13 August 2008

The perfect 14?

In the end, Michael Phelps' new record of ten Olympic gold medals - one more than the nine won by Paavo Nurmi, Larysa Latynina, Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis - stood for all of an hour.

And then he raised the bar again.

It wasn't enough that he set a new world record in winning the 200 metres butterfly, clinching his fourth gold in four attempts in Beijing. It wasn't enough that he did it half-blind because his goggles had filled with water.

Oh no. He was straight back out again to lead off for the USA in the 200 metre freestyle relay. Make that five golds out of five - add in his six from Athens and that makes eleven in total - and a fifth world record in these games. All of a sudden, his dream of winning eight golds does not seem such an impossibility.

He's not just winning; he's destroying the competition, frequently putting clear water between himself and the silver medallist. He's not just setting new world records; he's obliterating them. And with each swim, he looks stronger and stronger when he should be getting more and more tired.

At 23, Phelps, having utterly dominated men's swimming since Athens 2004, appears to have found another gear. His fellow finalists are frequently setting new personal bests and national records, even in some cases swimming beating the existing world records. It simply isn't enough.

At least his rivals can at least catch a breath, for 24 hours anyway. Categorically, I can say that Phelps will not win a gold medal tomorrow. He doesn’t have any finals …

We use the word ’phenomenon’ too readily in sports, devaluing the term. But make no mistake: Michael Phelps is a phenomenon.

Ten wasn't perfect enough for Michael Phelps. Eleven seems pretty good. But by Sunday evening, maybe - just maybe - that tally might be 14. Now that really would be perfect.