Michael Phelps's record-setting haul of gold medals at the Beijing Olympics -- eight last week and now 14 for his Olympic career -- is enough to make the most casual sports fan pause. But the quantity -- that new magic number of 14 -- is overrated. Considering the number of events, strokes, and relays, an Olympic swimmer has more chances at earning a medal than any other athlete in the world. A wrestler or decathlete would have to remain active for more than half a century(!) merely to get the opportunity for 14 Olympic gold medals.
But here's what I'll take with me having watched the greatest swimmer in history in his sport's brightest hour: the two golds Phelps earned in less than an hour on August 13th (Tuesday night, the 12th, here in Memphis). Less than 60 minutes after Phelps set yet another world record in the 200-meter butterfly, he dove in the water to lead off his American team in the 800-meter freestyle relay. And after another four laps of the 50-meter pool, Phelps had a larger lead than he did at the end of his first race of the evening. (That relay took on an air of silliness at the end, as American swimmers were swimming the opposite direction of their seven followers at the turns.)
Swimming is taxing, folks. An exhausting symphony of leg and arm activity, all the while measuring one's breath so as not to, well, drown. Michael Phelps blowing away two fields of Olympic swimmers in less time than it takes to play a half of American football will be the Herculean achievement of the 2008 Olympics.
Wondering about the greatest career achievement in Olympics history? It's Carl Lewis winning gold in the long jump over four consecutive Olympiads. In an event that thrives on young, fast-twitch muscles, Lewis was champion for the first time at age 23 in 1984, and won his last gold medal at Atlanta in 1996 . . . at the relatively ancient age of 35.
Call me jaded, but I simply couldn't get worked up over the age controversy surrounding the gold-medal-winning Chinese women's gymnastics team. And here's why: we live in an age where mass and strength seem to get in the way of clarity and decency when it comes to athletic training. The Steroid Era has been entirely about getting larger, stronger, faster. Along comes the Chinese gymnastics team and they're too small to possibly qualify as Olympians? No 75-pound 16-year-old that you know? If you have a problem with the athletic schools that whisk away Chinese children as part of the country's Olympic factory, that's a fair stance. (But be careful. Check out some of the gymnastics or tennis academies here stateside.) But if a 13-year-old Chinese girl can outperform an 18-year-old American on the balance beam, it seems to me we should acknowledge greatness when we see it.
Beyond Phelps's all-too-brief trips through the Water Cube's pool, my favorite glimpses from Beijing have come on MSNBC, CNBC, and Oxygen, where "lesser" sports have been given some airtime. Water polo has to be the most brutal human endeavor involving a ball and goal. The intensity on the faces of Olympic wrestlers is much closer to agony than what you'll see on a gymnast in full flight. I even enjoyed the half-hour of badminton I watched. To see a pair of athletes take such a game so seriously is to witness the Olympic ideal . . . with a shuttlecock.
On the subject of Phelps, the Memphis Redbirds' Josh (29 home runs and 93 RBIs through Sunday) has enjoyed one of the finest seasons in the franchise's 11-year history. Local baseball fans owe it to themselves to visit AutoZone park next week, when the Iowa Cubs come to town (August 25-28). With Memphis clinging to the possibility of catching Iowa for a division championship, those four games will be the most meaningful played at Third and Union in eight years. With St. Louis falling further and further behind the big-league Cubs, Cardinal Nation -- Memphis region -- should mobilize in this effort to establish rightful order.