None better

Michael Phelps' recent dominance makes a case for him to be considered the best swimmer ever

April 06, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise anyone that Tiger Woods and Roger Federer have started hanging out together.

It's not like they can compare notes on transcendence with anyone in golf or tennis. But based on the events of the past week, they might want to call Michael Phelps and offer him admission to their athletic Olympus.

The swimmer from Rodgers Forge isn't often included in ESPN polls asking which athlete most dominates his or her sport. He doesn't get to compete on television every week. And frankly, if it's not an Olympic year, most fans don't give his sport much thought.

But Phelps was so good at the FINA World Championships in Australia last week that he has made his competitors sound just like the guys who lose to Woods and Federer week after week.

Russian bronze medalist Nikolay Skvortsov said he was honored to have been in the pool when Phelps shaved 1.62 seconds off his world record in the 200-meter butterfly. Runner-up Wu Peng of China admitted that "to secure that [gold] medal is impossible" when competing with the American.

Phelps has heard the comparisons. "A buddy of mine actually read of me being in the names of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer," he said after his 200-meter individual medley win. "That is a pretty big accomplishment and definitely something I'm proud of. They have changed their sports themselves, so hopefully I can do the same in swimming."

The swimmer's case for greatness on the level of Woods or Federer began when he set five world records at the 2003 world championships, solidified when he won six Olympic golds in Athens in 2004 and strengthened as he obliterated several world records last week.

But he could really push it over the top, observers agree, by overwhelming the competition at a second Olympics in Beijing next year. If he were to tie or break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals at one Summer Games, his claim as the greatest swimmer ever might be ironclad.

Other swimmers - Spitz, Germany's Michael Gross, American Matt Biondi - have been the clear leading men at one Olympics each. But none managed to remain at the summit a second time around.

"Now, if he can do in Beijing the same thing he did in Athens, he'd be the first guy to do it twice," longtime Olympics announcer Jim Lampley said. "Then, you have to put that phrase `greatest of all time' into the thought process."

Phelps' path could actually match Woods' neatly. Like Woods at the 1997 Masters, he exploded to the top of his sport before anyone expected. Like Woods reeling off four straight major victories in 2000 and 2001, Phelps consolidated his ascent with an overwhelming performance - in his case, at the Olympics. And like Woods, he seems able to keep his edge in a way that continually disheartens would-be competitors.

Phelps should receive no less credit because his sport enters the limelight less frequently, Lampley argued.

"It's an incredibly hard sport," he said. "You train at an incredibly high level. You spend so much time in the water, existing in your own head space in isolating circumstances. And you have to do it every day."

Lampley assumed 20 years ago that the explosion of all-day sports coverage would lead to greater attention for athletes such as Phelps and Federer. Instead, it has led to a constricted and intensified focus on the big three of football, basketball and baseball.

"Michael is a landmark, a giant, a historic figure, but compared to Mark Spitz, he's a nobody," Lampley said.

Swimming in ads

Bob Dorfman, a marketing executive for San Francisco-based Pickett Advertising, agreed that fame has become more elusive for athletes outside the major sports. But he believes Phelps could overcome that simply by hanging around as a top American athlete for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

"If he dominates in Beijing and continues to dominate in London, he could become the most medaled Olympian in history, and then you'd really have something," Dorfman said. "He could become a Bruce Jenner type. He's good-looking. He could model. He could do Dancing with the Stars. You could make him bigger than his sport."

Phelps' success has led to millions of dollars in endorsement deals for brands such as Visa, PowerBar, Speedo, Omega (the watch company) and Matsunichi Communications.

He's kept from the endorsement heights and fame of Woods or LeBron James mostly because his sport is rarely on television.

"Swimmers just don't have that year-in and year-out visibility," Dorfman said.

For now, Phelps is likely to reach Woods-level celebrity only in the months leading up to next year's Olympics.

The focus on athletes such as Phelps has dwindled in inverse proportion to the rising difficulty of their feats, Lampley added.

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