Swimmer Michael Phelps won his twentieth Olympic medal last night when he defeated fellow American Ryan Lochte in the 200-meter medley. And his Olympics haven’t yet ended. Should he qualify, Phelps could extend his medal record in the 100-meter butterfly later today and the 4×100-meter medley relay on Saturday.
“I thanked [my teammates] for being able to allow me to have this moment,” Phelps explained after his 200-meter relay victory earlier this week broke the all-time Olympic medal-record of eighteen. “It has been a pretty amazing career but we still have a couple of races left.”
Despite verbal graciousness toward teammates and all the “we” talk, Michael’s message is loud and clear: I accomplished all this.
The 29 “individual” world records that the swimmer holds all feature the name “Michael Phelps” and no one else’s in the books. For the ten “individual” Olympic gold medals won, Phelps stood alone atop the podium. And 2008’s Sportsman of the Year camera-hogged the cover of Sports Illustrated, appearing with hands on hips and eight shiny gold medals hanging around his gloating head.
If Michael Phelps has been successful, he didn’t get there on his own. I’m always struck by Olympians who think, ‘Well, it must be because I was just so athletic.’ There are a lot of athletic people out there! ‘It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.’ Let me tell you something: there are a whole bunch of hardworking athletes out there!
If you were successful at swimming, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great coach somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to pay for your swimming lessons that have allowed you to thrive. Somebody built the pool. If you’ve got a medal — you didn’t win that. Somebody else made that happen.
A modest proposal to counteract Olympic arrogance: share the gold.
When you spread medals around, it is good for everybody. There are enough grains of gold to go around. It isn’t fair that Phelps was born with an 80-inch wingspan, size fourteen flippers, and the ability to metabolize 12,000 calories daily and still look like an Abercrombie & Fitch model. Nature endows him with gifts; man further endows him with awards. The Olympics is an elitist affront to egalitarianism.
In the Olympics, the rich get richer. The haves feast on the have-nots. Unfettered competition leaves the “1%” with all the silver and gold and the “99%” with nothing. Rampant discrimination against the obese, no head starts for underprivileged athletes, and a hierarchical winners-losers dichotomy characterize the London games. Occupy the Olympics.
To bring a relic of 8th-century B.C. Athens into the 21st century global village, everyone, as some enlightened soccer leagues in the northeastern part of the United States understand, should get trophies, or, in the case of the Olympics, medals. The elitist practice of placing “winners” on pedestals should be immediately abolished. We all stand as one on the planet pedestal. And competition, which brings out the worst in people, should be replaced with cooperation. If a strongman can’t clean-and-jerk 500 pounds, how about another athlete lends him a hand?
Snobs might say that abolishing victory’s incentives, and compelling athletes to work together, will inevitably bring slower times. But we will place burdens on the most advantaged for the purposes of fairness. When everybody wins, we all win.
Because Michael Phelps is so extraordinary, swimming requires extraordinary measures to maintain social justice against the scourge of individual “accomplishment.” Throwing a life preserver to the trailing swimmers, or pooling resources in the pool, simply won’t cut it. The Baltimore Bullet’s gaudy gold too conspicuously flashes his sins against equality, fairness, and all that is good.
Tying fifty-pound dumbbells to each limb should achieve the desired results in the pool. This may have the effect of forcing Phelps underwater, putting him out of the swimming business forever, and literally drowning him with an excess of rules. But at least the summer games would be fair.