Changing China

Giant on the move

Michael Phelps — a modest American hero

August 15, 2008

Phelps listens to the national anthemIf 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


I am Chinese, and I HATE Americans for what they have done such as harrassing, accusing, and branding the Chinese the last few months through now. I HATE the masked psychos. Any, I sincerely respect Phelps, because he represents what a true sport means. NO politics.

Posted by MuLan | Report as abusive

A true gentleman, it seems.

I’ve picked this on the Catholic Social Media site,


He’s a credit to his family, his coaches and his country. I don’t know if he’s the greatest Olympian ever but I would like to see him get all eight because it’s a great story and he’s such an unassuming character. Effective diplomacy!

Posted by Kevin Fylan | Report as abusive

More people (including myself) should have a demeanor like Michael’s.
Congratulations Michael, thank you for making us proud of you and your accomplishments.

Posted by Richard Smith | Report as abusive

hii people of the cyber world!

.. well im not american or chinese so no prejudice lol michael phelps might not say anything stuck up or egoistic but i dont like how he doesnt sing the anthem and doesnt really seem to show respect to that part of the olympics..

.. i just see him talking or giving this smirk, nothing decent or respectful(in all the medeal ceremonies). but then again the whole american relay team that won didnt sing a word of the anthem

so you americans probably dont know the words of your own anthem because i wouldnt believe for a second that your not ‘proud to be american!’ hhahaahaa

ooh and all the slack that china is getting for abusing human rights, thats just hypocrtical to the max! americans (or atleast the people running the country) just invade countries for oil, meddle in wars with other countries and cause even more damage and deaths, and then take other people to criminal war tribunals when the american leaders are the biggest criminals on the face of the planet!!

( please dont take offence if youre merely an american civilian, im purely critising your leaders not you except the comment on not knowing the words of your anthem thats an attack on the swimmers and if they dont know the anthem them im thinking not many americans do!

Posted by yo | Report as abusive

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