Four years ago in Beijing, Michael Phelps gave us one heck of a memorable swim meet. It was electrifying. The images of such athletic dominance must surely remain vivid in the minds of sport fans. But there is a price to be paid for greatness. The attention of worldwide media brought scrutiny on a young man’s life. Fame, legend and millions of endorsements, all paid in exchange for relinquished privacy and judgment of action.
We all sighed when a photo was leaked of Phelps’ apparent enjoyment of a certain plant. Some sponsors even re-coiled.
Michael was elevated to superhuman, our worldwide Olympic champion, granted access to a level of stardom shared by ‘A’ list artists or movie stars. He even crossed over once or twice, hosting SNL and literally crossing a road with a cameo on ‘Entourage’.
Deserved spoils for a young man who by age 23 had spent almost his entire life toiling in a pool. Every stroke and set, adding up to Olympic history.
Shift the scene to London, England and the 2012 Olympics. It is his fourth and last Games. An expansive body of work over 12 years, a relatively short career compared to most professional sports. It feels like yesterday we were imagining what greatness might come for a lanky 15 year-old, swimming to his first world record in 200 Butterfly. On day 3, Phelps will swim the heats of his last Olympic 200 Fly, an event he has dominated since 2000. He will be challenged by Takeshi Matsuda of Japan and Nick D’Arcy of Australia. We expect him to win. We have always expected him to win. This is the true price of greatness as both the athlete and fan begin to expect brilliance. All of the time.
Beijing must have been extreme pressure for Phelps. But speaking for expectations, what does the Olympian who has achieved almost everything want in his final Games? Now that he has set the standard of perfection, he is measured against himself. And despite an enormous Olympic medal total, his legacy still waits to be sealed.
Already underway, London retains more pressure for Phelps that one might imagine. Another price of perfection is that now we wait to see how the story will end. On day 1, Phelps failed to make the podium. The first time he has missed a medal since his first Olympics. This was referred to as a disappointment. Bearing in mind he hasn’t focused on the event since Beijing, it was still a surprise to see Phelps so far behind the winner. It was arguably more shocking that he barely qualified for finals in the first place. Another truth is that Olympic swimming is just plain hard, and not even Phelps can avoid that.
Perhaps it is a horrible reality, but if Phelps’ final chapter is riddled with these apparent disappointments, his swimming legacy could carry the burden of a final fall from grace. This is not to say that fall is imminent, Phelps publicly commented he will put the 400 IM neatly in his rearview. But for someone who no doubt has an incredible competitive drive, he must be feeling shades of Beijing pressure.
For all that has been said about the Lochte-Phelps match ups, or any of Michael’s other opponents, one can’t help cheering a little for him. In Beijing we just stood and marveled . But now it seems that he might need a little push, to close out an illustrious run with a just a little more magic. As swimming fans, you might say we owe him that for the memories he has delivered. Whatever happens in London, to most, Michael Phelps has constructed an Olympic legacy that will always be celebrated and revered. To some, a less than exceptional final chapter will mar his greatness. In either case, Michael answers only to himself, and has 7 more days to prove whatever is left to be proven.