With the swimming competition of the Beijing Olympics completed, the game of finding an athlete comparable to 14-time gold medalist (8 in Beijing) Michael Phelps can begin. Spitz...Armstrong...Secretariat -- all comers (and all species) are welcome.
Phelps's hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, celebrated its local hero after he completed his unprecedented run.
"Phelps Completes Historic Quest," Baltimore Sun, Aug. 17, 2008.
Someday, years from now, when they tell the tale of the swimmer from Rodgers Forge and his eight gold medals, it will be difficult -- if not impossible -- to know exactly where to begin.
The epic story of Michael Phelps' transcendent Olympics has produced many iconic moments, a diverse selection of did-I-really-just-see-that? mental snapshots.
These Olympics have always been about making history for Phelps, a 23-year-old with a long torso, longer arms and the competitive instincts of a hungry shark.
In eight races -- including this morning's 400 medley relay, which earned him his eighth gold medal, breaking the record for a single Olympics Games held for 36 years by Mark Spitz -- he has provided us with the kind of memories that do not fade.
He has left fellow swimmers to fight through his wake, and he has nipped them at the wall by margins so thin, the naked eye could not be trusted to record them. He has bear-hugged his teammates and he has roared with appreciation -- arms extended, muscles rippling -- at their amazing swims.
Most of all, he has reminded us that it's OK to dream up ridiculous feats as long as you truly believe you can make them reality.
Still desperate to return to his family in Ithaca, Book 8 of Homer's Odyssey finds Odysseus shipwrecked in on the island of Scheria, home of the Phaeacians. Though the Phaeacians ultimately give him provisions to continue on his way home, a poorly timed insult from the son of the Phaeacian king awakens Odysseus's competitive athletic spirit.
The Odyssey, by Homer (trans. Robert Fagles), c. 700 BC.
quick to the mark Odysseus countered sharply,
"why do you taunt me so with such a challenge?
Pains weigh on my spirit now, not your sports--
I've suffered much already, struggled hard.
But here I sit amid your assembly still,
starved for passage home, begging your king,
begging all your people."
"Oh I knew it!"
Broadsea broke in, mocking him to his face.
"I never took you for someone skilled in games,
the kind that real men play throughout the world.
Not a chance. You're some skipper of profiteers,
roving the high seas in his scudding craft,
reckoning up his freight with a keen eye out
for home-cargo, grabbing the gold he can!
You're no athlete. I see that."
With a dark glance
wily Odysseus shot back, "Indecent talk, my friend.
You, you're a reckless fool--I see that. So,
the gods don't hand out all their gifts at once,
not build and brains and flowing speech to all.
One man may fail to impress us with his looks
but a god can crown his words with beauty, charm,
and men look on with delight when he speaks out.
Never faltering, filled with winning self-control,
he shines forth at assembly grounds and people gaze
at him like a god when he walks through the streets.
Another man may look like a deathless one on high
but there's not a bit of grace to crown his words.
Just like you, my fine, handsome friend. Not even
a god could improve those lovely looks of yours
but the mind inside is worthless.
Your slander fans the anger in my heart!
I'm no stranger to sports--for all your taunts--
I've held my place in the front ranks, I tell you,
long as I could trust to my youth and striving hands.
But now I'm wrested down by pain and hardship, look,
I've borne my share of struggles, cleaving my way
through wars of men and pounding waves at sea.
Nevertheless, despite so many blows,
I'll compete in your games, just watch. Your insults
cut to the quick--you rouse my fighting blood!"
Up he sprang, cloak and all, and seized a discus,
huge and heavy, more weighty by far than those
the Phaeacians used to hurl and test each other.
Wheeling around, he let loose with his great hand
and the stone whirred on--and down to ground they went,
those lords of the long oars and master mariners cringing
under the rock's onrush, soaring lightly out of his grip,
flying away past all the other marks, and Queen Athena,
built like a man, staked out the spot and cried
with a voice of triumph, "Even a blind man,
friend, could find your mark by groping round--
it's not mixed up in the crowd, it's far in front!
There's nothing to fear in this event--
no one can touch you, much less beat your distance!"
At that the heart of the long-suffering hero laughed,
so glad to find a ready friend in the crowd that,
lighter in mood, he challenged all Phaecia's best:
"Now go match that, you young pups, and straightaway
I'll hurly you another just as far, I swear, or even farther!
All the rest of you, anyone with the spine and spirit,
step right up and try me--you've incensed me so--
at boxing, wrestling, racing; nothing daunts me....