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Eight around the neck
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 08 - 2004

In Athens came a fresh face to prove that sportsmanship still exists. Nashwa Abdel-Tawab reports
Nineteen-year-old Michael Phelps displayed the spirit of the Olympics when he stepped aside for his teammate to run a race and have an opportunity at winning a gold. From a world record in his first race to generously giving up a spot in the final relay, the rap-loving kid from Baltimore had an Olympics for the ages. He is destined to be immortalised alongside the likes of Mark Spitz and Nadia Comaneci, Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi.
After his first medal, Phelps was keen to hold hands with his mother through a gap in the wire to hold his gold medal, savouring an Olympic triumph together. Within a week, Phelps had eight medals, as many as anyone from a single Games.
From a front-row seat at the Olympic pool, Phelps watched his teammates do all the work in the 400-metre individual medley Saturday night. When they won with a world-record time, Phelps got a gold, too -- his record-tying eighth medal of the Athens Games with Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin's 1980 record for the most medals at one Games.
"It felt like I was part of that race," said Phelps, who earned his gold by swimming the event in the preliminaries.
Phelps earned a spot in the medley final by winning the 100 butterfly Friday night. But he ceded his place to Ian Crocker, wanting to give the silver medalist a chance to make up for a poor showing in the 400 free relay.
Phelps arrived in Athens to face enormous expectations and a gruelling schedule. He wound up racing 17 times in seven days, raising questions about the wisdom of entering so many events in a sport that has become increasingly specialised.
No less an authority than Ian Thorpe wondered if Phelps was setting himself up for failure by trying to break Spitz's record of seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games.
Phelps may have fallen short of the mark, but six golds and two bronzes later, there's no way he'll be remembered as a flop.
"I've said in the past that I want to become the first Michael Phelps, to do something that no- one has ever done before," he said. "That stuck with me the whole entire meet, and I was successful at it."
It wasn't an entirely smooth journey to stardom.
Phelps' quest for seven golds was over on his third day in the water, doomed by a pair of bronze-medal finishes. He also was at the centre of a spat when the American coaches put him on the 400-metre freestyle relay team, prompting three-time Olympian Gary Hall Jr to complain that Phelps was getting special treatment in his pursuit of Spitz's record.
In the end, Phelps even managed to win over Hall.
Phelps won gold in his last five events and proved to be the ultimate teammate, letting rival Crocker take over in the 400-metre medley relay -- the last swimming event of the Athens Games.
Phelps earned a spot in the final by winning the 100 butterfly with a stirring come-from-behind performance against Crocker. But Phelps was already in line for a medal in the relay because he had competed with the team in the preliminaries. So he gave up his spot, allowing Crocker to redeem himself for a disappointing swim in an earlier relay.
On Saturday night, Phelps sat in a front-row seat and led the cheers as Crocker and the Americans set a world record. After getting his gold, Crocker came over to hug Phelps.
"I thanked him because he was one of the main reasons I had the opportunity to do that," Crocker said. "He gave me a gift."
Phelps hopes his performance in Athens, eight medals, breaking two world records and two Olympic records, will raise swimming's profile in the United States, where interest invariably wanes after any Olympics. That may prove to be a more difficult challenge than the one he faced in the pool.
Spitz was set for life after Munich, but his sport faded back into obscurity once he got home. Phelps could be headed down a similar path -- endorsements and fame for the man, not much publicity for the sport.
Phelps is undaunted.
"One of my biggest goals is to promote the sport of swimming in the States," he said. "We don't get enough coverage, in my opinion."
But that's for later. With swimming over, Phelps planned to check out of the Olympic Village and enjoy Athens during the last week of the Games. He'd like to see other events, hang out with friends and eat burgers, fries, whatever he wants.
Once he gets back to Baltimore, life will be different. The teenager, who still lives at home, wants a place of his own, and a dog, too. Maybe he'll move to Michigan where his coach, Bob Bowman, is taking a new job.
Phelps' mother, a former teacher, is sure to nag him about getting started on a degree, although he's already turned pro and can't swim at the college level.
"He'll definitely be going into school," Debbie Phelps said. "He knows that's very important. No matter what happens in life, they can never take away your educational experience."
And they'll never be able to take away those eight medals. He might get even more.
Phelps will certainly return for the 2008 Beijing Games, although it's unlikely he'll swim so many events. The 2012 Olympics are on a radar screen, too. He'll be only 27 -- younger than several members of this year's American team.


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