Benner/Sports and Pacers and Opinion and Sports/Recreation and Sports Business

BENNER: Why Michael Phelps laps other great Olympic athletes

August 11, 2012

Thoughts on this, that and the other while watching the world’s athletes’ quadrennial quest at citius, altius, fortius come to a close:

Is Michael Phelps the greatest athlete ever? I don’t think anyone can make that call. Two many apples mixed among oranges.

But is he the greatest Olympian ever? How can there be any debate?

Twenty-two medals. Eighteen golds. Eight-for-eight in the Beijing Games.

 Yes, swimming, unlike most (but not all) other Olympic sports, lends itself to personal medal hauls. But for Phelps to dominate his sport in the manner he did over the prolonged span of three Olympiads is other-worldly.

Also in his favor: This is not a judgment sport like gymnastics or diving. There is a saying in swimming: “The clock never lies.”

In swimming, you get no breaks from a favorable call, a lucky bounce or the wind being at your back. At the elite level, there is virtually no chance of being disqualified for a false start or an illegal turn. Any advantage gained—middle lanes as opposed to outside lanes—is earned.

It’s just you, the water and seven opponents. First one to the touchpad wins.

Forgotten, too, is that in the individual events, you just don’t sign up for the final. The swimmer must advance through heats, semifinals and finals.

It’s three swims to one medal. And that’s grueling. Often in the Olympics, Phelps would swim a semifinal, then come back within a matter of minutes to swim a final. No one in track has to deal with a schedule like that. Overall, I believe he had something like 17 competitive swims in London.

With all respect to the great sprinter/long jumper Carl Lewis, who many argue surpasses Phelps as the greatest Olympian ever, advancing to the finals of the 100-meter dash or long jump does not require nearly the level of physical exertion required of a swimmer like Phelps, especially in an event like the 400-meter individual medley.

In any case, Phelps has established a record I can’t conceive of being broken. We have been witness to history.

In last week’s column, I wrote that the proposal to limit USA basketball participation in the Olympics and world championships to players age 23 and under would bring an end to American dominance. Then, for proof, our current team of USA stars in London—including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, et al.—was pushed to the wire by Lithuania, which actually led with less than six minutes remaining before losing by five.

I’m telling you, kids won’t be able to get it done in the man’s world of elite international hoops.

I found it interesting that track traditionalists were so alarmed by the presence of South Africa’s “Blade Runner,” Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee who competed on artificial limbs in the 400-meter dash. Pistorius failed to make the finals of his event but was a profile in courage who embodied the Olympic ideal. His presence should have been celebrated.

It’s not surprising that Indianapolis has recorded some of the highest television ratings for the Olympics. This speaks to our long-established culture of embracing sports, including those not in the mainstream. And you have to feel good for the Indianapolis-based national governing bodies of USA Gymnastics, USA Diving and USA Track and Field, whose athletes have had some stellar moments in London. Those folks toil in relative anonymity for 3-1/2 years, then are cast into the white-hot spotlight of the Olympics, where they are judged by the success—or lack thereof—of their athletes.

Now, for a couple of non-Olympic-related thoughts. The decision to retain Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert for the costly sum of $14 million a year was strictly basketball-related, but when you read that he will make a cross-country trip to visit a dying child, it illustrates that he is both the kind of player and the kind of person you want to see in a Pacers uniform.

Back in 1975, when I was the Pacers’ beat writer for the local daily, another player of that type joined the team. He was as big and rugged as he could be, but his demeanor was one of genuine good nature. He took basketball seriously, but not himself.

Last week in Aruba, that player, Danny Roundfield, drowned when he got caught in an undertow while trying to help his wife, Bernie, who was struggling in the surf but made it back to shore safely. Sincere condolences to Bernie and her two sons.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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