Olympics 2008 » Column
The wait for eight

The most prestigious record in Olympic history is up for a mighty challenge in the first week of the Beijing Olympic Games 2008. The record has stood since 1972 when Mark Spitz won seven swimming gold medals to the astonishment of the sports world. It is still the most golds ever won by an athlete at a single Games.

At the 1972 Olympics, I was a youthfully-confident and focussed 15-year-old, having my own ‘party’ in the pool. I raced five individual events and two relays, winning medals in all the individual events: three golds, all in world record time, one silver, and a bronze. So the dominant story of the first week of the Munich Games was around ‘the Gouldfish’ from Australia and the American Spitz.

We were photographed and interviewed together for magazines, newspapers and TV around the world. This was the only time we met and talked, as both our swimming schedules were very full and engaging. I was impressed by Spitz’s handsome features, and his ‘signature’ moustache, but wasn’t overawed by his success.

We were colleagues, performing on a world stage, swimming was our act. He was friendly and easy to talk to and swam fast and powerfully, that’s what I remember of him in the water. Now, 36 years later, the challenger to Mark Spitz’s record is his remarkably-talented countryman Michael Phelps. In Athens 2004, Phelps won eight medals, six gold, and two bronze.

Now in Beijing, with many thousands of kilometres and hours more training and racing under his belt, Phelps is fit, faster and more competitive. He has qualified to swim all of the same five individual events in which he won medals in Athens.

It is highly likely that he will also swim in the three relays again. He goes in to the five individual events ranked as the fastest swimmer this year and world record holder in four of them. In the 100m butterfly, Ian Crocker, his US team-mate, is world record holder; he may be the one to upset the Phelps festival, only just slightly slower than him in the US Olympic trials in June.

Phelps will need to rely on the depth of talent in the men’s USA swim team, to secure a gold medal in each three of the relays. There is yet another if: will he be on all of the relays? Several talent-rich countries like Australia, the USA and the Netherlands often have six relay swimmers. Only four swim in the final, but two can be substitutes in the heats, allowing the other two to have a rest.

All six are awarded a medal. Phelps won one of his gold medals in Athens by swimming in the heats of the 4x100 medley relay. The relay teams are selected during the competition at the discretion of the US Olympic team coaches. There are other swimmers that I will be watching closely.

I have a personal interest in American Natalie Coughlin because she and her coach Teri McKeever have stayed in my home on training visits to Australia, as my husband Milton Nelms consults with athletes and coaches. In Beijing, seven swimmers he has worked closely with from four different countries will be in action.

There will be many themes and dramas played out during the Games. The new performance-enhancing swimsuits in which 46 world records have been set since February, is another sub-plot. The new generation of swimsuits is a technological change not seen in the sport before.

I believe the rules about swimsuits will need to be re-examined and suit-testing protocols developed with the involvement of university science departments. Going in to Beijing, the talk around the ‘record-breaking’ suits is mostly about commercial branding opportunities. But clearly, there is new science around human performance in the water that has yet to be clearly defined.

The advent of these swimsuits are creating interesting questions in this area. Another question also arises: if Phelps wins eight gold medals, will he be the greatest Olympian ever? If he won eight gold medals, it would make him the most decorated Olympian ever. But I believe greatness comes from triumph over adversity, serving humanity, being generous and wise.

After all, the Olympics are just a sporting event, and competing at it is an earned privilege but not an essential life matter. Phelps’ commitment and effort is equalled by many thousands of athletes who will not win medals.

The greatest Olympians in my mind are those that embodied the spirit of the movement especially when that was difficult. Who went on to live lives that in retrospect showed that the Olympic ideals were the part of a meaningful life and those whose exploits embodied the hopes or attributes of a nation or a movement or both. Sometimes it takes time for the quality of greatness to emerge.

There is more to greatness than winning medals. In Atlanta when the US organising committee had the chance to have any one from its illustrious past to light the flame, they chose Muhammad Ali. Why not Spitz? Jesse Owens ‘only’ (sic) won four gold medals in Berlin.

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Medals Tally (Beijing 2008)
Country G S B T
1. China 51 21 28 100
2. USA 36 38 36 110
3. Russia 23 21 28 72
4. Britain 19 13 15 47
5. Germany 16 10 15 41
6. Australia 14 15 17 46
7. S Korea 13 10 8 31
8. Japan 9 6 10 25
9. Italy 8 10 10 28
10. France 7 16 17 40
50. India 1 0 2 3
View complete tally »
Medals Tally ( Athens 2004)
We are proud of Abhinav Bindra, Sushil Kumar and Bijender Kumar. Congratulations to all of them. I hope now the corporate world and media in the country will concentrate more on games other than cricket.
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