The Olympics in Beijing were memorable for many reasons not least as the moment that China opened up to the world but unequivocally they belonged to one man. Michael Phelps won eight gold medals surpassing all others and becoming the greatest Olympian of all time.
The number 8 is considered a lucky number in China with the games opening at 8.00 pm, on August the 8th 2008. For one man too, the number 8 took on particular significance as the blue collar American boy Phelps challenged for a record-equalling 8 gold medals.
From an ordinary working class neighbourhood in Baltimore, Michael Phelps had endured a difficult childhood. School proved a particular challenge for the young boy as he was unable to concentrate or focus and he was diagnosed with Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The dog-eat-dog world of school, coupled with the acrimonious break up of his parents’ marriage made for an unhappy time for Michael, however, he found solace in sport and in particular, between the lanes of the swimming pool of the National Aquatics Center in North Baltimore.
In spite of, or more likely because of his difficulties, Phelps began training with an inhuman discipline. In his autobiography he wrote: “What I discovered soon after starting to swim was that the pool was a safe haven. Two walls at either end. Lane lines on either side. A black stripe on the bottom for direction. I could go fast in the pool, it turned out, in part because being in the pool slowed down my mind."
Under the tutorage of Bob Bowman success came early with qualification for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney at the age of only 15. He didn’t win a medal but made the finals and finished fifth in the 200m butterfly. The next year he became the youngest man ever to set a world record in swimming at the World Aquatics Championships, when he broke Ian Thorpe’s 400m freestyle time. At the World Championships in Fukuoka, he broke his own world record in the 200m butterfly en route to becoming World Champion for the first time.
Apart form his incredible drive and discipline, Phelps is endowed with physical attributes that make him perfect for swimming, an unusually thin torso reduces drag in the water, his arms extend to a span of 2m 1cm disproportionate to his height, while his relatively short legs also reduce drag. His size fourteen feet act as flippers in the water and his hypermobile ankles, which extend beyond the ponte position of a ballet dancer act as fins to propel him through the water.
In Athens 2004, Phelps stormed to six golds and two bronze medals and still a teenager, had acheived the second best haul for a swimmer at an Olympics behind Mark Spitz’s seven golds in Munich 1972. The stage was set for his assault at the magic eight gold medals in Beijing. In a frenzy of competitive achievement over two days Phelps claimed gold in the 400m medley, 4x100m freestyle relay, 200m freestyle, 200m butterfly, 4x200m relay and the 200m individual medley. In the 200m butterfly Phelps’ googles filled up with water meaning he couldn’t see anyhting for the last 100m metres. He counted out his strokes so as to know when to hit the wall and turn. He still broke the world record.
Ahead the 100m butterfly event Serbian-American swimmer Milorad Cavic caused a stir saying that it would be ‘good for swimming’ if he beat Phelps for the gold. “I’d be good for him if he loses. It would be nice if historians talk about Michael Phelps winning seven gold medals and losing the eighth to ‘some guy’, I’d like to be that guy” he said.
Phelps had a poor start off the blocks and Cavic lead for the entire race. However just at the very death as Cavic glided to the wall, Phelps and his massive 2 metre frame came crashing in just 0.01 of a second ahead of him. Controversey raged as Omega, official timmers of the games refused to release video footage of the race finish, raising questions about the the Swiss company’s sponsorship with the swimmer. The Serb filed a complaint but later dropped when FINA, using footage shot at 1/10,000th of a second confirmed Phelps seventh gold medal. Later Omega admitted that the Serb ‘for sure hit the wall first, but Phelps did it with more force registering first.’ Cavic was gracious in defeat he later wrote on his blog: “People, this is the greatest moment of my life, if you ask me it should be accepted and we should move on. I have accepted defeat and there’s nothing wrong with losing to the greatest swimmer there has ever been”.
On the 17th August 2008 Phelps won his eighth gold medal in the 4 x 100m medley relay. After claiming his eightth gold of the Beijing Olympics and his 14th in all Phelps became the greatest Olympian of all time and possibly the greatest athlete. His medal haul is far from over however as in the build up to the 2012 London Olympics Phelps announced that he would compete in the same events as the ones in which he won in Beijing and he has qualified for all of them.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty