Let us go back an Olympiad, to August of 2008. In all four of the world's most popular men's individual sports, we were at a point when, quite possibly, the four greatest champions ever in each of these sports was at or near his peak.
Here's where they stood as the Beijing Olympics began:
? Tiger Woods, 32 years old, still a prime age for a golfer, winner of his fourteenth major, the U.S. Open, only a few weeks ago, gloriously alone at the top.
? Roger Federer, about to turn 27 (getting a bit old for a tennis player), but about to win the U.S. Open for his thirteenth Grand Slam, one short of Pete Sampras' record.
? Michael Phelps, age 23 (peak for a swimmer), preparing to break Mark Spitz' record with an unbelievable eight gold medals -- thereby giving his whole sport more attention than it'd ever had.
? Usain Bolt, just turning 22, entering his prime, six-foot-five, a new model giant of a sprinter, obliterating world records in both the 100 and 200 meters at the Olympics.
They represent a quartet of utter, all-time greatness -- all on display during the same time period -- but who would have guessed where they would be today? And the answer is: nobody would have even come close. Surely, the betting was that Woods would have won at least five more majors and passed Jack Nicklaus' record. But Federer? Rafael Nadal was ascendant. By 2012 Federer might be, oh, a good quarterfinalist, or maybe even retired. Phelps? He'd done the incredible, and swimming is too grueling; he'd probably be gone from the sport. But surely Bolt would be at his peak, faster still, unbeatable. He was the best bet.
And yet what has happened? The Woods saga we know all too well -- he hasn't won a major since. But Federer, an old man of 31 next week, has won four, is Wimbledon champ and No. 1 in the world once more. And Bolt? The 21st century body supreme, surely getting faster -- he was going to make 2012 his plaything of majesty. Instead, Bolt comes to London not only beaten by a Jamaican countryman, Yohan Blake, but by a man who has the sub-six-feet throwback size of Jesse Owens from that ancient age.
All right, next week Bolt will have the chance to set the history we were so sure about aright again.
And Phelps... after an embarrassing, disastrous start to these Olympics, coming in fourth (an 'also-ran' place) in the 400m IM, was also shockingly upset yesterday in the 200m butterfly. Oh, he'll win more medals total than any Olympian in history, but for now, it appears he'll go out a loser. Except...
Tomorrow, he'll get another chance at Ryan Lochte, the cover boy who was supposed to supplant Phelps as the world's best -- and could he somehow find redemption then, in the 200m individual medley? Lochte has been faltering since he first whipped his nemesis, and remember -- nothing happens the way we think it should. Can Phelps, in effect, pull a Federer?
If he does, no matter how sumptuous a meal it was for him and his sport in 2008, it might not taste so good as the dessert of sweet revenge.