The Olympics are a strange thing. They’re based on the ancient Greek tradition of the same name, but the two competitions are, for the most part, fundamentally different. The Greeks threw rocks; we shoot guns. They battled for city pride; we compete for nations. The Greeks raced chariots in Athens; unfortunately, we do not.
Apart from the torch, the Modern Olympics (only 31 have ever been held) have few practices in common with the Ancient games. They’re hard to compare in terms of traditions, and even harder to compare athletically.
As we’ve come to understand over the past 16 years, however, is that Michael Phelps might just pull off the impossible. On Thursday night in Rio, the greatest swimmer the world has ever seen made Olympic history.
No, not Modern Olympic history. Not Ancient Olympic history, either.
Olympic history. The whole shebang. Both of em.
With his 24th medal, Phelps topped Leonidas of Rhodes’ 2,168 year-old record to become the most dominant individual in Olympic history. The pomp, the rings, the pride—no matter what has been attempted, none of it was able to accomplish what Phelps has done to bridge the two eras. He’s the link between the past and the present, and we’re not going to see anything like him in the future.
It’s fitting, then, that he earned his first medal as a teenager in Athens, 2,780 years after the Greeks held the first games. He won there, and he hasn’t stopped since. In Beijing, folks whispered that he might just set his an improbable record, eight gold medals in one year. And then he won those first few races, and those whispers became coffee shop chitchat. And then he won all eight, and they became one iconic shout.
You don’t need me to remind you of this, though. You remember. In school, when I need to memorize something, I repeat it in my head over and over again. Brújula means compass. Compasses are brújulas. Eventually, it just sticks. Phelps pops into our heads every 4 years, and each time, it’s like nothing has changed. Just like the Olympics themselves, Phelp’s calls you up once every four years, out of the blue: Remember me? He is 31, and while everyone else he is racing against trained for years before these games, he grew a beard while wallowing in rehab. And he is still the best. What’s new?
You watch, and you see him swim, just like you have swum in lakes and pools and oceans. But it doesn’t look like he’s swimming. Or maybe you weren’t the one swimming. You’re confused. They can’t be the same activity. Your forward crawl cannot be that same sprint you’re watching on TV.
Guess what? It’s not what the Ancient Greeks were doing either. Nobody has ever swum like him—competed like him—before, not in our games and not in theirs. He’s become the very embodiment of the Olympics—excellence so complete that it’s downright unbelieveable. He’s only missing a marble statue and a temple crumbling up there on the Parthenon.