Giant on the move
Michael Phelps — a modest American hero
If anyone at this Games could be forgiven for being a little bit conceited, a touch arrogant or slightly dismissive of his opponents then it surely would be Michael Phelps. Six races, six gold medals, six world records — it must be hard to keep your feet on the ground.
The reality is that having watched Phelps close-up this week, both poolside and in the press conference room, there isn’t the slightest whiff of arrogance about him. Even when provoked, by a reporter’s question about doping for example, he remains calm and respectful giving a sensible answer.
More importantly he remains respectful to his fellow athletes, in his own, rather reserved way.
I asked Hungarian Laszlo Cseh, who has finished behind Phelps on three occasions in these Games, what Phelps had said to him after the race and he smiled, “He just said ‘good race’.”
The 12-time gold medallist has celebrated his triumphs in a restrained manner — no whooping, no tears, no dancing poolside — just that one, genuine, roar of delight after the thrilling 4×100 relay win.
Asked about becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time, Phelps said that sounded “pretty neat”. That was refreshing because it managed to avoid sounding arrogant or falsely modest.
Phelps’s demeanour does reflect a culture of swimming that tends to discourage excessive bravado. The competitors spend a lot of time in training camps together and compete against each other in the annual world championships and the familiarity breeds respect.
Likewise they know that each one of them has to go through the same gruelling and often monotonous routine of training, watching your diet and living in a disciplined lifestyle.
Not many people live that way and so there is a mutual understanding. Also, as several podium finishers have pointed out this week, in a sport where a fraction of a second is all that separates a gold medal from a silver, it is very easy to be toppled and only a fool would look down on their competitors because they could very easily be the one being pipped next time.
Having dominated as much as he has, though, Phelps could have broken the mould and been forgiven. He could have chosen to behave like a swimming superstar; he could have said or done anything he wanted and most of us would have accepted it.
That he chose not to, illustrates not only the pleasant atmosphere around top class swimming but also reflects on Phelps, the man.
In an era where Phelps’s nation is suffering a bit of an image problem abroad, Phelps represents America at its best — excellence, courtesy, ambition and dedication, all delivered in an under-stated manner.
He beats everyone but you never hear a bad word about him — and that takes some doing.
PHOTO: Michael Phelps listens to the national anthem during the medal presentation ceremony for the men’s 200m individual medley swimming final at the National Aquatics Center during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 15, 2008. REUTERS/David Gray