The American: He can

2008-08-08 00:00

ALMOST exactly four years ago, a tall, lanky and slightly gormless 19-year-old American was wandering around the main concourse of the Olympic Aquatic Centre in Athens asking a group of compatriots: “Where’s my mom? Have any of you seen my mom? She said she’d meet me here. Where’s my mom?”

American youths do tend to stand out among the crowds at every Olympic Games, not simply because they talk much too loudly, but also because, typically, they don’t lack self-confidence.

Seen and heard at Barcelona 1992: “Hey, you know why we always win the most medals?”

“No,” replied an innocent bystander.

“Well, the clue is in our name. We are American. Look at the last four letters… I … C … A … N. That’s why we always win, because we really believe we can, and we do.”

“Wow, that’s great. By the way, I’m a South African. You know why we win? Look at the last four letters … ”

Instantaneously disinterested, and a little irked, the American rushed away towards the golden arches in search of another Big Mac with double fries plus a Diet Coke.

At any rate, it was not just any U.S. teenager searching for his mom at the Aquatic Centre that evening in Athens: it was Michael Phelps, the outstanding swimmer of his — and perhaps any — generation. He had just won the first of what turned out to be six gold medals at the 2004 Games.

Over the next eight days at the futuristic blue Water Cube aquatic centre in Beijing, this prodigy from Baltimore, Maryland, may well earn the right to be hailed as the greatest sportsman of all time.

Nobody has ever won eight gold medals at a single Olympic Games. Just think about that. Most competitors focus their minds and bodies on peaking for a single event in this ultimate sporting arena, and they duly become national heroes if they win. Imagine trying to peak eight times and winning eight times. Imagine no more.

“MP” launches his quest for immortality tomorrow when he swims in the 400 m individual medley. He will race in the 4 x 100 m freestyle relay on Monday, the 200 m freestyle on Tuesday, both the 200 m butterfly and the 4 x 200 m freestyle relay on Wednesday.

Thursday will be a day off, then it’s the 200 m medley relay on Friday followed by the 100 m butterfly on Saturday. All going well, Sunday, August 17, will be the day when he wins gold medal number eight in the 4 x 100m medley relay.

Amid the deluge of global acclaim and worldwide headlines, he will collect a million dollar incentive offered by Speedo and look forward to a lifetime of riches and endorsements.

Revealing an unexpected, un-American capacity for diplomacy, he arrived in China with a Fu Manchu-style moustache, echoing the familiar touch of compatriot Mark Spitz, who won seven swimming gold medals at the 1972 Games in Munich. “He gave the greatest Olympic performance of all time,” Phelps said of Spitz. “I’m looking to do something different, maybe something that sport has never seen.”

His chances are excellent — he holds the world record in six of the eight events— but sport is nothing if not unpredictable and the margins between triumph and (relative) failure are infinitesimally tiny; that’s a reality that Ian Thorpe, the now-retired Australian swimming star, seemed a little over-eager to stress in Beijing this week.

“I just don’t think he’ll do it,” he told the media, perhaps sucking on a few sour grapes. “There are too many variables. Somebody else only has to put on one extraordinary performance on the day, break a record and touch the wall ahead of Phelps and all the hype will be over.”

Phelps has reportedly cut out the newspaper article and stuck it on the inside of his locker as motivation.

The “Thorpedo” may be right. However, if Phelps does succeed, the photograph of the tall, dark American standing with eight — that’s one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, EIGHT — gold medals draped around his neck, neatly splayed across his bare torso will become the defining image of Beijing 2008, indelibly engraved in the history of sport.

Will he do it?

As his fellow Americans will doubtless confirm, yes he can.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby, general manager of SATV sport and involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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