POSTED: 2012-08-02 11:08:02
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications
August 2 - The crowning was spoilt. When South African Chad le Clos touched the wall 0.05 seconds ahead of Michael Phelps at the London Games, he did more than end the American’s unbeaten run in the 200 metres butterfly at Olympics and world championships, which stretched back to 2001. He also caused the supporters of Phelps to regret that the medal was not gold. That silver medal took him level on 18 medals with Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina as the most successful Olympian of all time but it took the shine off such a momentous occasion.
However, Phelps is not quite the competitor he was in Beijing and it is exceptionally rare for a swimmer to last as long in international competition as he has done, let alone at the heights of such supreme success. As he himself said: ”For all the workouts, there are times I have come lazy to the wall. And it happened when I needed it most.”
A few minutes later, Phelps had taken over at the summit of Olympism, when he swam the last leg of the United States team, who finished first in the 4 x 200 metres freestyle relay. He said: ”It was a cool feeling. I did start to smile with 25 metres to go.” What was vexing about the occasion was that Latynina, aged 77, was in London and had offered to present Phelps with his medal but no one took up the natural public relations coup. Instead, the honour went to Tony Khoury, a sports official from the Lebanon. What a pity, what a real pity.
Phelps has already made certain is that when we discuss the greatest Olympian, we begin with his feat of 19 medals (although there may well be more to come at these Games). As someone who reported Mark Spitz winning all his seven gold medals in Munich, I have no doubt that Phelps is the greater swimmer. He is more versatile, since Spitz won all his medals on freestyle and butterfly. Phelps has been outstanding at the individual medley, the real test of the all-round swimmer. Phelps has also lasted longer at the top than Spitz, who retired after 1972.
How does one compare Phelps with competitors in other sports, such Finland’s Paavo Nurmi, who collected nine gold medals in the 1920s and revolutionised long-distance running? With difficulty. However Nurmi was not invincible even at his peak, several times being beaten by his fellow Finn Ville Ritola. His successor in running was Emil Zatopek, who won the 10,000 metres in 1948 (and was second in the 5000) and four years later won both those races and also became the champion in the marathon in his first attempt at the distance. He also ran in the 1956 marathon but failed to get a medal.
Other contenders for the title of the greatest Olympain include Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich, who won sabre gold medals between 1932 and 1960, rower Steve Redgrave, with five successive titles, and German canoeist Birgit Fischer but, with respect to these sports, they are not as widely practised as athletics or swimming.
The closest challenger for me is Carl Lewis, who won four successive Olympic long jump titles, as well as being an outstanding sprinter and who, in 1984, emulated Jesse Owens by winning the 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump and also was a member of the victorious American team in the 4 x100 metres relay.
Until these Games, I believed that Phelps was level with Lewis but now I think that he has edged ahead as the greatest Olympian in history.
** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2008 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 11th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.
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