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Huw L. Hopkins

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Michael Phelps Is Right to Buck Glory Hogging American Culture

Posted: 08/03/2012 1:50 pm

I don't blame them, it's addictive. I haven't won much in my life, but when I have I've loved it, but even if I had been more successful, I'm not one for over indulging. Perhaps because I'm British I'm more willing to let something go, it's been so long since we had an empire, many people don't realise we had one, but the successful Americans of this world don't give up, even when the whole world tells them they should.

When Michael Phelps won 8 Olympic Gold medals in Beijing four years ago, he heard the world saying he was the greatest Olympian ever. This year in London, he solidified that claim after surpassing Larisa Latynina, winning Silver in the 200 metre butterfly and Gold in the 4 x 200 metre freestyle relay, his 18th and 19th Olympic medals respectively.

Even if Phelps loses his remaining races this summer, he has done what he set out to do. Records have been broken in style, across a multitude of competitions and at just 27 years of age, a peak for most athletes; the world's greatest swimmer has said London 2012 will be his final Olympic games.

This goes against the grain of American culture, one that likes to drag its success out for as long as possible, often ruining reputations.

The sitcom Friends began in 1994, surprising the world with its success. No network executive figured a group of six twentysomethings would appease so many age groups, racial divides and gender differences. There was something for everyone. From the first episode you had the wit of Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), the sex appeal of Joey Tribiani (Matt LeBlanc), the kooky nature of Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), the neurotic tendencies of Monica Geller (Courtney Cox) and the romance of Ross and Rachel (David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston). This didn't change, for 10 seasons.

Every year until 2004, the sarcasm of Chandler grated a little more, the desperation of Joey became creepy, Phoebe's innocence became too unrealistic, Monica was just annoying and Ross and Rachel was a forgone conclusion. The hip, sexy twentysomethings reached their late 30s, were played by people in their 40s, and had advanced no further than a lumberjack with a butter knife.

Compare this to the legendary status of British sitcoms like The (original) Office, Fawlty Towers, The Royle Family and Gavin and Stacey. You have some of the most popular, highest grossing shows of all time, after three, and sometimes just two seasons.

In sport, Michael Jordan retired at the height of his powers in 1993 after winning three straight NBA championships and three Most Valuable Player awards, as well as two Olympic Gold medals. His career was unmatched, and with his legacy in the rafters, which his #23 jersey would soon hang next to, many fans felt they would never witness a player like MJ in their lifetime. Well they did, two years later.

After a few months piddling about in pee-wee baseball, His Airness returned the to basketball just in time to splutter through a playoff failure in 1995. He did rebuild and retain his reputation by completing a similar feat at the end of 1998, winning a second, three straight championships. Jordan would then exit the game gracefully, after proving to the world he still had it.

Then there was that debacle in Washington, where the minority owner felt he could help lift the Wizards on his 40 year-old knees in to the playoffs. This failed miserably and since leaving the court for good, he has faced a barrage of criticism of his talents as an owner with Washington and most recently, the Charlotte Bobcats.

Sir Steve Redgrave has just been overtaken by Bradley Wiggins as most the most successful British Olympic athlete. Redgrave's achievements spanned a 26-year career, considered too long for most athletes, but his final race was a Gold medal winning performance at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. This was his 5th consecutive Olympic games where he won Gold, making Redgrave the only man to ever achieve such an accomplishment. However, you can guarantee the rowing hero wouldn't have entered, unless he knew he could win.

I would love to talk about the band KISS, and their desperate attempts to remain relevant, or Neil Young's insistence on singing about 25 year-old politics, but in reality British musicians are no different to Americans in that regard. The Who are still playing with only half of the original group still alive, and The Rolling Stones continue to tour the planet 50 years after their first hit, but this is all the evidence needed. You should call it a day when you've achieved everything you set out to. Find new challenges, and move on.

Michael Phelps has vowed never to swim in the Olympics again. If he does overturn this promise, he would be racing in Rio in 2016 at 31 years of age. He could still win medals, or at least perform to a high standard, but what would be the point?

His body would have to undergo so much strain, it may cause him injuries down the line, and for what? One more medal? Maybe it would be slightly harder for someone to overtake him as the greatest Olympian ever if he swam at one more contest? Who cares?

If someone overtakes Phelps one day, it might mean the title of 'greatest Olympian' is no longer his, but he certainly wouldn't disappear from the record books, or the conversation for that matter. Much in the same way people discuss Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, these artists cannot, and should not be compared, they will forever be known as one of the all time greats. This is true of Michael Phelps, and now it's his time to enjoy retirement, find new challenges and move on.

 
 
 

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