he won the 100 fly at the wall in Beijing, and was out-touched by a lachrymose South African named Chad le Clos -- he later called his finish "lazy." Phelps wheeled to look at the scoreboard, saw he had lost gold by five hundredths of a second, whipped off his cap and threw it in the water in frustration. He was considerably more gracious minutes later during the medal ceremony. Le Clos, who wept on the podium as he heard his national anthem, clearly was a neophyte at this gold-medal business -- not surprising considering Phelps set the world record in the 200 fly in March 2001 and still has it -- and Phelps needed to remind him to hold the medal closer to his face while motor drives whirred.
Then Phelps laughed, transformed into a prematurely avuncular 27-year-old who has been there and done that.
Phelps stood alone later Tuesday, or more correctly he stood with teammates Ryan Lochte and Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens, as he won his record-setting 19th medal, in the 4x200 relay. This was history as afterthought, a foregone conclusion -- as if, say, Ted Williams had crashed the .400 plateau with an infield single. In the huddle before the race, Phelps thanked his teammates for helping to nudge him to the brink and joked that they better hand him a substantial lead. They did, and only fractions leaked away in Lane 4 as Phelps powered to the wall, smiling throughout the last 20 meters.
He did not sing the national anthem, not at a loss for the words but too emotional to warble. The moment was too fresh for perspective for a swimmer who is capable of introspection but does not always lend voice to it. Le Clos, inspired by Phelps' six gold medals in Athens, ladled praise on his idol, saying it was an honor to swim in the lane next to him. Le Clos was so effusive, you would have thought that the Aquatics Centre had imported its water from across the Channel in Lourdes. Phelps being Phelps, he rarely delved deeper than calling everything cool.
He is not his own best advocate on the subject of who is the greatest Olympian. There actually is an argument to be made that Phelps is not. In our contentious times, there is always a case to be made. The argument is one of honorable pedants and poets who are overthinking the issue. In parsing Phelps' fabulous Olympic career, they keep smacking into trees and ignoring the forest. The heft of numbers occasionally does not need footnotes. They eloquently state their own case. Phelps has won 19 medals, a record 15 of them gold, including this swim in the 4x200 free relay. Game, set and -- pretty much -- match. There is no "yes, but," capable of sustaining prolonged debate.
The obvious: the Phelps of London is not the Phelps of Beijing. In his Olympics dotage, Phelps has become a compiler of medals rather than a fulcrum of the Games, someone who is caught in the final 25 meters in one of his lock events and who, even in half jest, asks for a comfy cushion heading into the anchor leg. This, of course, is all wildly beside the point. In padding his total -- a silver medal in the 4x100 free on Sunday and the two medals on Tuesday -- he continues to heap on "toppings on the sundae" as he calls them. Phelps started his swim into posterity when he finished fifth in the 200 butterfly in Sydney as a 15-year-old. He will end competitive swimming in London a dozen years later with perhaps six more medals.
A tawdry silver medal?
Please, nothing short of drowning diminishes his legacy.
Sport transcends the gray smudges of life precisely because it is measurable. Black or white. Sometimes gold or silver. And among this subset of human experience, Phelps' handiwork is among the most tangible of achievements because it is beyond dispute. There are head-to-head races and timing devices, not opinions, in Olympic pools. Unlike Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, whom Phelps leapfrogged to the summit and who sat in the Aquatics Centre as an eyewitness to greatness, no judge ever flashed a "9.6" for Phelps. Pixie dust coats some of those gold medals, including Jason Lezak's Superman anchor-leg swim in the 4x100 freestyle relay in Beijing, but nine of Phelps' gold medals -- the same number of golds won by Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi in track and field -- came without an entourage.
The caviling about Phelps and his place in the Olympic pantheon generally revolves around swimming itself. True, swimming is not as global as track and field. (Neither Africa nor South America are major players in the pool, despite the revival South Africa is having in London.) And Lewis, a sprinter and long jumper, had to do more than one discipline to win his nine, one of which came not on the track but in the doping control room after Ben Johnson was disqualified in the 100 in Seoul. But Phelps won gold medals in butterfly, freestyle and the individual medley, an event in which he swims all the strokes. Phelps benefited by having a smorgasbord of medal possibilities, but the wrongheaded focus is on his opportunities rather than on what Phelps was able to do with them. He had raced in 21 Olympic finals through Tuesday; he had finished out of the medals in just two. Given the competitive jumble in the London pool, the eight-for-eight in '08 looms even larger than it did when Phelps was mesmerizing the world in real time. When the 23-year-old Phelps strode into the Water Cube at the confluence of his physical, emotional and mental peaks, he wrapped the Olympics around his ring finger. Now he glides along, caught by the tides of time and occasionally a butterflyer who averred he has watched all of Phelps' races a million times.
The other arguments against Phelps are mostly semantic. Greatest Olympian? Define great. Maybe that list starts with Norwegian speedskater Johann Olav Koss, who won four gold medals and one silver and established the Right to Play foundation, or Canadian cyclist and speedskater Clara Hughes, the only Olympian to win multiple medals in Winter and Summer Games and a dedicated humanitarian. Then there is Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field in Berlin 1936 and reduced the master-race theory to a steaming pile of manure right under Hitler's nose.
There is no moral relativism. None. There can be no comparison between the circumstances Owens faced in 1936 and anything in sports.
But no Olympian, including Usain Bolt, has been a slide under the global microscope as long as Phelps. For three quadrennials, Phelps has faced withering scrutiny as the diffident star of the reality TV show that NBC airs, sometimes on tape delay, for two weeks every four years. Phelps competes in the age of Instagrams and instant communications. All that twitters is not gold in a non-filtered 140-character universe, but Phelps has stood up rather well to the rheumy eye of the world's glare.
Phelps could have spent the past four years doing nothing but taking an extended victory lap, which, in a sense, he did. He disengaged. He wavered from his Spartan training regimen. In his post race news conference Tuesday, he said he had done the work -- and sometimes he had not. Phelps was not always prepared for the metronomic workload required to fend off competitors like Lochte, still perceived as the up-and-comer although he is 11 months older than Phelps.
Before London one of Phelps' teammates, Tyler Clary, suggested to the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise that Phelps was the swimming equivalent of a kid behind the counter in a Kevin Smith movie. Clary was served en brochette for calling Phelps essentially a slacker, something Phelps has been willing to say about himself albeit in more polite terms. Clary was not wildly wrong about Phelps. Just myopic. He, too, had failed to notice the big picture. This was Michael Phelps, grandest of Olympians. Jordan Rules in the NBA. Michael Rules in the pool. If Phelps had been good enough to make Team USA by playing Marco Polo at the Y pool ... well, he had earned it.
Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, bristled during a pre-Games press conference at Clary-inspired questions about Phelps' work ethic. Then when Phelps finished fourth in the 400 IM in his first swim, the first time he had missed the Olympic podium in 12 years, Bowman retraced his steps. When asked if Phelps' defeat was a fitness issue, he replied, "It's a fitness issue over what he hasn't done over the last four years. He didn't get by on talent this time, did he?"
Phelps had announced his retirement from the 400 IM after Beijing, but he found his way back because he is so damn good at the event -- even if he approaches it with the circumspection of a 10-year-old eyeing a plate of brussels sprouts. Phelps eked into the final, which left him out in Lane 8 -- the equivalent of seeing George Clooney in a middle seat, coach. A vexed Phelps later said he had a "crappy" race, an explanation that hardly mollified those who heard his 103-second interview in the mixed zone. Media overreaction was predictable. In a little more than the time its takes an Olympian to swim eight lengths of the pool, Phelps had gone from a towering sportsman who needs an agent and a publicist to a guy who needs water wings and a lifeguard. He was Johnny U with the Chargers or Joe Willie with the Rams. He was Shoeless Joe Hardy, the devil's bargain turning old before the eyes of the world.
The man who had taken too many days off since swimming in Beijing probably just had an off day. Lochte predicted Phelps would rally in the next event, the relay, which, of course, he did. Phelps swam the fastest split among the Americans, earning his first Olympic silver when Lochte was overtaken in the anchor swim. Phelps did not "redeem" himself that night. He did not "turn back the clock" because there is a best-before date imprinted on us all. He simply swam a superb second leg, one that was truly Olympian.
Phelps has three more events before London, and a career, ends. His medal count will swell into the 20s. Anyone who dissects his career and finds anything other than the pinnacle of Olympic achievement is trying too hard, even though Phelps one day might mildly regret that between Beijing and London he did not try hard enough.