Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

SPORTS>>Where does Michael Phelps go from here?

Leader sports editor

When Milorad Cavic remarked — fairly innocently, I think — that the sport of swimming might be better served if he, and not Michael Phelps, won the 100-meter butterfly at the Olympics last Friday, I believe I know what he meant.

He meant that it might make Phelps seem suddenly human and his previous feats last week all the more amazing.

Because, let’s face it, when an athlete begins to dominate a sport so thoroughly that his name becomes synonymous with the sport itself, the blasé factor is bound to enter in.

Look at Tiger Woods. He wins a major in standard fashion and it’s just one more step along the way toward his inevitable goal of surpassing Jack Nicklaus in the majors win column. Ho-hum.

Yes, the feat itself, once Woods accomplishes it, will be a thing of great celebration and marvel. But unless there is some special circumstance, some piece of drama attached to the spectacle of another Tiger major — as there was when he hobbled to the U.S. Open championship in June — it will probably occasion only a knowing shake of the head among fans who’ve come to expect it.

That sense of inevitability detracts from the greatness of the feat, especially for us laymen who don’t quite understand just what it takes to reach such Olympian heights. Believe it or not, with a little luck, Tiger might already have surpassed Nicklaus’ record 18 majors. He has finished second five times. That, to me, heightens his achievements, reminding us just how difficult it is to win.

At the Olympics, Phelps’ narrow and dramatic — and, when you see the final five meters of the race, seemingly impossible — win over Cavic in the butterfly re-emphasized Phelps’ amazingness. The word awesome has been overused — to describe milk shakes, new bands and American Idol contestants — to the point of oblivion, but Phelps has helped put meaning back into the word.

Without that stunning rally — if, say, Phelps had won going away and demolished another world record in the process — it would have been just one more gold medal among the other seven.

I wondered, as I watched Bob Costas interview Phelps on Sunday night, if there isn’t some sort of inevitable letdown for an athlete like Phelps. I wondered if the guy who surprises himself and everyone else and sneaks in to win an unexpected bronze doesn’t derive more enjoyment and satisfaction than Phelps does from all eight of his gold medals.

American gymnast Sasha Artemev, for instance, wasn’t even supposed to be on the team. But when both Hamm brothers pulled out with injuries, he got his chance and helped deliver the U.S. team to a surprise bronze medal. Will he savor that more than Phelps will his 14 lifetime golds? Do 14 combined gold medals make each individual one a little less special?

And where does Phelps go from here? Only 23 years old, his greatest accomplishment more than likely already behind him, what’s next? The 2012 Olympics? He says he’s going. He’ll be 27 and he would likely have dual motivations: to add to his record 14 golds and post a number in the same league as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak (The Untouchable League) and to dominate at an older age when his accomplishments will not be blurred by that aura of inevitability.

Dara Torres, who turned in such an inspiring performance at age 41, may have put a blemish on any golds Phelps might win at the relatively young age of 27 in 2012.

I suppose it’s presumptuous to try to imagine Phelps’ motivation from this point forward. But after years of training for a goal, there has to be a letdown after realizing its fruition over seven brief, if glorious, days.

Other Olympic Observations:

Is it possible the IOC can put a moratorium on technological advances, especially in swimming? Between a swimming venue that provides the ultimate advantage to the athletes —greater depth and greater wake absorption — to those new sleek bodysuits, records are not only being beaten, but blitzed.

This also encourages the aforementioned blasé factor as people begin to wonder how much of what we’re witnessing is attributable to great athleticism and how much to great engineering.

What are we headed for? Jet skis in 2012? Water-free pools in 2016?

I’ve never been a big Olympics fan and part of the reason is the sheer number of events. I’m the kind of guy who, given too many choices, opts out completely.

I’ve probably watched more Olympics this year than ever before, but some of the events just leave me scratching my head.

Archery? Sabre? Take a game like badminton. What do badminton players do the rest of the quadrennium when the Olympics are not being staged? Is there a national or international badminton league? Are these just casual players who stage Olympic trials during backyard barbeques? Might I be on the 2012 team?

More and more, certain sports seem to be randomly dreamed up by someone sitting around the office with nothing to do.

Synchronized diving comes to mind. I’ve got it. Why not synchronized discus for the 2012 games? Or beach archery?