BEIJING — His legend begins somewhere east of Shanghai, out in the Yellow Sea.
It hovers over the Mongolian border to the north, and it crosses into Vietnam to the south. A couple more days, it will stretch all the way to Pakistan.
With every day, it becomes larger, wider, grander. With every race, it is all you can think about, all you can hear, all you can see.
Michael Phelps, the best swimmer there ever has been, has taken over the Olympics.
Forevermore, these Games will be remembered as the Great Haul of China.
In Phelps' shadow, there are gymnasts and cyclists. Somewhere around his feet, there are divers and basketball players. Far into the background, there are boxers and runners. The other athletes of the Olympics have turned into background singers and supporting actors. There is only Michael and his magnificent medal meter.
His is the most ambitious undertaking in the history of the Games, and he is just over halfway through it. But over swimming's first five days, has anyone ever been as impressive as Phelps? Every splash into the water seems to promise another medal, and every touch of the wall seems to finish with another gold medal.
In a hundred years, these will be remembered as the Michael Phelps Games. For instance, the other day, Aaron Peirsol won his second straight gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke, and he set a world record. And in his news conference, he sat and answered questions about Phelps.
He was lucky. When Phelps won the 200-meter freestyle, American teammate Peter Vanderkaay finished third. Vanderkaay wasn't asked a question in the news conference. Why? Because it's all about Phelps as he collects his treasures of the Orient. It's his pool party.
So what is next for Phelps? History, for one thing.
Phelps is about three solid turns from immortality now. That isn't just Ryan Lochte in the other lane; it's Mark Spitz. That isn't just Ian Crocker on the starting blocks; it's Carl Lewis. That isn't just Fred Bousquet at the finish line; it's Paavo Nurmi. He is in the company of Olympic immortality.
Already, Phelps has won as much gold as anyone in history. If he wins his remaining three races, he not only passes Spitz's record of seven in one Olympiad, he breaks the record for most medals. And at 23, he's certainly young enough to compete in London in four years and to get his career Olympic medal count, now at 13, into the 20s.
When you get down to it, really, that's what America loves most about Phelps. His audacity.
After all, America is the greed-is-good nation. The more an athlete wants, the more we admire him. If Phelps were just your run-of-the-mill sensational swimmer, an athlete who competed in two or three events and won two or three gold medals, his name would be respected, but it would not be revered. He would be, say, Aaron Peirsol.
We like Phelps mainly because of his goals, and because of his golds.
It's odd, because Phelps will not come out and say that he wants to win eight golds, possibly because that would leave him no place to retreat. But he did enter eight events, and he does talk about how much he hates to lose. Of course he wants eight. If you could swim like that, wouldn't you?
He was made for the pool. Out of the water, Phelps admits, he is not the most graceful of athletes. He's clumsy enough to break his wrist while getting into a car, as he did last year. His coach, Bob Bowman, doesn't require Phelps to run to train because, well, Phelps isn't very good at it.
And for all his marketing deals, Phelps isn't particularly charismatic. Oh, he's a likeable enough kid, with a lopsided grin, but he works hard to make sure he speaks in clich?s.
At every opportunity, Phelps paints himself as a rather dull soul, a swimmer who is content with his video games and his DVDs and the hip-hop that blares from his headphones.
Inside the pool, there is nothing clumsy, nothing dull about Phelps. With his size 14 feet that look like flippers and his 80-inch wingspan that looks like oars, he seems made to swim. If not for the absence of gills, perhaps an oversight, he would be the perfect aquatic animal. If Mrs. Paul could catch him, she would try to turn him into fish sticks.
Yes, he is better than Spitz. Yes, he is better than Ian Thorpe. To measure Phelps, you have to go out of the pool and into the past and through the participants.
Three more medals and only one question will remain.
Has there ever been a greater Olympian than Phelps?