Michael Phelps won his 19th Olympic medal today, setting a new world record for most medals ever won, and earning headlines as the ‘greatest Olympian‘ to ever live. But I have to admit: I wasn’t wholly moved by the spectacle. It may not be a popular view, but despite his obvious and honorable achievements, I just don’t think he embodies the Olympic spirit that makes the games so much fun to watch, and such an inspiration around the world.
His victory came after the U.S. won gold in the 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay today, which was his third medal in the London Olympics in 2012 (he won eight medals in Athens in 2004, and eight more in Beijing in 2008). Clearly, he has a lot of talent.
But his story isn’t one of struggle against adversity, by any means. In fact, if anything, stories of his work ethic are less-than-inspiring. His teammate Tyler Clary accused him of poor preparation for the Olympics just before they went to London this year:
“The fact that he doesn’t have to work as hard to get that done, it’s a real shame,” Clary said. “I think it’s too bad. You see that all too often, where you get athletes that are incredibly talented that really take it for granted. I think the things he could have done if he’d worked as hard as I do would have been even more incredible than what he has pulled off.”
Phelps, of course, disputed the accusation, saying:
People can say and do whatever they want. That’s fine. I’ve gotten to where I am today by working hard, and I know that and Bob knows that. And nobody else thinks that, so it doesn’t matter. I’m very happy with my career and what I’ve done throughout it.
But his attitude entering London was cocky, not humble and hard-working; announcing that this would be his last time in the games and he saw it as closure after his big wins in Beijing: ”Now it’s just a matter of how many toppings I want on my sundae,” he said, in a quote that made him sound more like a spoiled kid than an athlete with his career at stake.
I feel somewhat ambivalent about the Olympics; the games are fun to watch, but as Deborah pointed out earlier this week, watching them on TV runs counter to my goals of getting out and playing sports myself.
Even so, I have to admit: Sometimes I do tear up while watching the Olympics. It’s inspiring to watch the greatest athletes win, of course, but it’s even more moving (to me, at least) to watch the lesser-known participants rise against the odds, and see athletes grapple with unfortunate losses and heartbreaking mistakes.
So while it’s undeniable that Phelps’ wins are impressive and great, it’s hard to feel moved by his presumptuous attitude and cocky demeanor. It’s far more moving to watch Korean fencer Shin A Lam tearfully stand her ground against a (probably unfair) ruling that put her out of the game, or even to see the USA women’s gymnastics team (by no means an underdog, I realize) win gold for the first time in 16 years.
Phelps also represents a lot of what the world hates about the U.S. Olympic team: We’re a powerhouse, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest, seemingly without one iota of self-doubt or appreciation for the advantages that poise us to win. That’s not to say that our athletes don’t work hard, or that somehow the rules bend in our favor (as Colombian soccer player Lady Andrade suggested this week), but it does mean that we could use an extra dose of humility, and show our appreciation for the advantages we’re afforded.
To me, the Olympic spirit is all about appreciating and seizing our opportunities, and experiencing the range of emotions from victory to loss. Whether Phelps really seized his opportunity by training his hardest, or what his range of emotions was throughout the games this year (or any other), isn’t for me to say. But viewing the games as toppings on his sundae just doesn’t embody the spirit of the Olympics–or at least, the Olympics that really move me.