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A Grateful Nation is Mesmerized by Michael Phelps

09/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For the past week, America went into oxygen-debt watching Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps haul in a Fort Knox-trove of gold medals. In the water, Aquaman was all business. Deckside, he was emotional and exuberant as he cheered on his relay teammates. This was the kind of terrific theater that redefined reality TV: unscripted, dramatic, exciting, live on the East Coast, taped-delayed on the West. America's Got Talent with this swimming sensation.

As the world's reigning cold-water warrior, Phelps allowed us to be distracted from the post-Cold War antics of a resurgent Russia which invaded Georgia. Ask many Americans what they thought about Georgia, and they would probably think that you were talking about the 2000 Games in Atlanta.

Athletic heroes like Phelps are a rare breed, individualistic, disciplined, driven by an inner need to achieve success while ignoring pain. Their obvious physical gifts are matched by undeniable mental toughness. They don't flinch in the face of adversity or withering criticism.

Only if our politicians could follow their example, who too often change direction or back off when the going gets tough. Nor do pols provide shining examples of good sportsmanship. Losing a swimming race by one hundredths of a second must hurt, the aquatic equivalent of losing a state like Florida in the presidential election. And we saw how hotly contested that electoral decision became, when thugs from the GOP helped snatch victory away from rightful winner Al Gore.

Just imagine if swim judges at the Water Cube reversed their decision in Phelps' seventh race -- the 100 butterfly -- and gave the gold to second-place winner Milorad Cavic of Serbia, who grew up in Anaheim, went to Berkeley, and once got banned from international competition for wearing a T-shirt at a medal presentation ceremony that said, "Kosovo is Serbia."

Despite the closeness of that butterfly race, Cavic handled himself with sportsmanlike decorum (though Serb officials filed a protest.) Nonetheless rumors emerged and bounced around the Internet that Phelps was second, despite photographic evidence surfacing to the contrary. One explanation offered by the conspiracy camp was that NBC and America had a vested commercial interest in seeing Phelps win a record eight gold medals. (Speedo now must fork over one million dollars to Phelps because he won all eight events he entered.)

While we would like sports to be pure and immune from the taint of corruption, doping, and cheating, it just ain't gonna happen. We live in an imperfect world, with some countries better at lying and deception than others. For example, consider those young mini-Mao Chinese female gymnasts, each of them dolled up with makeup and lipstick like slightly older sisters to JonBenet Ramsey. They certainly didn't look 16 years of age. Some of them looked like they belonged in sixth grade.

We will all carry special memories away from this year's Olympics. But many of us, who only get NBC and don't have cable or satellite, might have thought that there were only two countries competing in the Olympics that first week -- China and America -- and that there were only four sports: basketball, gymnastics, beach volleyball, and swimming. It used to be that other sports were shown during prime time, but those events are now dumped to the niche cable markets and the web.

I will continue to watch the Games all next week, trying to tune out the blatant Yankee jingoism of NBC's coverage, and while still basking in the reflective glory -- as we all are -- in Phelps' amazing accomplishments. To put his swimming prowess in perspective, I onced trained for the Hawaii Ironman triathlon, and it regularly took me about 50 seconds to go 50 meters in the pool using the front crawl. Using the the more physically challenging butterfly. Phelps can cover 100 meters in about the same time. In other words, he travels twice as fast as I do in the pool. In fact, all swimmers -- male and female -- did in Beijing.

Many of us will also never forget 41-year-old Dara Torres as she anchored the U.S. 4x100 medley relay. Her split (52.27) was the fastest 100 freestyle split in relay history. Eighty-four years ago at the Olympics, Johnny Weismuller went 57.4 in the 100 freestyle for a world record. Tarzan's time was almost five seconds slower than Torres.