MANILA, Philippines - When the american swim team won the 4 x 100-meter medley yesterday morning, the Olympic swimmers set yet another world record. The most famous among them, however, made history. Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal in the Beijing Olympics, surpassing Mark Spitz?s 36-year-old record of seven set in Munich. That brought Phelps? total gold medal haul, from three Olympiads, to 14 (five more than the total of the next winningest Olympians in history).
The victory also brought Phelps? tally of world records set in Beijing to seven?an astonishing feat.
News of his eighth gold medal flashed swiftly around the world; it is no exaggeration to say that his extraordinarily dominant performance in the swimming meets was the principal sports narrative of the Beijing Olympics.
This is as it should be: attention in an athletic competition should be focused on the best athletes and the most superlative athletic performances. The Summer Games in Beijing (and other cities in China, which hosted other events such as football and the equestrian sports) have produced new sports heroes, including Usain ?Lightning? Bolt of Jamaica, who eclipsed the competition in the showcase 100-meter dash with a world-record 9.69 seconds. At these times, everything else (the host city?s less than perfect weather, the surprisingly empty audience halls, the altogether unnecessary fakery in the opening ceremonies) recedes in the background.
We recognize, of course, that athletes do not compete in an ideal world?and that the Olympics cannot be divorced from politics. The choice of Olympic host is itself already, inseparably, political; national pride is at stake. The format of competition in the Olympics?a race among nations, not commercial teams or athletic clubs?is also indissolubly political. (The current debate over which medal tally is best, the traditional one which ranks the countries according to gold medals won, or the aggregate alternative, which Yahoo! uses on its popular front page, has a political dimension to it. The first favors China; the second privileges the United States.)
And while the international community has learned to accept the futility and unfairness of Olympic boycotts, many countries still see the host city?s opening and closing ceremonies as fair game for symbolic political action. (This newspaper, for instance, saw the value of countries deliberately missing the opening rites in Beijing as a protest against the Chinese government?s continuing support of the military junta in Burma or Sudan.)
But sporting excellence is the reason the modern Olympic movement has come to occupy a hallowed place in the international community. Sports at the highest level transcends national or political boundaries; it allows all men and women a glimpse at what the human body is capable of. In a word, the Olympics celebrates the human spirit.
What Phelps has done has been truly extraordinary. A British athlete jokingly told the US head coach his take on the Phelps phenomenon. ?I think I?ve figured out Michael Phelps,? the coach recalled being told. ?He is not from another planet; he is from the future.?
The joke is based on the reasonable assumption that athletic performance improves as conditions of life improve. With a wink and a nudge, the punchline tells us that a Phelps-level performance may be merely normal a hundred years from now. A joke, but also an earnest. Phelps, the greatest Olympian of all time, is showing us a glimpse of what the human body is capable of three or four generations from now.
To be sure, he did not do it alone. His victories in at least two events were the result of superb work by his teammates, particularly Jason Lezak. Indeed, the 16-swimmer-strong US team helped make Phelps? eight-gold-medal bid possible in the first place; in certain team heats, for instance, other swimmers swam in his stead, allowing him to reserve his energy and focus for the finals. (Of course, that meant he was confident his teammates would qualify for the finals.)
Of all the numbers now being thrown in Phelps? historic wake, however, it is the first one that is still the most resonant. It gives hope to other Olympic hopefuls, and shows the depth of the discipline that harnessed, gave shape to, Phelps? remarkable talent. In his first Olympics, in Sydney, the American?s medal haul stood at zero.