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Beyond Spitzing distance

OMAHA, Neb. — Perhaps he should grow a mustache. A big, bushy Village People kind of mustache. You know, like the other guy had.

Perhaps he should swim in his underwear. A star-spangled bikini brief. Just like the other guy wore.

Perhaps he should talk NBC into doing a remake of the old show Emergency, so he could play the guest role of Pete Barlow. Just like What's-His-Name.

Maybe then people would realize the truth about Michael Phelps:

Already, at this moment, he is a better swimmer than Mark Spitz.

I know, I know. Legends being what they are, you would prefer for such an acknowledgment to come on a grand stage. Maybe halfway through the Olympics. Maybe after an eighth gold medal. Maybe after another world record. In a moment such as that, everyone might enjoy the coronation.

The truth, however, is that it has happened already. Somewhere, maybe on a forgotten lap in a practice pool, Phelps became the king of the pool. From here on, everything else he does is running up the score.

There is a popular opinion that Phelps, 23, has some more work to do. After all, Spitz won seven gold medals in '72, and Phelps won only six in '04. Because of that, there are those who suggest that Phelps has to win another four golds, maybe another six, maybe even eight, to surpass Spitz.

Yes, that would be nice to see. No, it isn't necessary.

"If a truck were to hit Michael Phelps today," says former Olympic gold medalist John Naber, "he would still go down as the greatest swimmer of all time."

But Spitz won more medals, you point out.

Naber shakes his head.

"Spitz won four individual medals, and Michael won five (four golds and a bronze)," Naber said. "If you want to compare apples to apples, don't count the relays. If Mark had been born in France, he would have four gold medals because there wouldn't have been enough swimmers around him to win the relays. Those golds are an accident of birth."

Naber has a point. Consider the 400-meter freestyle relay from the last Olympics, when Phelps and his teammates finished third. That, too, could have been a gold if one of Phelps' teammates, Ian Crocker, hadn't swum the slowest time of any competitor on any team in the final.

Think about it: In a debate between Phelps and Spitz, are you really going to let Crocker decide the outcome?

No one is trying to lessen what Spitz did. He was terrific in 1972. Swimming without goggles and with facial hair, he set world records in every individual event he swam. By comparison, Phelps set one world record in Athens.

But you don't judge the greatest swimmer of all time on just one meet, do you? You have to judge him over his career.

Phelps is better because his competition is better. Except for other Americans, Spitz really had no one to challenge him. On the other hand, Phelps had to contend with Australian Ian Thorpe, a top-three all-timer himself. These days, Australian swimmers are better, European swimmers are better, Asian swimmers are better. And yeah, the Americans are still pretty darn good.

Phelps is better because his times are just plain silly. Sure, records always get broken, and technology is better (although Phelps' opponents have the same technology). Still, Phelps swims the butterfly faster than Spitz swam freestyle. It is safe to assume that Spitz would be faster today, too, but would he be this much faster?

Phelps is better because of his consistency. Remember, Spitz bombed in the '68 Olympics when he predicted he would win six golds (he won two in relays). Phelps hasn't bombed. If you think about his performance in last year's world championships (seven golds and five world records), it's hard to believe he will.

Phelps is better because he is more versatile. Spitz swam only freestyle and butterfly events, remember? Phelps' greatest asset is that he can swim all four strokes on a world-class level.

Consider what happened Wednesday morning at the Olympic trials, when Phelps more or less left a medal unclaimed. In 100-meter freestyle qualifying, Phelps was second overall in 47.92 seconds (he would have broken the American record if Garrett Weber-Gale hadn't done it with 47.78 one heat earlier), then promptly announced he would not compete in the event in the semis that night.

The reason is that Phelps' semifinal would have come 17 minutes before his final in the 200 butterfly, which was simply too hard to push. Phelps swam his heat only so he would be considered for the 400-meter relay in Beijing.

Phelps' scratch brings up another question. Why, in a 16-day Olympiad, is swimming packed into nine days? If swimming is going to have this many events, why not spread them out so an athlete such as Phelps (or Katie Hoff, for that matter) can compete in them all?

More than anything, that's why Phelps is the better swimmer. Space it out as much as you can and let Phelps in his prime swim against Spitz in his. Phelps would win more medals.

"To me, the mark of any great athlete is if he influences other people," Naber said. "Like Michael Jordan. Aaron Peirsol and Ryan Lochte are trying with Michael Phelps.

"Michael has already done it, and he'll do it again.

In Beijing, however, Phelps won't be swimming to become the best of all time.

He'll be swimming to remove all doubt.

Beyond Spitzing distance 07/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:35pm]

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