Commentary

An embodiment of the Olympic ideal, Michael Phelps saved the Games

Updated: August 17, 2008, 2:48 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- According to archaeologists and historians, mankind has been working at this organized sports business since roughly 4000 B.C. Some think the Chinese might have started the whole thing.

Sunday morning in the putative birthplace of sports, we saw the endeavor elevated to a new plane by Michael Phelps. We witnessed the apotheosis of the athlete -- 6,000 years in the making; 30 minutes, 51.68 seconds in the perfecting.

That's the combined length of time Phelps swam to win his Olympic-record eight gold medals, to set seven world records, to swim five lifetime-best individual times, to endure two great escapes, and to become the singular competitor in species history. Over nine days and 17 swims, he was in the water for roughly the length of a sitcom. It turned out to be the greatest TV many Americans have ever witnessed.

NBC said 66 million people tuned in to at least six minutes of its prime-time telecast Friday, when Phelps somehow won the 100-meter butterfly by one-hundredth of a second for his seventh gold medal. That dwarfs virtually any non-Super Bowl sporting event, and it proves one thing:

Michael Phelps single-handedly saved the Olympics. These Beijing Olympics, and perhaps those to come. The entire enterprise has new life.

The new motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius, Phelpsius.

Faster, higher, stronger, greater.

Before these Games, the prevailing sentiment I heard was that the Olympics had lost its allure. They were considered passé. Too long and too arcane and too compromised by drugs and politics and commercialism. In Football America, fewer people than ever seemed to care.

And then, Phelps zipped up his Speedo and got busy.

[+] EnlargeMichael Phelps
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMichael Phelps swam the butterfly leg of Sunday's 4x100 medley relay to help the U.S. win gold.

By the time he finished, America had gone nuts over a swimmer. Nuts like it doesn't even go over football, baseball and basketball players. Nuts like perhaps only Tiger Woods can understand.

Phelps has an idea how nuts, but he probably won't realize his full impact until he returns home later this week.

Across the United States, bars were erupting in cheers when Phelps won. His races were shown on giant video screens at Major League Baseball and National Football League games and on the big screen in Times Square. The morning conversation in offices everywhere was the same: "Did you see Michael Phelps last night?"

As with the Miracle on Ice team in 1980, everyone was rowing in the same direction on this one. It wasn't your team versus my team. It was Our Michael versus Their Mortals. In Beijing, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant showed up twice to see Phelps swim. The second appearance was Sunday, and they stayed around to see the final medal ceremony after Phelps and his teammates won the 400-meter medley relay. They raised their arms to get his attention, blew kisses at Phelps' mom and sisters across the pool, clapped like starstruck fans.

They weren't alone. Australian breaststroker Leisel Jones won two gold medals but said the highlight of her Games was watching Phelps perform.

Saying the Olympics needed Phelps is like saying Terrell Owens needs attention. It needed an athlete to rekindle a romance that seemed to fade since the Jim McKay days.

In Phelps' eight medal races, we saw the Olympic ideal: athletic excellence, gripping competition, incredible drama, admirable sportsmanship, earnest teamwork, visceral humanity. And a passel of passed drug tests. (Don't expect that to change in the days, months and years to come. Phelps is not Marion Jones.)

We saw complete dominance (Phelps' crushing of all comers in the 200 and 400 individual medleys, the 200 freestyle and the 800 free relay). We saw races so tense they left your hands trembling (the 400 free relay and 100 butterfly, won by a total of nine-hundredths of a second). We saw him win a race with his goggles full of water (the 200 fly). We saw a fitting coronation in the finale.

"What he did today, what he did this week, beats winning the Tour de France, beats making the last putt at the U.S. Open," relay teammate Brendan Hansen said. "This guy is the greatest athlete in the world, and every athlete in the world needs to tip their hats to this guy."

And after that, we heard humility and appreciation, not ego and entitlement. We heard how Phelps was staying in the athletes' village instead of a luxury hotel, and how he excitedly sought out tennis star Rafael Nadal to say hello. We heard him say that the time spent playing spades and Risk with his teammates were the best times of all.

"I am lucky to have everything I have," Phelps said. "I'm lucky to have the talent I have, the drive I have, the excitement I have about the sport. I'm fortunate to have every quality I have."

[+] EnlargePhelps and Family
AP Photo/Itsuo InouyeAfter his historic race, Michael Phelps moved through a mob of photographers to share his moment with his two sisters and mother.

Humanity among them. Phelps can be coldly focused before a race, and his performances are so routinely excellent that he sometimes seems bereft of human qualities. But after races, we saw howls of jubilation and tears of joy straight from Phelps' core.

"This is all a dream come true," he said. "To really just imagine anything and work toward it, to have ups and have downs, and to really accomplish anything you've ever dreamed of -- it's fun."

It's overwhelming. On the podium Sunday, Phelps kept taking deep breaths.

His life's work has been built upon deep breaths. They are intrinsic to swimming. The longer and harder you swim, the more you develop your lung capacity.

But this was deep breathing of a different sort. This was an attempt to govern his emotions, to avoid sending the tears welling up in his brown eyes splashing down his cheeks before a world audience.

While "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, a lifetime of thoughts and memories flashed through his mind. A child with ADHD who struggled in school had become a man who brought a nation to its feet.

"My mom and I still joke that I had a middle school teacher who said I'd never be successful," he said.

Seems he's turned out OK. It would take more than a few doubting teachers to keep him down. And it would take more than a few hundred daunting practices to hold him back.

On the days he hated to get out of bed, knowing that several miles of murderous practice lay ahead, the goals he'd written and kept on his nightstand were there to spur him on.

Phelps has never told anyone other than his extraordinary coach, Bob Bowman, exactly what was on the goals sheet. But for the first time, he tacitly acknowledged Sunday that winning eight golds was part of the master plan.

"Everything was accomplished," he said. "It all happened this week."

Not that it was easy.

Phelps needed the ultimate wingman, relay freestyler Jason Lezak, to help close the deal. It was Lezak who pulled out the 400 free relay, somehow channeling almost inhuman adrenaline to chase down former 100 free world-record holder Frenchman Alain Bernard by eight-hundredths of a second. And it was Lezak who held off current 100 free world-record holder Eamon Sullivan on Sunday to secure the medley relay.

[+] EnlargeMichael Phelps
Adam Pretty/Getty ImagesMichael Phelps set seven world records in his eight races in Beijing.

And Phelps needed that indescribable 100 butterfly win Friday, when he rallied from seventh at the turn to inexplicably out-touch Milorad Cavic at the wall by 0.01 of a second. Surely you've seen the frame-by-frame photos by now: Cavic's outstretched hands mere inches from the wall while Phelps' arms were still spread out at his shoulders. It seemed impossible he could get from there to the wall faster than the man next to him, but Phelps has made a career out of expanding the realm of the possible.

Then there was the cumulative effect of all those swims -- all the effort and exertion of competition, all the tedium of warm-ups and warm-downs, the repetition of ice baths and massages, the constant need to keep moving on to the next task without relaxing or cracking.

He came close to cracking Friday. After winning the 200 IM, he had to turn around and swim the semifinals of the 100 butterfly. As Phelps wobbled through the mixed zone in a panting daze, he thought to himself, "Oh my gosh, I'm exhausted."

He spent most of the next day in bed, watching movies or sleeping. He recharged himself just enough to chase down Cavic, tying Mark Spitz's record seven golds, then he came back again Sunday with his final swim.

It was another powerful butterfly leg, this time rocketing the American relay from third to first and setting up Lezak with a lead. And after celebrating with his teammates and leaving the world in awe, Phelps had a single, simple, endearing wish.

"I kind of just want to see my mom," he said.

Back home, Michael Phelps has a couple hundred million surrogate moms and dads and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. He's everyone's hometown hero now. Everyone's Olympic ideal.

He's the apotheosis of the athlete, perfecting what they started here six millennia ago.

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