They experience the Olympics from afar, but they do
not miss a detail: the success of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt
catches the eye of legends like Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis.
As, of course, it should.
With his eight swimming gold medals of Beijing 2008, Phelps surpassed fellow-US swimmer Spitz's feat of seven in Munich 1972. And, with his gold Sunday in the 100 metres, Jamaican Bolt deprived Lewis of the privilege of being the only athlete in history to have won the Olympic 100m twice.
Until two years ago, the legendary achievements of Spitz and Lewis
were passed on from generation to generation, but what happened in 2008 and 2012 changes the paradigm for sportspeople to come: they will no longer talk of those men from the 1970s and 1980s but of Phelps and Bolt, who are young and a lot closer as the heroes of the new millennium.
Is Bolt the best sprinter of all time? Lewis is asked that question often, and it is understandable that he does not particularly like it.
"Time and history defines it. We can't define it when we're in it. You have to be able to look back on it. And that's the great thing about Jesse Owens; because here we are 76 years later and we're still talking about Jesse Owens," Lewis told US television network CNN.
He has not been generous to Bolt, who is very different from the former US athlete both physically and personality-wise. Bolt is 2 centimetres taller than Lewis, but he weighs 5 kilogrammes less than the 100m champion of Los Angeles 1984 and Seoul 1988 weighed in his prime.
The histrionic performances that Bolt enjoys so much would have been unthinkable for Lewis. The Jamaican's gestures, grimaces and dances make the past shows of muscle of the likes of Maurice Greene before and after each race seem like child's play.
The 1980s and 1990s, dominated by North America, were basically like that: all muscle, an exaltation of strength and power.
The new millennium, however, is more subtle, more relaxed, less predictable. And Bolt emerges as the ideal man for the "age of Twitter," the daily USA Today said. After all, "anyone can pay attention to anything for 10 seconds," the newspaper noted.
In that sense, sprints in athletics differ from most events in swimming, which Spitz himself admits is hard to sell.
"It gets boring to watch somebody swim for 5 or 6 minutes or even 10 minutes because nothing changes very fast. It's like watching the paint dry," he recently told dpa.
He is also unclear whether or not Phelps is - with 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold - the best swimmer of all time. And Spitz, like Lewis, notes that before today's stars there were others including himself.
"I'm the closest person to him," Spitz said of Phelps just before the 27-year-old went on another medal spree in London, with four golds and two silvers.
"When I won seven gold medals, it wasn't the death of swimming. The fact that Phelps has won so many gold medals, that's not going to be the death of swimming," he wrote in a column for dpa during the 2012 Olympics.
Spitz has thought long and hard about his own position in the history of his sport, and also about that of his successors.
"When I swam, it took 36 years for somebody to break seven gold medals and go one more. But all the people who came after me, the Matt Biondis and the Ian Thorpes, are to this day recognized as the greatest swimmers of their era," he wrote.
"Then there was Michael Phelps. But in the years 2016, 2020, 2024 there will be somebody else that will replace Phelps, and there may be several people that we look to. His world records will be broken, as they have already been, and once those records get broken we will look at those people as being the best in the world," he said.
Sporting success is both ephemeral and eternal, and that applies to athletics and swimming alike.
"We are not going to forget what Phelps did, just like people didn't forget what I did," Spitz said.
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