In the same way the statue of Christ the Redeemer dominates the Rio skyline so Michael Phelps now transcends his sport. It did not require one final gold medal in the 4x100 medley relay – his 23rd gold and 28th Olympic medal – to reinforce his status as the most decorated Olympian of all time but he delivered it anyway. The outstretched arms of Phelps will encourage swimmers to aim higher for as long as there is water on the surface of the earth.
The chances of any other male athlete from any sport eclipsing Phelps’s tally are not so much remote as inconceivable. Maybe the remarkable Katie Ledecky, still only 19, will edge into similarly rarified territory but she will have to dig extraordinarily deep over the next dozen years to do so. The phenomenal Phelps has taken the art of winning to a level beyond the average human imagination.
His 23rd gold medal also took him to a personally significant mark; his great hero Michael Jordan always wore that number for the Chicago Bulls. “Twenty-three is a special number,” he admitted. “It always has been and now it’ll be even more special. I guess everything happens for a reason. Watching what he did in basketball is something I’ve always dreamed of doing in the sport of swimming.” It made his last competitive Olympic swim all the more satisfying. “It’s just the perfect way to finish. This is the cherry on the top of the cake that I wanted. I couldn’t be happier with the way things ended.”
His long time coach Bob Bowman is already convinced there will never be another swimmer quite like him. “Absolutely not. I’m not even looking. He’s too special. It’s not even once in a generation. It might be once in 10 generations that someone like Michael comes along. I don’t think you’re going to be seeing another Michael.”
It certainly feels surreal to anyone brought up on American swimming greats such as Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi that the retiring champion will depart with more golds than his two closest pursuers combined. Yes, swimming affords plenty of podium opportunities but that should theoretically give his rivals more chances to unseat him in some of his less specialist disciplines. Their inability to do so tells its own recurring story.
The last hurrah was typical Phelps: the menacing hoodied, headphoned entry followed by the almost inevitable golden outcome, a shared Olympic record and a familiar podium salute. He was more emotional than usual before the race, however, as his team-mate Ryan Murphy later confirmed; “You could see the tears in his eyes as we were walking over to the medal ceremony. He was super emotional. If this is the end for him that was a great way to cap off an incredible career. He’s opened a lot of doors for all of us. Whoever you swim for, you’re indebted to Michael Phelps.”
The 31-year-old, who has also won the 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley, along with the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays – he won silver in the 100m butterfly – has also looked a far more contented athlete in Rio; fatherhood clearly suits him yet his competitive urge remains undimmed. While Great Britain’s James Guy did well to hold him in check during the butterfly leg, there was never much doubt the US would take gold.
With the women’s 4x100 medley relay team also winning gold, it was another satisfying night for the American team at the end of another productive week. Amid all the American back-slapping, though, GB’s silver medal effort did contain one remarkable statistic. Adam Peaty’s split time for his 100m breaststroke leg was a staggering 56.59, well under the mythical 57-second barrier and almost half a second quicker than his world record time set earlier this week en route to individual gold.
Even Phelps was impressed. “He was swearing and said ‘56.5 is mad’,” revealed Peaty. “He was pretty impressed. Looking at the TV as a kid you never think you’d impress Michael Phelps with all those golds round his neck.”
It will give the GB team further reason to fly home suitably encouraged about the future. “I was a man on a mission,” said Peaty. “A lot of people have been saying I couldn’t do it but I took over half a second off it. Hopefully that’s a message for the rest of the world in four years time. We’re looking at a very good relay coming together.”
It was also an emotional outcome for Chris Walker-Hebborn who has been competing while coping with the recent news that his father, Andy, has been diagnosed with cancer. There was a less soothing outcome for Fran Halsall who finished an agonising fourth in her 50m freestyle final, leaving her just outside the medals for the third Games in succession. Even a season’s best time of 24.13 secs was not quite enough in a desperately tight race, with the Danish winner Pernille Blume clocking 24.07 and Belarus’s Aliaksandra Herasimenia winning bronze in 24.11.
Halsall, who was leading halfway down the pool, could not hide her disappointment afterwards. “It’s disappointing not to come away with the result I wanted but it just didn’t work out on the day. It was a season’s best...my best performance of the whole year, in an Olympic final. You can’t do much more than that really. It’s just that other people on the day were a bit better than me.”
This article was written by Robert Kitson at the Olympic Aquatic Centre in Rio, for theguardian.com on Sunday 14th August 2016 08.57 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010