The Olympics are Upon Us; Let’s Take to the Pool
It has been said that distance running is the redheaded stepchild in the sports family. If that is true, then swimming must be the forgotten middle child. After Mark Spitz’s reign a couple generations ago, few paid it much attention, and swimming has not been widely regarded as competitive entertainment. Four years ago swimming recaptured superstar status in the sports world, behind the dominance of one Maryland deity, Michael Phelps. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps delivered the greatest Olympic performance in history, claiming eight gold medals. He captivated not only America, but the entire sporting world.
But that was four years ago…and 2012 is a changed world for Phelps. A classic David and Goliath story is unfolding as Phelps claim to the title of greatest American (read: world) swimmer is seriously threatened by rival teammate Ryan Lochte.
At the Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska, in June, Lochte showed the world he could match shoulder to shoulder with Phelps as he won the 400m individual medley and narrowly lost to Phelps in the 200m freestyle. With Lochte dominating in the opening salvo in London this weekend and Phelps scratching the 200, all that stands between Lochte and a triumphant return to America as our premier aquatic racer is the 200m individual medley.
The competition in London lives in the shadow of Phelps achievements in Beijing. We will never forget the 4×100 meter freestyle relay against the arrogant, trash-talking French. By the third leg of a tightly-contested race, Phelps’ pursuit of eight gold medals was in serious jeopardy. Anchor Jason Lezak dramatically closed the race. The Frenchmen did not have much to say after, but the world did. The American ‘team’ was just an asterisk in the coronation of Phelps.
The dramatic style in which Phelps eclipsed Mark Spitz’s 32-year old record of seven gold medals in a single Olympiad played perfectly with modern entertainment. To the naked eye, it looked as if Serbia’s Milorad Cavic stole Phelps’ seventh gold in the 100-meter butterfly, but the electronic timing systems said differently. The two near-misses were spun into the most American of sports narratives – greatness challenged by some exotic, brazen, foreign upstart, snatching victory from the brink of disaster.
Instead of hanging up his goggles after Beijing, like many expected, Phelps has returned to extend his records and legend. The intervening years have been a struggle for Phelps, significantly tarnishing his golden boy image. As Phelps has faltered in and out of the pool, Lochte has capitalized.
In Beijing, Lochte also won medals, but few cared to remember. Driven to escape the suffocating legacy of Phelps, Lochte changed his diet, his workouts, and most importantly, altered his mental approach. He showed his prowess at last month’s trials when he beat Phelps in the 400-meter individual medley. The narrative quietly shifted from Phelps pursuit of another Olympic sweep to the prospect of a teammate who could usurp Phelps. After Saturday’s result, that narrative threatens to define the London games.
Out of the pool, Phelps and Lochte are very different people. Phelps, reserved yet proud, is the golden child of the city of Baltimore, revered above all but the Ravens in the sporting universe. He paints a stark contrast to the brash Lochte. Phelps turned professional at 16, while Lochte, a bold New Yorker, attended the University of Florida and claimed several NCAA records. Lochte has sought (and achieved) distinction throughout his career; for Phelps, there is a seeming reluctance to play the celebrity.
Their ascendance as an international story brings a long-absent quality to swimming: recognition and popularity. They are active in promoting the majesty of the pool, in humanitarian work, and in being ambassadors of the United States on the world’s biggest stage for athletics. While rivals, they have also embraced the spirit of an American team.
Though many have failed to take note, in London, Phelps is David and Lochte is Goliath. In recent years, Phelps has appeared apathetic and longing for an end to his storied career, hardly the posture of a man solely committed to winning another slew of medals and reconfirming the title of ‘best swimmer in the world.’
In the days to come, with the eyes of the world upon them, Phelps and Lochte will leap from the holding blocks into the water with immortality at stake. If Lochte emerges victorious he will have the exclamation point on his career he has been desperate for. But will we care? Phelps had to do the near-impossible to capture our hearts and minds. Lochte is here to take down our legend, we rarely exalt the usurpers.