There is no debate to the debate: Phelps is the best

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Published on August 18, 2008

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Beijing - The naysayers argue that Michael Phelps's eight gold medals and seven world records in one stupendous Beijing Olympic swim meet do not make him the greatest Olympian in history.
It's all breathless, NBC-fuelled American hype, they say. We have swallowed it whole.
So he swam all the strokes, won all his races, all in personal best times. So he's got 14 gold medals now, from two Olympics, five more than the next-most decorated gold medallists of all time, whom he passed early this past week: Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis, Larysa Latynina and Mark Spitz.
So what?
Here's what, says Pierre Lafontaine:
"There are 1,101 swimmers here, and if anyone missed (watching Phelps) today, they need to retire," said Swimming Canada's chief executive officer, after the 23-year-old swimming savant from Baltimore lifted his 4x100-metre medley relay teammates to a world-record, and secured his unprecedented eighth gold, to close the meet on a spectacular note.
"Canada has won five (swimming) gold medals in the last hundred years. And that's what we're talking about.
"These eight gold medals are worth way more - this meet format made it so much harder to do what he did."
Australia's Leisel Jones, who broke her own world record in winning the women's 100-metre breaststroke and won silver at 200 metres - the sort of things one would normally keep close to the heart to be remembered forever - unhesitatingly said the highlight of her Olympic Games was getting to watch Phelps swim.
Let me add an "Amen" to that.
Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt's 100 metres Saturday at the Bird's Nest Stadium might be as great a single athletic feat as I've ever seen live, but Phelps piled them one upon another upon another these past nine days, consistently leaving eyewitnesses shaking their heads in wonderment at his spirit and virtuosity and refusal to lose.
He is one special kid - special enough that baseball fans watched his race at Yankee Stadium, and a sellout crowd at Ravens Stadium in Baltimore remained after an NFL game to see him swim.
All evidence, he says, that perhaps his performance at these Olympics will have moved the needle just a bit among American fans and "swimming won't be just an every-four-years sport."
That is his mission, he thinks, and he is so far from being done, you wonder just how big his gold medal collection might be by the time the 2012 Olympic Games in London are done.
"I'm in it for the long haul," Phelps said Sunday.
"I am so grateful for everything I have. For my talent, for my competitive drive, for my want . . . I saw my mom for just a minute out there and she was crying, I was crying, my sister was crying. Just thinking back to all the things that have happened along the way.
"My English teacher, I think it was in middle school, saying, 'You'll never be successful.' "

He may never be successful at English, the $1 million bonus he received from his swimsuit company, Speedo, for equalling Spitz's seven gold medals of the 1972 Munich Olympics argues that there is more than one way to succeed.
"I've written down a lot of goals, and this is the biggest one I ever wrote down," Phelps said. "And I've achieved it, everything I set out to do. These guys (on the relay team) made it possible. The whole thing, every race, from winning by one-hundredth of a second (Saturday) to finishing it off with a world record. It's an amazing experience and something I'll have forever."
Phelps is The Man of these Games, but he was both stunningly good and more than a little lucky in his nine-day rampage of record swims and razor-thin margins.
His quest would have been over almost before it started if teammate Jason Lezak hadn't swum the fastest 100 split in history - 1.18 seconds under the existing world record time for the distance - to reel in Frenchman Alain Bernard over the final 50 metres of their 4x100-metre freestyle relay victory.
That was the second of Phelps's wins.
The fourth was the 200-metre butterfly, and he swam the last 100 metres more by feel than sight after his goggles sprang a leak - and he still set a world record.
And then Saturday, an error in judgment in the 100-metre butterfly - he mis-timed his finish and had to end with a short-armed half stroke - turned out to be his salvation in a photo finish with Serbian Milorad Cavic that came down to the thousandth of a second. It was the one event, among his eight victories, that was not done in world record time.
"I went from hitting my head on the wall to winning by one one-hundredth of a second to doing my best time in every event. It's been nothing but an upwards roller-coaster. It's been nothing but fun," he said.
And there was no cavilling at Sunday's triumph, when Japan's double gold medal-winning breaststroker Kosuke Kitajima destroyed American Brendan Hansen in the second leg to wipe out the lead that backstroker Aaron Peirsol had given the United States.
That left Phelps to bring them back from a half-second behind, in third place, to a half-second ahead and first.
At that point, said Lezak, "to be honest, I was just thinking: don't blow the lead. I was really nervous going into this race because I knew that anything can happen.
"I didn't go into the other relay expecting to be able to catch Bernard, and I knew that Eamon (Australia's world 100 metres record holder Sullivan) was definitely capable of doing the same to me."
It also would have been floating through everyone's mind that a year ago at the world championships in Melbourne, Phelps had seven golds in his pocket when the world record holder in the butterfly, Ian Crocker, left the blocks a split-second too early in the heats of the medley relay, and the Americans were disqualified.
Crocker was not on this relay team, and Phelps's 50.15-second butterfly leg was a quarter of a second under Crocker's record time.
That was the exclamation point.
When FINA, the sport's world governing body, presented him with a special award at the close of the meet, recognizing him as the greatest swimmer ever to dive into a pool, it was no less than he deserved.
"Will we ever see a thing like Michael again?" said Peirsol, laughing at his use of the word thing. "I mean, 36 years ago, there was Mark Spitz. And we've heard a lot of things called 'Spitzian' accomplishments. Now, they'll be calling them 'Phelpsian.' "

Vancouver Sun

Organizations: Olympic Games, Swimming Canada, NFL Speedo The Man

Geographic location: Beijing, Baltimore, Australia Canada Nest Stadium Yankee Stadium Ravens Stadium London Japan United States Melbourne Vancouver

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