THE story of the 2008 Olympics has got to be Michael Phelps, and not just because of all the gold medals he’s won. What makes him espescially appealing is his back story ( his humble beginnings, his stuggle with ADHD, his devotion to his mother) and his terrific personality. Even as we are told about his single-minded pursuit of swimming glory, we are charmed by his modesty and his incandescent smile. Sports fans the world over , not just from America, are rooting for him to win his eighth gold tonight and make swimming history.
We in America are fortunate to have such a paragon for our standard bearer because his actions and behavior reflect on all of us. How disastrous it would be if our heroes were flawed and imperfect……
The same thought occurred to James Thurber back in the thirties when he wrote his short story ” The Greatest Man in the World”. It is the story of Jack ( ” Pal”) Smurch, an erstwhile mechanic’s helper from Ohio who sets out to fly non-stop around the world in a secondhand single engine plane, carrying with him only ” a gallon of bootleg gin and six pounds of salami.” No one gives him much of a chance to accomplish this feat but, nine days later , his rickety plane makes a perfect three point landing , touching down at Roosevelt Field, New York. The exhausted Smurch collapses from sheer exhaustion and is rushed to hospital. The press , for the first time starts digging into the background of the tobacco chewing hero and are horrified by what they uncover. His mother is a short-order cook in a shack restaurant, his father a jailbird and his brother a simple minded petty thief on the run after escaping from the Ohio reformatory. He himself is a congenital hooligan who has done jail time for robbing a church . Smurch is amoral, boorish, boastful and totally unequipped to deal with his prodigious fame. The newspapermen are appalled and agree to publish only flattering accounts of the hero while attempts are made to get him to tone down his act. The President and other bigwigs meet Smurch in his ninth floor hotel room but Smurch is as insufferable as ever. All he can think about is partying and money, big money. He walks over to the open window and leans over to get a better look at the street scene below…In Thurber’s words “ An unspoken word of appeal, of command ,seemed to ring through the room. Charles K.L Brand, secretary to the Mayor of New York City happened to be standing nearest Smurch: he looked inquiringly at the President of the United States. The President, pale, grim, nodded shortly. Brand, a tall, powerfully built man, once a tackle at Rutgers, stepped forward, seized the greatest man in the world by his left shoulder and the seat of his pants and pushed him out the window. ” My God, he’s fallen out the window !” cried a quick witted editor. At story’s end, little Jacky Smurch is is given an elaborate, solemn funeral at Arlington National Cemetery while tributes pour in from all over the world for America’s greatest hero !
I was very pleasantly surprised by Mark Spitz’s demeanor in his three way conversation last night with Bob Costas and Michael Phelps. Earlier in the week , there had been reports that Spitz was less than gracious about Phelps’ quest to break his record, pooh-poohing suggestions that he be in Beijing poolside while Phelps went for his historic eighth gold. Last night, however, Spitz said all the right things , twice labelling Phelps’ performance ” epic” and lauding his accomplishments whole -heartedly. Phelps too was appreciative of Spitz’s comments and properly respectful of his accomplishments. It was all very good to watch. Mark Spitz has had his time in the sun , and now it is the turn of Michael Phelps. That’s just the way things are and in no way diminishes Spitz’s achievements at Munich all those years ago.
Quite another kettle of fish is the comment by Chad Johnson, #85, the wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. Johnson ,whose mouth is even faster than his feet , had this to say about Phelps “The problem with Michael Phelps, there’s no competition where he is…….If he came to where I’m from, which is the inner city, Liberty City, I was the three-times Charles Hadly school champ…Some of the best people in the world are the people who are not able to make it to that level. Those who are the best where they are at, and where I’m from, Liberty City, I know at least a couple of people who could beat Michael Phelps right now, and I’m one of them.” Johnson, who has raced and won against a thoroughbred racehorse for a charity fundraiser, did not say whether he was joking or if he planned to race the decorated swimmer.
In the modern parlance, Johnson’s remark was seriously retarded. If it was intended as a joke, it wasn’t funny ; if he meant it seriously, he’s out of his mind. Johnson is a good football player , though not as great as he thinks he is , and he apparently will go to any lengths to train the spotlight on himself. Too bad he couldn’t , for a moment, forget about himself and appreciate a superb effort by a wonderful athlete.