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SPORTS: Let the 'greatest athlete ever' debate begin

August 25, 2008

Back from vacation with thoughts of this, that and the other:

Even as my bride and I traveled through the magnificent scenery of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, our nightly ritual was the same as that of millions of other Americans: making sure we were in front of the television to watch the Olympics.

And yes, especially, Michael Phelps.

Some have rushed to proclaim him the greatest Olympian of all time and, certainly, the argument can be made if you look no further than the 14 gold medals he now owns.

But the "greatest" tag encompasses a lot of territory and fails to recognize that swimming lends itself to significant individual medal hauls.

One might ask, is Phelps' achievement more extraordinary, for example, than the decathlete who must prove himself over 10 widely divergent track and field events, yet earns only one medal for his effort?

Phelps also won three relay golds. If relay teammate Jason Lezak doesn't come from behind to touch out his French rival in the 400-meter freestyle relay, are we even having this conversation?

Others have taken it a step further, asserting that Phelps is the greatest athlete of all time.

Of that, I'm even less sure. Did the effort he expended over 17 swims in eight days compare with the grueling Tour de France? Is Phelps more dominant in swimming than, say, Tiger Woods is in golf? Or Michael Jordan, in his prime, in basketball?

This is not meant to diminish Phelps' achievement, only to place it into some kind of context. I was as captivated by his performances as anyone, and I came out of my chair when he out-touched Serbia's Milorad Cavic by one-hundredth of a second to win the 100-meter butterfly.

What incredible, breathtaking theater.

As impressive as Phelps' performance, however, is his reaction to it, which is cloaked in humility. I've had the pleasure of meeting the young man, and it's no act. Same for his mother, Debbie. There has been some tremendous parenting at work there, more so in the early stages of Phelps' life when he suffered from ADHD and was often bullied and belittled.

I'm also pleased for the sport of swimming which, because of a daughter's involvement, was so much a part of our lives for nearly 12 years. There are no shortcuts to success in swimming. Even a "natural" such as Phelps has to augment his God-given ability with a dedication that rivals any discipline in the realm of sports.

I've been gratified to hear that Phelps' success is inspiring youngsters from coast to coast to join swim programs. In a nation where childhood obesity is bordering on epidemic at the same time investments in aquatics facilities are considered foolish frills, it's good to be reminded that we need to nourish not only the mind, but also the body and spirit of our youth.

Moving on.

If that Chinese gymnast is 16 years old, I'm 90.

The Jamaican sprinter, Usain "Lightning" Bolt, is a freak. With that speed and size (6 feet 5 inches), can you imagine his potential as an NFL wide receiver?

Somebody tell me, when did trampoline become an Olympic sport?

Back to Phelps for a moment: The Denver Post hit a journalistic low in its Aug. 16 edition when it ran a series of photos alleging that Phelps was "cupping" his left breast instead of placing his hand over his heart during the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner." The anonymous author of the Post story said Phelps made him or her "feel uncomfortable." Ridiculous.

In last week's column, I wrote about my regret in not being able to join those seeing Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time, since I'd been a part of monthly media tours. I was wrong. Venturing into the stadium Aug. 17 with other season-ticket holders, I was blown away yet again by this spectacular facility.

Amazingly, some are upset that their seats are farther from the playing field than in the RCA Dome. Uh, hello. Lucas Oil Stadium has more seats, wider seats and more leg room between the rows. It's a bigger building-a much bigger building-than our beloved yet cramped Dome.

Great call by the Indiana Pacers to schedule a preseason game in the Pepsi Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Will George McGinnis, Mel Daniels, Bob Netolicky and Darnell Hillman suit up?

It's also nice to read that my former WNDE colleague John Michael Vincent-otherwise known as JMV-is kicking tail in the afternoon sports-talk radio arena. Talent beats money.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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