Commentary

Is Phelps' dominance bad for swimmers, the sport? One brave soul thinks so

Updated: August 15, 2008, 12:52 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- Just in time to pour cold water on the coronation, we go to Serbian swimmer Milorad Cavic at the Water Cube:

"It would be good for the sport if he lost."

You know who "he" is. Michael Phelps, the man who has cornered the market on Beijing bling. The owner of six gold medals and six world records in these Olympics. The guy who is striving to make it a great eight this weekend, then presumably will walk across the pool surface to the final medal ceremony.

This was not a quote that was bollixed in translation. Cavic is from California, born to Serbian parents who immigrated to the U.S. in 1982. He didn't simply say it once, he said it twice.

"I think it would be good for the sport and good for him," Cavic said.

I'm going to take a wild guess that Phelps might disagree with that line of thinking. And that roughly 30 million Americans who have been glued to their TVs this past week might not see it that way, either.

It certainly would be good for Milorad Cavic if Michael Phelps lost to him Saturday morning in the 100-meter butterfly final. And good for Serbia, which has never won a swimming medal. Cavic has qualified fastest for the final, .05 seconds ahead of Phelps, who clearly was not going to kill himself to win a semifinal.

But good for the sport? Really?

If Phelps wins these final two Olympic races, untold numbers of American children will ask their parents for their first set of goggles and permission to join the local swim team. Maybe they'd still do that if he goes seven-for-eight. Maybe his work is done here, in terms of building swimming into a bigger sport with broader appeal.

But the only people who would benefit from Phelps' losing are the other Olympic swimmers whose exploits have been utterly obscured by the Unbeatable One's giant shadow.

You can't help but feel for Natalie Coughlin, who won her 10th career Olympic medal Friday morning. Nobody noticed because Phelps was busy winning his sixth of these Games and setting his sixth world record in the 200 individual medley.

Or for Ryan Lochte, who won his first individual gold in the 200 backstroke and then finished third in that 200 IM 30 minutes later -- an amazing display of endurance and toughness. Lochte's double was relegated to the "In Other News" department.

[+] EnlargeMichael Phelps
Harry How/Getty ImagesMichael Phelps is 6-for-6 in Beijing, setting world records in each event.

Or for Rebecca Soni, who earned America's most surprising swimming gold so far with her upset over Australian Leisel Jones in the 200 breaststroke. Jones had held the world record in the event until Friday, when Soni shattered it and won easily.

How about Katie Hoff? She attempted an Olympic program almost as ambitious as Phelps', swimming five individual events and a relay. She won three medals, a silver and two bronze. The general response: Wow, she's no Michael Phelps.

"I don't really think it's fair," Hoff said. "Michael doing what he's doing is incredible, but it kind of makes the rest of us look …"

She trailed off, but I can finish that sentence for her: like underachievers.

Chalk it up to bad timing, folks. You all were born at the wrong time, in the era of the Phelps Dynasty.

Nobody knows that better than Hungarian Laszlo Cseh. His run as the silver bullet of Beijing is over. He seems to have handled it well.

Three times the Hungarian swimmer has turned in lifetime-best performances at the Water Cube. Three times, it has not been enough. Three times, he has finished second to the golden god.

Nothing wrong with silver medals, but the Wile E. Coyote act must have become tedious for Cseh. By now, he probably knows the melody to "The Star-Spangled Banner" by heart. It's always playing when he's standing on the medal podium, one step below Phelps.

"The hope is the same," Cseh said after vainly chasing Phelps to the wall in the 200 IM, smoked by 2.3 seconds. "Maybe next time I can catch him."

Maybe not.

Now that Cseh has been bounced back to Budapest, the contenders remaining in Phelps' path are dwindling. Two races to go to achieve the complete matching set of Beijing bling: a great eight gold medals.

The last race could be a bit of an anticlimax. The 400-meter medley relay on Sunday morning, Beijing time, comes with an American copyright. The U.S. has never lost it in an Olympics in which it competed (the obvious exception being the boycotted Games of 1980).

The Australians could put up a bit of a fight, but on paper they look to be about a second slower. The only logical thing standing between the Americans and that gold medal would be a disqualification.

So by all rights, it will come down to the 100 butterfly. The fate of Phelps' quest will be determined in roughly 51 furious seconds Saturday morning, Friday night in the States.

If you have plans, cancel them. Chances are you already have. Phelps has become a bigger TV star than Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul.

Who stands between the American Idol and his seventh gold? Cavic and American Ian Crocker, and that's it.

[+] EnlargeRyan Lochte
Jerry Lai/US PresswireRyan Lochte won the 200-meter backstroke in 1:53.94, earning the first individual gold medal of his career.

Crocker is the world-record holder in the 100 fly and owns the two fastest times in its history. But he set the record back in 2005 and hasn't been under 51 seconds this year. Phelps, meanwhile, has posted four times this summer that are faster than anything Crocker has done.

Crocker is either a free spirit or a flake, depending on how charitable you want to be. He's capable of brilliance and of glaring mental mistakes, including false-starting himself out of the 100 freestyle at Olympic trials and false-starting the American medley relay out of a gold at the 2007 World Championships.

He nearly pulled another choke job in the 100 fly prelims, barely qualifying at 13th out of 16.

"There was too much adrenaline built up," he said. "It was a bit of a spew-fest out there."

He rebounded in the semis to qualify tied for third at 51.27, three-tenths behind Phelps. We'll see which Crocker shows up for the final.

And then there is Cavic, who embodies the Olympic truism that there are all kinds of interesting athletes out there you've never heard of. He made a name for himself in the prelims by setting an Olympic record, and it looked for a second as though he took a figurative shot at Phelps after that race.

Phelps was to his right in the lanes, and Cavic made a pistol with his fingers, aimed it to his right and "fired." Turns out he was just gesturing at his team manager in the stands.

"C'mon," Cavic said when asked if Phelps was his target. "Do I want to make a rivalry of this? Sure, why not? But I would never disrespect Michael Phelps.

"The guy's the best the sport has ever seen. Will he be the best here? I don't know. He's got a lot on his plate. That could be to my advantage. But never, ever discount Michael Phelps."

It actually wouldn't be the first time Cavic got himself in trouble at a swim meet. He was suspended from the European Championships this year when he wore a shirt that read "Kosovo is Serbia" to the medals stand.

Cavic's family came to the U.S. when violence began tearing apart Yugoslavia.

"The government fell, and the economy fell," he said. "The best thing for a lot of people to do is to leave the country. … I didn't have to live through that war. I didn't have to live in a bunker for three months."

Cavic attended Cal, studying Political Economics of Industrialized Societies. And the butterfly. This is his third Olympics, but the first time he's made an impact.

"I feel like this is my time to do something, this is my moment in life," he said.

How big a moment? Big enough that he takes down the greatest of all Olympians?

"I gave that a little bit of thought," Cavic said. "I don't usually like to put more pressure on myself than I already do, but it would kind of be nice if, one day, historians spoke of Michael Phelps winning seven golds and having the chance to win eight. And they'll talk about whoever that guy is who took it away from him. I'd love to be that guy."

The swimming world is full of guys who dream of beating Michael Phelps to the wall, Milorad. But nobody can seem to get it past the dream stage and into reality.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.