The debates and claims of standing atop Mount Olympus have now been silenced. By winning his 19th medal at the Olympics — out of which an astounding 15 have been gold medals — American swimmer Michael Phelps is now, without debate, the greatest Olympian of all time. Phelps has leapfrogged legends like Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi and gymnast Larisa Latynina, whose medal record Phelps beat with a victory in the 200-metre freestyle relay. At the age of 27, Phelps has reached the summit of his career. Any further victories will simply be the gravy that confirms his legend. Earlier in the day, when a silver medal tied Latynina’s record, Phelps looked disappointed. Such is his level of perfection that he couldn’t even take a moment to savour his achievement.
Undoubtedly, the Phelps who has shown up in London is not the same man who set the world on fire in Beijing. The ravages of age, which appear at a more tender age for athletes, have dulled some of his speed and enthusiasm. The intervening years have been marred by a dope-smoking scandal and a comedown from the fanatical fitness regime Phelps maintains. He is now competing not because he is leaps and bounds ahead of the other swimmers but through sheer force of will. This is why we tune in to the Olympics day after day, to see history being made and watch adversity being vanquished during that one perfect moment.
Still, there is a lot more action to be played out and a lot more history to be written. Pakistanis will be fervently praying that its hockey players can snag the country’s first medal since 1992. The incomparable Roger Federer is on course to add his first tennis singles gold to a resume that includes just about every title in the sport. China and the US, in a mirror of the political jostling between the rising and fading superpower, are locked in a battle of their own for the most overall gold medals. This is, indeed, a thrilling time to be a sports fan.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 2nd, 2012.