November 29, 2008
In the interest of building some modicum of suspense, the people at Sports Illustrated have assembled a large group of candidates for the magazine's Sportsman of the Year award, which will be announced Tuesday.
It is an eclectic group that includes Kobe Bryant (for his altruistic efforts to enhance the globalization of pro basketball), NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson (because he's not the Jimmy Johnson who used to coach the Cowboys), Alex Ovechkin (because he's a hockey player you've actually heard of) and a number of other athletes from a variety of sports - big and small - who deserve recognition for their accomplishments this year.
Of course, they could have narrowed the list to eight awhile ago if they were so inclined, and here are those candidates:
•The swimmer who won the gold medal and set a world record in the 400-meter individual medley at the Olympics in Beijing.
•One of members of the 400 freestyle relay team that won a gold medal and set a world record at those same Olympics.
•The guy who won gold in the 200 freestyle in world-record time.
•The athlete who won the gold medal in the 200butterfly and broke his own world record in spite of a malfunctioning set of goggles.
•The fellow who came back less than an hour after another event to help his team win the 800freestyle relay in world-record time.
•The phenom who broke his own world record by a half-second on the way to a gold medal in the 200 IM.
••The comeback kid who rallied from seventh place to win the 100 butterfly in what might have been the most dramatic finish in Olympic history.
•The young man who won gold swimming the third leg of world-record 400 medley relay for the U.S.
OK, so I've made my point. They're all the same guy. Michael Phelps did something during those eight days in August no one had ever done before, which should put a little distance between him and the basketball player (Kobe) who didn't even win his league title or even the basketball player ( Kevin Garnett) who did. Phelps also added to a career medal count that is unequaled by anyone who has stood on an Olympic medal stand, so the idea that there is some kind of actual competition for this year's SI Sportsman of the Year is about as silly as the notion that SI's Swimsuit Edition is about beach fashion.
Don't misunderstand. I've got no inside information, though the fact that Phelps is nowhere to be found in SI.com's Sportsman of the Year preview page seems like a dead giveaway. The list of profiles includes Dara Torres, the U.S. Ryder Cup team, soccer star Guillermo Barros Schelotto and even the Fresno State baseball team that won the College World Series. But no Phelps.
Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard even offered up Tiger Woods, in part because of how much we all missed him this year after he won the U.S. Open on a bum leg.
This one is the classic no-brainer, which isn't exactly the way they like to draw it up at halftime of the Sportsman of the Year hunt. Maybe you could make a case for Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt, except that in this year of Michaelmania there are too many people who already are having trouble remembering anyone else who took part in the Beijing Games.
Phelps has not faded into the post-Olympic woodwork. He has bought into the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in Mount Washington and started the Michael Phelps Foundation to expand the reach of competitive swimming. Twelve days ago he was named Athlete of the Year by USA Swimming, and he will be featured tomorrow night on 60 Minutes, which has already leaked a portion of the interview with Anderson Cooper in which Phelps revealed that Serbian-American rival Milorad Cavic made a key mistake in the 100 butterfly that allowed Phelps to remain on course for his record eight gold medals in a single Olympics.
The next day, Phelps eclipsed Mark Spitz to establish himself as one of the greatest Olympians of all time, and he's not through. He's scheduled to resume training in January and intends to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London.
Certainly other athletes have delivered impressive performances this year - even a few who also have gone where no one in their respective sports has gone before. No one else, however, has made as much history on as big a stage as Phelps. He set out to become the greatest swimmer in history and succeeded in such spectacular fashion that it's hard to imagine anyone else could be seriously considered for SI Sportsman of the Year.
I'm sure Fresno State will understand.
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