If some are born great, some achieve greatness, while some have greatness thrust upon them, then all three possibilities find an ideal synthesis in Michael Phelps. After winning an unprecedented eight golds in Beijing, Mr Phelps has not only been hailed (back home in the United States of America) as the greatest swimmer of all times, but also as the greatest Olympian ever. The former claim might still be accepted with a pinch of salt, but the latter sounds outrageously hyperbolic. What Mr Phelps has achieved is no doubt phenomenal. His compatriot, Mark Spitz, whose record for the most number of golds at a single Olympics he has broken, has generously praised this feat. Between the 1972 Games in Munich and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, competition has been elevated to surreal levels. Mr Spitz, then 22 years old, bagged his seventh gold medal quite comfortably, beating his countryman, Jerry Heidenreich, by a good 0.43 seconds. Mr Phelps, on the other hand, beat the Serbian, Milod Cavic, by a hair’s breadth of 0.01 seconds in the 100m butterfly, while the American 4x100m freestyle relay team scraped past France by just 0.08 seconds.
It is not just his physical dexterity that has bestowed this mythical greatness on Mr Phelps. In 2000, as a gangly young man of 15, he joined the US Olympic team in Sydney. This Wunderkind then went on to win six golds in Athens 2004, following it up with a spectacular performance in the 2007 world championships. Great things were expected of him, but perhaps not such a magical spell. Suddenly his income has touched the sky, while doting mentions of his gargantuan diet and perfectly-sculpted physique make him appear nothing short of a new comic-book superhero. But calling Mr Phelps the “greatest Olympian” sounds irresponsible and facetious. Such ‘greatness’ does greater dishonour to legends like Carl Lewis (the gold-winning sprinter who also excelled in long jump), George Eyser (the gymnast with a wooden foot, who won six medals), or Jesse Owens (who fought racism to win four golds in 1936).