By lex, on August 17th, 2008
In high school, back before I took up the ancient and honorable sport of sabre fencing, I was a swimmer, albeit a swimmer of no great distinction. With that precarious purchase, I claim the faintest glimmerings of insight into the athletic life of swimmer Michael Phelps. I know that he is doubtlessly genetically gifted, just like everyone else in the cube at Beijing. I know also that the difference between gifted and be-medaled at the Olympic level is Herculean dedication, a willingness to abide more pain for a longer period than those on either side.
Pool training is a harsh discipline of grinding repetition the better to optimize aerobic capacity and creatively destroy muscle mass. It is a matter of continuous effort at the uttermost limits of human capability. For years now, Phelps’ life has been one of swimming, eating – he consumes 14,000 calories a day – and sleeping. Day after day, week after week, the months fading into years. It has made him into the finest athlete his sport has ever produced, if not necessarily a sparkling conversationalist.
So I’m very happy for him that he has won his eighth Olympic gold medal in Beijing, surpassing previous record holder Mark Spitz. Combined with the six he won at Athens in 2004, he now has 14 total gold medals – five more than the nearest competitor.
And yet, I could be happier for him, and for sport as a whole: As a publicity stunt effort, Speedo broke the news that he would win a $1 million dollar bonus for winning eight medals in Beijing. And so with each world record smashed, each gold medal won – whether as individual, or as a part of a relay team – he racked up not merely another stellar achievement in pursuit of the Olympic ideal, but stood also – one was never permitted to forget – one step closer to the cash.
I’m no innocent in the world. I know that athletes need more than adulation to sustain the sinews, that corporations need more than good will to create value and that interest in swimming as a sport will take another quadrennial decline until the next Olympics – Speedo must strike while the iron is hot, yes, yes – I see.
But it takes nothing away from Mr. Phelps’ achievement to observe that the net effect of all that prospective cash hovering around poolside was to diminish rather than increase the honor which ought to have attended his prodigious feats of excellence. This was shabbily done.