Sunday, 17 August 2008

The Legends

What a whirlwind. I’m not sure if it can be classified as 24 hours that changed the world but it was certainly a period of time in which the games emerged from the shadow of their location.

If the event is ultimately deemed a success then two men should be given the keys to Beijing.

On land and in the water Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps respectively have probably injected these Olympics into the consciousness of a generation.

I grew up in Britain watching sports on TV and especially the Olympics with the commentary of David Coleman. And in these moments of competitive drama on the track, it’s his voice that I often hear.

It wasn’t simply the 100 metres. He had to say something like: “The race to determine the fastest man on the planet.”

Give or take the hyperbole, he made it compelling stuff.

Well, taking a leaf out of Coleman’s high octane descriptions, Bolt didn’t win Saturday night’s 100 metres race, he destroyed the field.

Or as I think I said when I was commentating on it: “There was space.”

That’s the thing that I remember. Bolt had time to look around. He was that far ahead.

It wasn’t quite in the league of waving to special fans in the crowd - that would have been disrespectful - but he could have done.

Richard Thompson, the silver medallist, from Trinidad, put it succinctly.

“I felt as if I was with Usain up to 50 metres and then just felt him pulling away after that. I felt I was in a comfortable second position. I just tried to stay relaxed and I felt myself pulling away from the rest of the field and I could see him slowing down and I’m still pumping to the line…

“He’s a phenomenal athlete and I don’t think there’s any way anyone would have beaten him with a run like that.”

In his quest for eight golds Phelps has given us the knife-edge of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. And, as in the best of all the Master of Suspense’s stories, there have been twists and turns.

Phelps had already been anointed the greatest Olympian of all time after collecting his fourth gold medal here – and 10th overall - when he won the 200 metres butterfly.

That put him ahead of the golden gang of nine which included the the Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi, the American athlete Carl Lewis and the Russian gymnast Larissa Latynina.

Next up was would he equal the seven gold medal haul of the American swimmer Mark Spitz from the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

He did that on Saturday with the fingertip win in the 100 metres butterfly. On Sunday? Would he surpass Spitz and be hailed as lord of all games?

Oddly enough for this he had to rely on others. But the medley relay team of Aaron Peirsol for the backstroke, Brendan Hansen for the breaststroke and Jason Lezak for the freestyle combined to realise the dream.

Five on his own – three with others.

Quite a few of the swimming medallists have been asked to comment on Phelps. And to a man and woman they’ve all essentially said: “Wow.”

They talk about his focus, his consistency and his work ethic.

Grant Hackett, the Australian swimmer who narrowly failed on Sunday to win a third successive Olympic 1500 metres title said: “The level of achievement that he’s done here is phenomenal. In my opinion we’ll never ever see it again. I just don’t think that can be emulated or beaten.

“In this day and age when the sport is so competitive and so close...I said I thought he could win six or seven..... with a little bit of luck.....get eight. And I think in that 100 metres butterfly the way he got on that wall in such a close race everything lined up for him perfectly. He’s done a wonderful job.

“He’s an incredible racer and good on him for what he’s achieved. He’s a nice guy and a good bloke and over the past few years I’ve never seen him change - which is nice.”

Endorsements don’t come bigger than that.

Hackett should know. He said he needed five hours a week of physiotherapy and massage to make sure he can do the kilometres of training needed to be competitive.

At 28 with a couple of Olympic golds and now one silver, no one is really going to tell him he can’t go the distance. But he did sound as if the end was nigh.

And his explanation gave a tiny insight into the lives these athletes lead. But there’s also something at play which goes beyond the everyday discipline of weights and circuit training.

One of the American network camera men who I’ve been chatting to as we’ve been following the agony and joy of the swimmers quipped that Phelps should name his first born son Jason.

It’s not that the other members of the relay teams have done poorly, far from it, it’s just that Lezak has been titanic.

Veteran swimming correspondents spoke of Lezak’s swim last Monday in the freestyle relay as one of the most incredible they’d witnessed.

Lezak jumped into the pool a body length behind Alain Bernard – the second fastest man over 100 metres – and a swimmer who routinely betters him.

Lezak caught him and beat him.

The US team was elemental in its celebrations. Over the next few days every US swimmer would spoke of Lezak’s anchor leg in a race that simply became “the relay”.

Phelps himself has habitually said: “I’ve been speechless since Monday....” And we all know what he is referring to.

Four days after the relay, Bernard won gold in the 100 metres freestyle coming in ahead of the Australian world record holder Eamon Sullivan and Lezak. It was Lezak’s first individual medal in three Olympic games.

Even Bernard talked about how the relay made him reassess and refocus.

On Sunday in the medley relay Lezak plunged into the water with a lead of 0.81 seconds on Sullivan.

Afer the race Lezak said that before he went in he told himself that if he could catch a man that usually beats him then Sullivan, who also usually beats him, could rein him in.

He added: “Obviously I wanted to take it out hard and hold on as strong as I could.”

Lezak touched first with 0.70 of a second to spare.

So are legends spawned.