Phelps and his huge dream

Michael Phelps wants to do one better than Spitz's seven golds in the Munich Games. Phelps is also not afraid of taking on Thorpe in the 200m freestyle event. — Pic. NICK WILSON/GETTY IMAGES & AP-

If Michael Phelps does not win the eight golds he dreams of he is still a hero for trying. If he does win, even seven, then this much we know. On Mount Olympus, where Zeus ruled, lived 12 Gods who were known as the Olympians. It will be time to add a 13th throne, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

IT is fitting these Olympics are in Athens, for even Zeus may feel compelled to journey from nearby Mount Olympus to the swimming arena. Who is this mere man, he might ask, who dares to walk with the Gods?

This man is Michael Phelps and everything about Michael Phelps is big. His feet, his torso, his wingspan. They need to be. Have you seen the size of his dream? On the blocks, as he swings those lanky arms and slaps his chest he resembles a phoenix preparing to take flight. It is a fair comparison, for he seems a creature of myth.

Michael Phelps makes Don Quixote seem even-keeled. No one has tilted at windmills quite like this. To win one gold requires a wondrous harmony of agile mind and tuned body, a perfect confluence of strength and character at the desired moment.

It strains credulity Eight golds? It is beyond comprehension.

Eight golds struggles to find a sporting parallel. Three goals in a World Cup soccer final. Already done. A Grand Slam in tennis. Already done. Furthermore in tennis, no one error or even two, is fatal. In cricket it is. Perhaps five straight centuries and the winning of a World Cup final would be a sufficient comparison. Whatever, in these modern times of specialisation, and enhanced competition, it strains credulity.

No one is still sure what Phelps' schedule will be. At present it includes the 100 and 200 butterfly, the 200 and 400 individual medleys, the 200 freestyle, and 4x100 and 4x200 freestyle relays and 4x100 medley relay. He can swim heats in some relays, finals in others, or miss one altogether. His coach will direct him, but his body will tell him the complete truth.

If his build up of lactic acid is too great it is over. If his exhausted mind is not there it is over. If his relay team-mates do not push hard enough it is over.

No margin for error

There is no margin for error, no place for weakness, no time for tiredness, no allowance for anxiety, no room for a suddenly inspired opponent. Across eight days Phelps will have 20 races. Each one, through start and turn and finish, must go his way. No wait. Each one must go perfectly.

Mark Spitz chats with Ian Thorpe in this 1999 file photo. — Pics. NICK WILSON/GETTY IMAGES & AP-

On Sunday, August 15, Phelps has a 200 metres freestyle heat at 10:20 a.m., a 4x100 freestyle relay at 12.10 p.m., a 200 freestyle semifinal at 7.40 p.m., a 4x100 freestyle relay final at 8.55 p.m. He must be perfect in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night.

Then he had better sleep. Next day he will need to be perfect again. At 10:38 a.m. during the 200 butterfly heats, at 7.43 p.m. during the 200 metres freestyle final, at 8.31 p.m. during the 200 butterfly semifinals.

And this is just two days of eight. It is almost inhuman, and if Zeus is watching he will perhaps be moved to lend a hand. After all, Poseidon, god of the sea, was his brother.

Eight golds does not seem possible. Of course, it's not. Well, maybe. But just to arrive at this point of possibility speaks of a talent that is freakish. In a way it does not matter how many Phelps wins, for his mere pursuit of eight is a reminder that every time we imagine a finish line to human accomplishment, an athlete arrives who dares to cross it.

He may not arrive at his destination, but he has gone in honest search of it; he may not make history, but at least he has had the courage to explore this uncharted frontier of human athletic endeavour.

Spitz's enviable record

Gymnast Alexander Dityatin won eight medals in Moscow 1980, three golds, four silvers, one bronze, but it is Mark Spitz's seven golds in Munich, the greatest Olympic performance in more than a century, that is Phelps' lure.

The early model Spitz was all haughtiness, claiming in Mexico 1968 that he would leave a formidable imprint on the Games. Then, at least, he failed to meet his boast. Phelps has been quieter, he has not said much (when unprompted) about eight golds. Or seven. He has only talked about one. In all the hoopla, in all the talk of Speedo's $1 million bonus if he wins seven golds, he has stayed anchored to the ground. Big feet have other uses.

If he equals Spitz's seven golds, then in a way he will have surpassed him. Spitz swam 13 races (heats were less in those days), Phelps has 20 on his schedule. Spitz swam the freestyle and butterfly, Phelps' world records in the individual medley suggest a mastery of all four strokes.

In 1972, Spitz's coach heard whispers that his swimmer was reluctant to swim the 100 metres freestyle, being in awe of his compatriot Jerry Heidenreich who was in fine form. The coach told Spitz that people would see him as chicken if he opted out, so he swam, and won.

There is no chicken to Phelps either. When choosing his individual events, it was suggested by his coach that he leave out the 200 metres freestyle. After all, he would have to face Ian Thorpe, the world record holder and swimming's reigning deity before he arrived.

Ready for challenge

Phelps refused, and this stubbornness is not mere ego, but a champion's knowledge that true greatness arrives in the challenge. As he said: "One thing I always wanted to do is race Thorpe in a freestyle event. This is probably the best opportunity for me to swim in probably the fastest 200 free in history. There are a lot of guys who could win the gold."

This choice of event will not help Phelps. Being American, and thus guaranteed a relentless media scrutiny that athletes from lesser nations will not suffer, will not help him. Arriving at Athens with track and field wrapped in drug allegations thus making him the Games' focal point will not help him. He will have a hard time inflating his lungs as it is without the pressure trying to squeeze them.

If he does not win as many as he dreams of he is still a hero for trying. If he does win, even seven, then this much we know. On Mount Olympus, where Zeus ruled, lived 12 Gods who were known as the Olympians. It will be time to add a 13th throne.