A different time and place

Updated: August 20, 2004, 8:22 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- The morning of what turned out to be his final race here, Michael Phelps saw Mark Spitz hanging around the Olympic pool, which isn't too surprising. Phelps has been carrying the guy around on his back the entire week.

Michael Phelps
Getty ImagesWhat Michael Phelps accomplished should not be downplayed, writes Jim Caple.
Spitz held up four fingers Friday morning, one for each individual gold medal he won in 1972. The gesture was clear to Phelps: You can do it, too. Win your fourth and join the club. No blood initiation required. Dues later.

He did, coming from behind to edge teammate Ian Crocker and win the 100 fly Friday for his fifth gold medal of the Olympics, his fourth individual gold and his seventh overall. While most Americans his age consider it an accomplishment to see "Spider-Man 2'' five times in a single afternoon, the 19-year-old Phelps earned more medals than even Rickey Henderson would wear around his neck.

Phelps has been so dominant that he will almost certainly win another medal without even dipping his toe in the pool again. In a move that may be remembered as much as his medal-winning performances, Phelps bowed out of his final race in Saturday's 4x100 medley relay to allow Crocker to race in his place. It was a gesture without particular sacrifice: If the United States wins the relay -- and it is the overwhelming favorite to do so -- he will gain an eighth medal because he swam in the qualifying heats Friday.

That's one more than Spitz won in Munich.

Is Phelps a better swimmer than Spitz? His times are certainly better -- in the three individual races each swam, Phelps' times are a combined 17 seconds faster than Spitz -- but like most everything else in sports except Vin Scully, swimming has changed somewhat in the past three decades.

When Spitz won those seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics, he did so with a mustache, no swim cap and no goggles. Today's swimmers not only wouldn't dream of swimming with a mustache, they shave their bodies so precisely it's as if they were modeling swimsuits, not competing in them. The tight little Speedos are generally as much a part of the sport's past as Larry Bird's tight basketball shorts, replaced by the technological wonder that is the speedsuit.

So while Phelps had certain advantages over Spitz, he had a significant disadvantage, as well. Spitz only had one swimmer in his lane. Phelps had Spitz's legacy dragging behind him like an anchor in every race.

The teenager brought much of that on himself, making it clear without actually publicly saying so that he wanted to surpass Spitz by winning eight gold medals. And why not? It made people pay attention.

Swimming is never going to be a national pastime in America the way it is in Australia. For one thing, there is no way to run a decent fantasy league around it. For another, the races tend to be a bit repetitive, particularly at the Olympic level where the winning times never vary by more than a couple seconds. There simply is no such thing as a last-second Hail Mary pass in swimming. Sure, there are some close finishes -- Phelps beat Crocker by just four-hundredths of a second, mostly because he has longer arms -- but even those lack a certain drama given that you often can't tell who actually won until you look at the times on the scoreboard. One week of swimming every four years is generally enough to satisfy most Americans.

Thus, in a sport where record times become as indistinguishable as the Wayans brothers, Spitz's seven gold medals are what remain our standard of achievement. They loom the way Maris' 61 home runs once did. Had Phelps matched or surpassed that mark, he would have broken through his sport's limitations to become a U.S. icon, joining Spitz as the only swimmers most Americans can name before Ken Jennings beats them to the Jeopardy buzzer.

And without doing so?

"He is a phenomenon," said Zimbabwe's gold medalist Kirsty Coventry. "You look up to him and say 'Wow.' It's hard to try to tell someone this guy is amazing. You talk to people and they say, 'Who's that?', and I say, you mean you don't know?''

No, Phelps didn't match Spitz by winning four gold medals. But it would be a shame to focus on what he didn't accomplish this week rather than what he did.

As U.S. swimmer Erik Vendt said, "Just because it's not Spitzian, doesn't mean it's not history.''

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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