None better

The Baltimore Sun

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise anyone that Tiger Woods and Roger Federer have started hanging out together.

It's not like they can compare notes on transcendence with anyone in golf or tennis. But based on the events of the past week, they might want to call Michael Phelps and offer him admission to their athletic Olympus.

The swimmer from Rodgers Forge isn't often included in ESPN polls asking which athlete most dominates his or her sport. He doesn't get to compete on television every week. And frankly, if it's not an Olympic year, most fans don't give his sport much thought.

But Phelps was so good at the FINA World Championships in Australia last week that he has made his competitors sound just like the guys who lose to Woods and Federer week after week.

Russian bronze medalist Nikolay Skvortsov said he was honored to have been in the pool when Phelps shaved 1.62 seconds off his world record in the 200-meter butterfly. Runner-up Wu Peng of China admitted that "to secure that [gold] medal is impossible" when competing with the American.

Phelps has heard the comparisons. "A buddy of mine actually read of me being in the names of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer," he said after his 200-meter individual medley win. "That is a pretty big accomplishment and definitely something I'm proud of. They have changed their sports themselves, so hopefully I can do the same in swimming."

The swimmer's case for greatness on the level of Woods or Federer began when he set five world records at the 2003 world championships, solidified when he won six Olympic golds in Athens in 2004 and strengthened as he obliterated several world records last week.

But he could really push it over the top, observers agree, by overwhelming the competition at a second Olympics in Beijing next year. If he were to tie or break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals at one Summer Games, his claim as the greatest swimmer ever might be ironclad.

Other swimmers - Spitz, Germany's Michael Gross, American Matt Biondi - have been the clear leading men at one Olympics each. But none managed to remain at the summit a second time around.

"Now, if he can do in Beijing the same thing he did in Athens, he'd be the first guy to do it twice," longtime Olympics announcer Jim Lampley said. "Then, you have to put that phrase 'greatest of all time' into the thought process."

Phelps' path could actually match Woods' neatly. Like Woods at the 1997 Masters, he exploded to the top of his sport before anyone expected. Like Woods reeling off four straight major victories in 2000 and 2001, Phelps consolidated his ascent with an overwhelming performance - in his case, at the Olympics. And like Woods, he seems able to keep his edge in a way that continually disheartens would-be competitors.

Phelps should receive no less credit because his sport enters the limelight less frequently, Lampley argued.

"It's an incredibly hard sport," he said. "You train at an incredibly high level. You spend so much time in the water, existing in your own head space in isolating circumstances. And you have to do it every day."

Lampley assumed 20 years ago that the explosion of all-day sports coverage would lead to greater attention for athletes such as Phelps and Federer. Instead, it has led to a constricted and intensified focus on the big three of football, basketball and baseball.

"Michael is a landmark, a giant, a historic figure, but compared to Mark Spitz, he's a nobody," Lampley said.

Swimming in ads

Bob Dorfman, a marketing executive for San Francisco-based Pickett Advertising, agreed that fame has become more elusive for athletes outside the major sports. But he believes Phelps could overcome that simply by hanging around as a top American athlete for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

"If he dominates in Beijing and continues to dominate in London, he could become the most medaled Olympian in history, and then you'd really have something," Dorfman said. "He could become a Bruce Jenner type. He's good-looking. He could model. He could do Dancing with the Stars. You could make him bigger than his sport."

Phelps' success has led to millions of dollars in endorsement deals for brands such as Visa, PowerBar, Speedo, Omega (the watch company) and Matsunichi Communications.

He's kept from the endorsement heights and fame of Woods or LeBron James mostly because his sport is rarely on television.

"Swimmers just don't have that year-in and year-out visibility," Dorfman said.

For now, Phelps is likely to reach Woods-level celebrity only in the months leading up to next year's Olympics.

The focus on athletes such as Phelps has dwindled in inverse proportion to the rising difficulty of their feats, Lampley added.

"What Michael has done is much more difficult than what Mark Spitz did, and I think Mark would say the same thing," Lampley said. "[Michael] faces more difficult schedules. His catalog doesn't rely on as many slam-dunk relays. The swimming climate is much more balanced. You have many more nations producing elite competitors. You have many more swimmers who are capable of swimming within a half second of his best times."

All the pieces

It's quite possible to achieve pre-eminence in a given sport without reaching a commensurate level of fame compared to other athletes.

Take Edwin Moses, who didn't lose a 400-meter hurdle race between 1977 and 1987 and won two Olympic gold medals. Moses' withdrawn, analytical nature never lent itself to superstardom. And his sport only caught the public attention in Olympic years (one of which Moses missed because of the 1980 U.S. boycott).

So he never reached the public stature of peers such as Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson or John McEnroe, though he was probably more dominant than any of them.

Or think about Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj, almost certainly the greatest middle-distance runner ever during his peak between the mid-1990s and 2004. El Guerrouj also was a great humanitarian, but he came from a country unfamiliar to most Americans and ran events that peaked in popularity 50 years ago.

Phelps isn't as limited by personality or birth as Moses or El Guerrouj. He can be plenty compelling.

Lampley was moved to tears in recalling an interview with the swimmer and his mother in Athens. The image of Phelps taking his first gold medal and holding it up to a chain-link fence so Debbie Phelps could touch it was among the most memorable of Lampley's 32-year career.

"It's wonderful when people can share something so emotional so publicly," he said.

Rare era

History is replete with great athletes, but it's relatively rare for three or four "greatest ever" candidates to peak simultaneously.

There was 1997, when Michael Jordan won a fifth NBA title with the Chicago Bulls and tennis stars Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis reigned unchallenged as the best man and woman in their sport. Or 1984, when Gretzky scored 205 points and led the Edmonton Oilers to their first Stanley Cup, Carl Lewis won four Olympic gold medals and Martina Navratilova won three Grand Slam tennis titles in singles and four in doubles.

Wilt Chamberlain, Muhammad Ali, Sandy Koufax and Rod Laver all peaked in the mid-1960s. Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden transcended the roaring '20s.

So these confluences happen only a few times a century. At such moments, it becomes fun to reach across sports and banter about who soars highest above his or her competitors. Woods has won 12 majors and Federer 10 Grand Slam singles titles, but Phelps has his advocates.

"Let me use this as an example: Steve Nash is the best basketball player because he's the MVP," said Tara Kirk, who finished second in the women's 100-meter breaststroke at last week's world championships. "Well, Michael is like 10 times that because he's set so many world records."

Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, sees him swim more than anybody.

"I honestly don't know what the comparison would be," he said. "I just don't know. You guys [in the media] will have to work all that out. I think he's a really good swimmer, and we're just going to try to keep making him better."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Kevin Van Valkenburg contributed to this article.

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