Splashing his way into history, Michael Phelps is now the most medalled Olympian of them all. Is he the greatest? Realistically, it hardly matters. It is tough enough to compare events within the same discipline, let alone across a range of massively contrasting examinations and over very different eras. Even if these obstacles could somehow be overcome, we will still all have our favourites. Attitude and personality might sway the judgement in favour of one particular titan over another. What is certain, however, is that to retain not only the ability but also the hunger over a sustained period is a mark of true brilliance. Swimmers, like gymnasts, have the obvious advantage of multiple opportunities, in their case of distances, strokes and relay races. This in itself provides a test of stamina and mental preparation. For Phelps, as an American and therefore a citizen of the strongest swimming nation on earth, just achieving selection for the team is a significant demand.
What London 2012 has outlined is just how fragile and lonely is the summit of the mountain. Phelps was one of the few to retain a title in the pool. A string of champions found returning to the well a task too far. Nowhere is youth more precious; nowhere time more limited. Rebecca Adlington, Britain’s finest, erupted onto the scene in Beijing as a teenager. There to be shot at, predator turned gamekeeper, this time she found herself victim of a new arrival on the scene. Elsewhere, rumblings of foul play circulated around the previously unheralded Chinese Ye Shiwen, whose time improvements aroused suspicion in some quarters. No such accusations were levelled at the genuinely overwhelmed fifteen year old Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte, though she similarly upset the established order in grand style. All of these are examples of how, in swimming, the turnover rate is brutal; staying at the top means resisting and repelling constant threats.
These challenges are now coming from increasingly unexpected sources. While the United States retains its supremacy to the extent that, in some areas, its national trials still amount to a de facto Olympic final, traditional rivals Australia suffered a distressing fall from grace and others were only too eager to step into the breach. Sixteen nations have earned medals at the aquatics centre, including the likes of South Africa, Japan and Spain, with many others coming close. As facilities improve and training methods are shared, this is a trend destined to continue. It means that personal dominance will become even harder to maintain. Phelps has towered above the opposition longer than anyone else. Now even his star is on the wane. Whatever his place in the firmament, it may be an awful long time before one shines quite so brightly again.
As an exercise in reverse psychology, it certainly hit the spot. Publicly criticise your charges, lay into their commitment, desire and attitude, then sit back and watch the sparks fly. It probably wasn’t his intention but British judo chief Densign White reaped the benefit of his oddly timed tirade with a spectacular turnaround in fortunes. Having watched just one judoka progress beyond their first bout in the first four days of competition, the frustrated White opted to vent his spleen at such a dispiriting situation. When one of the beaten players, Winston Gordon, reacted angrily to the slight, it seemed the whole squad was about to implode amid the turmoil and bitterness. Then something incredible happened. Gemma Gibbons, not one of the leading lights within the camp, found her zone and the momentum gathered. A flurry of ippons and yukos carried her all the way to a silver medal. It was the nation’s first podium finish in twelve years. Next day heavyweight Karina Bryant battled to a bronze. Suddenly, everything in the garden is rosy; performance targets exceeded, vital primetime exposure guaranteed. There are many carefully constructed blueprints for success, but sometimes all that’s needed is a good old fashioned row.
Shooting and Archery
Peter Wilson probably didn’t expect to be catapulted onto the front pages of the newspapers. The media seems to get a little twitchy where shooting is concerned. Recent events in Colorado have further heightened an understandable reticence to glamorise anything concerning guns. The public doesn’t always get the distinction so best not to give too much credit to Britain’s latest gold medallist. The youngster from Dorset had to head to Dubai to pursue his Olympic dream, one which he realised with an icy coolness on the range at Royal Artillery Barracks. Aside from the negative associations though, watching six blokes of greatly varying age and physique firing silently at virtually invisible discs, which explode in a puff of pink smoke when hit, is not a great televisual experience. All achievements are equal, but some, it seems, are more equal than others.
Over at Lord’s, the archery had a more mesmeric appeal, assisted by the atmosphere and history of this divine setting. In medieval times, while other sports were actively discouraged, expertise with the bow and arrow was revered and practising the skill was as much a duty as a diversion. Sadly, it seems another Agincourt would be unlikely now, but Barry Hearn might have spotted an opportunity. Britain’s Larry Godfrey, he of the skunk style bleached hair and crowd pleasing antics, remarked that once he removed the earplugs and embraced the occasion his performance improved accordingly. Maybe this genteel world might benefit from the darts treatment, with dynamic nicknames, boisterous musical walk-ons and audience participation. Perhaps not, but Sky Sports recently covered five hours of high octane live fishing, so stranger things have happened.