I’ve written often in the past about how amazed I am by Michael Phelps. Of course that’s a little bit like saying I’m amazed by the earth, the moon and the stars because one doesn’t have to know anything about swimming to know that Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all time.
And yet, as an old swimmer, even though I never came within light years of Phelps, I always felt that if it was possible, Phelps didn’t get the credit he deserved. He was always measured against Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics and if he had ‘only,’ won seven golds or, God Forbid six, in Beijing, most people would still have believed that Spitz was the best.
Which isn’t even close to true. Spitz did two things: he swam butterfly and sprint freestyle. He was absolutely fabulous at both—unbeatable in the 100 and the 200 in both strokes. Phelps can do just about anything you ask him to do in a swimming pool. He can sprint and he can swim distances—he’s never tried the 1,500 but I would bet serious money if he ever trained for it he’d blow everyone away. He’s the greatest butterflyer who ever lived and he’s one of the three best backstrokers in history. He’s even made himself a very good breastroker which is why he’s so unbeatable in the individual medley, the event that definitively proves a swimmer’s versatility.
Now, unfortunately, Phelps is trapped by both technology and marketing. You probably read in today’s papers—or online—about Phelps getting hammered by a previously unheralded German in the 200 freestyle. Much of the story is about the fact that the German, like a lot of swimmers, is wearing a suit that has already been declared illegal by the international swimming federation—except that the suit hasn’t been banned just yet because FINA (the initials for the federation since French is the officials language of international sport) doesn’t want to upset the manufacturer’s too much by banning their suits right this instant.
This reminds me a lot of the ongoing battle between the U.S. Golf Association and the golf manufacturers over equipment. On the one hand, the USGA doesn’t want to see great golf courses completely obliterated by how far players can now hit the ball. On the other hand, it doesn’t want to upset its key business partners to much.
Phelps can’t wear the latest and greatest suit because it is made by Arena and he’s under contract to Speedo. Personally, if I were Speedo, I’d tell him to wear whatever he wants if that’s what it takes to win on a short term basis. Everyone knows they’ve fallen a step behind in the suit wars for the moment whether Phelps is wearing their stuff or not.
In my opinion, Phelps hasn’t gotten a lot of help from the non-swimming people around him. It’s fortunate that most of his career has been shaped by his mom (Debbie) and his coach (Bob Bowman). But he was badly let down by his so-called management team at Octagon during bong-gate last fall when they decided the best way to handle the photo of him taking a hit from a bong at a party was to try to bribe the British tabloid that had the photo. Now, the Speedo people, who could look both smart and magnanimous by telling Phelps to wear the fastest suit allowed—regardless of label—have gone underground.
To be fair, Phelps isn’t the swimmer this summer he was last summer. His time in the 100 free leading off the winning U.S. relay Sunday (by the way, do the French surrender at EVERYTHING, including relays?) was slower than his split in Beijing. His 200 free on Tuesday night was more than a ½ second slower than his world record swim at the Olympics. All of that’s understandable. He took off six months from training and decided (mistakenly) to try to re-invent his freestyle stroke.
Again, this reminds me of golf: Padraig Harrington wins two straight majors and decides he needs to change his swing. Tiger Woods is almost constantly trying to reinvent his swing.
In the long run, Phelps is going to be fine. FINA will eventually figure out what to do about the supersonic suits—the key in the end is that everyone is using the same equipment one way or the other—and Phelps will be swimming in a level pool in London in 2012, which, as he pointed out, is the only meet he’s really pointing to at this point in his life.
One other note that has nothing to do with the suit controversy: After finishing third in the relay on Sunday, the French ducked out on the post-race press conference. Gee, what a surprise.
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