In quick succession, I've been asked to lend my presumed wisdom to the following ascending questions:
2) Is Phelps the greatest Olympian ever? And:
3) Is Phelps the greatest athlete of all time?
Sports being both competitive and argumentative, this stuff is indigenous to the subject. Who's better? Whatdya think? I'd say ESPN has made an art form out of it, but I don't want to insult art. Somehow, I don't think, say, down at the Explorer's Club, they debate regularly about who's the better explorer:
But the questions are impossible. First, how do you even begin to rate any team athlete against an individual sport athlete? What is the basis of comparison between a shortstop and a golfer? It's hard enough judging two shortstops. None of this nonsense takes place anywhere else.
Excuse me, we're taking a poll. Who do you think is the greatest talent:
The issue of preeminence in sport is heightened because of almost all the institutions in the world, it's about the only one where it is accepted that the principals get better all the time. In sports it's an article of faith that somebody paints a better Sistine Chapel ceiling about every other weekend. Remember when, oh, about five minutes ago,
And, of course, in sports where performance is measured by the clock, we can see that, intrinsically, humans are getting faster. Jamaica's Usain Bolt drove that point home by winning the 100 and 200 in world-record time. With his times from 1936,
In sport, we bow down to the numbers and worship the immediate. But that's unfairly out of context. You don't measure Owens against runners 70 years later who have improved equipment, training, diet. You measure how he did at that time he was given to compete. It's like saying
I've never forgotten how a good friend of mine who is a good friend of
But I think you can say this, that what Phelps did last week may well constitute the single most sustained success any athlete ever achieved in an intense period. He's been compared to Secretariat, but that's really not apt. Because Phelps swam 17 races, he was often going up against much fresher competitors. More than Secretariat, who won at equal weights, Phelps was like a horse being handicapped, weighted down with 135 pounds on his back while everybody else swam with 120.
But I'm sorry, I'm a chicken and a spoil sport. I have no idea where he ranks in the pantheon of athletic greatness. I just know that by what he did, with as much grace and courage, day after day, Michael Phelps made the human spirit ascend, and that's as good as it gets, whenever, wherever.