LONDON — It really doesn’t matter if you agree that Michael Phelps is what the inscription says on the special award he received Saturday from FINA, swimming’s world governing body, after the final race of his career:
“To Michael Phelps, The Greatest Olympic Athlete of All Time, from FINA.”
Someone will always overanalyze it, try to justify a different argument. Someone will look at 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold — twice as many gold medals as any other Olympian, ever — and say, “Yeah, but what about ... [fill in the blank]?”
What about Jesse Owens, who defied Adolf Hitler to his face, won four gold medals and shot holes in the Nazis’ “master race” claptrap at the Berlin Olympics in 1936? Or British rower Steve Redgrave, or Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi or sprinter/long jumper Carl Lewis?
Someone will point to Phelps’s lack of perfect focus and dedication in the years between his superhuman performance in Beijing and his “anticlimactic” London Games, when he was so clearly lazy, out of shape and under-motivated that the best this shell of a champion could manage — poor guy — was six medals, four of them gold.
How could he let himself be embarrassed like that? Has he no pride?
Somewhere in the middle of this Olympic meet, he passed Soviet gymnast Lárisa Latynina as the most decorated athlete in the history of the Games — meaning 116 years — and even on that night, the skeptics were still building their cases.
At least not many of them were arguing that Latynina should be in the conversation, because even Phelps’s harshest critics had to admit that his medals were from races to the finish, not jurors’ opinions.
He didn’t get anything extra for artistry from the American judge. He got what he got for being faster than anybody from here to there.
Does Phelps care about the FINA inscription? Sure.
Does he care if you agree? Not very much.
“I’ve been able to do everything that I wanted,” Phelps said Saturday, after the U.S. men’s 4x100-metre medley relay team won the race it always wins to close out the London meet.
He had said that in Athens he wanted to make history, and that in London he merely wanted to put more toppings on his sundae. Those were some toppings. Six medals, four of them gold; if he had never swum in another Olympics, his London performance alone would have put him in any other country’s Olympic Hall of Fame.
He’s not the colossus he was four years ago. At 27, he’s only a little bit better than anyone else in the world. Next time, he wouldn’t be that.
“It’s time to move on,” he said. “There are other things I want to do with my life. I’m not sure staring at a black line [on the bottom of the pool] for four hours a day is one of those.
“To be able to sit here and say I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do in swimming is pretty special. That’s the only thing I wanted to say when I retired. I wouldn’t change anything, I didn’t miss anything, I’ve had the opportunity to do things that nobody else has ever done before. I’m pretty happy with that.”
The questions came, of course, about why he couldn’t keep going, why he wouldn’t try to add even more to a record that might stand for a very long time.
“I told myself I never want to swim when I’m 30,” Phelps said. “No offence to those people who are 30, but that was something I always said to myself, and that would be in three years. I just don’t want to swim for those three years.
“I want to travel a bunch. I’ve been to a lot of really fabulous places in the world but I never got to see them. I got to see hotels and pools.”
The way it came down Saturday night was anticlimactic.
It was a race the United States men’s team had never lost in Olympic history, and Phelps wasn’t even swimming the anchor leg, but the third 100 metres of the medley relay: his specialty, the butterfly.
So he didn’t get to bring it home, as Hollywood surely would have scripted it, but rather was standing with teammates Matt Grevers and Brendan Hansen urging on the anchorman, freestyler Nathan Adrian, who touched the wall miles — well, nearly two seconds — ahead of his nearest pursuer.
Phelps had given him the lead, pulling the Americans from second place to first by swimming the fastest butterfly leg, devouring the water with that familiar, long-armed, powerful stroke.
The other swimmers came over then, after the race, the fastest men from seven other nations, to shake his hand, recognizing the significance of the moment. And there was an embrace from his coach of 16 years, Bob Bowman, and a medals ceremony, and doping control, and a couple of news conferences, by which time it was almost midnight.
“I’d like to thank Bob, as he’s had to put up with a lot of crap over the years,” said Phelps. “Bob and I have somehow managed to do every single thing. If you can say that about your career, there’s no need to keep going. Time for other things.”
He’s earned them. He deserves something a lot closer to a normal life than an Olympian gets to live. He deserves to be cut some slack, deserves the chance to be the kid he was never allowed to be while in single-minded pursuit of history.
“We’ve had a great end to a great run and there’s not much more he can do,” said Bowman, who envied Phelps the ability to hide his tears behind goggles when it was all over.
“I guess if he finds after a few years he’s searching for something and thinks he can find it in swimming, he could look at [coming back]. But I don’t think he will. I think he’s ready to explore other things. He’s done all he can do here.”
And yes, he’s done enough to be, beyond all but the most specious of arguments, the greatest Olympic athlete of all time.
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