Kovacevic: With Bolt and Phelps, these are the Transcendent Games
LONDON — Nothing in sports captivates us quite like the transcendent athlete. The freak. The fantasy PlayStation player with the 99 rating. The one who flies so high above his or her peers that a whole new standard is set.
And I'm talking the most exclusive class imaginable.
Like Babe Ruth, remaking baseball with the home run.
Like Michael Jordan, soaring when everyone else's feet were still nailed to the floor.
Like Jim Brown, carrying grown men on his back through the mud.
Like Tiger Woods, turning Augusta National into his personal Putt-Putt.
Like Muhammad Ali, floating and stinging through the golden era of heavyweights.
And yes, like Mario Lemieux, owner of the most above-and-beyond skill set hockey will ever see.
These Games of the XXX Olympiad, which will light the skies over east London on this Friday night, will indisputably — and incredibly — feature two such athletes.
Usain Bolt, fastest man on land.
Michael Phelps, fastest in the water.
Sure, we as humans are bigger and stronger than our ancestors, so we've come to expect that Carl Lewis gives way to Michael Johnson, Wilma Rudolph to Gail Devers. World records are so commonplace anymore that they barely merit a mention in the daily briefs.
But that's not what makes transcendent. It's not .01 at the finish line, not a fingertip touching the pool wall.
It's Bolt in Beijing, stretching every sinew of his 6-foot-5 frame to cover the same 100 meters in 41 steps to everyone else's 45, pulling so far ahead that he famously turned to the pack, tauntingly raised his arms and even slowed a bit before crossing.
In a world-record 9.69 seconds.
Imagine if he hadn't been bored.
Sprinting doesn't require multimillion-dollar training facilities. Any able-bodied man or woman on the planet can run. It's just that, out of 6 billion-plus, this 9-pound baby from a rural Jamaican village grew up to do it far better than anyone ever had.
The Greeks call that Herculean. We call it Ruthian.
Swimming isn't much different and, thus, neither is the scope of Phelps' achievements.
Born and bred to less humble means in Baltimore, he was athletic enough that he could have tried out — and probably starred — in any sport he chose. But the adults in his life correctly pegged that he had the perfect swimming physique. He'd grow to 6-4 with tentacle arms and size 14 feet, every bit the physical freak that Bolt is.
Fish out of water, they called him.
Phelps went 8 for 8 in Beijing golds, has 16 total, needs three here to become the most decorated Olympian in history and has broken a world record — often his own — 32 times. It's not just that he's surpassed Mark Spitz, swimming's previous transcendent figure. Phelps has lapped him.
Expectations are lower than Beijing for both, of course. Phelps is 27, and teammate Ryan Lochte has been the better swimmer the past two years. Bolt, 25, will try to become the first to win the 100 and 200 in consecutive Olympics, and he'll have a fierce pace set by 22-year-old countryman Yohan Blake, who just beat him in both those races at trials.
Ask me, and that's why the world will watch the sequel no less intensely.
Because we can't believe that they're beatable. We didn't believe it when Jordan and Lemieux emerged from retirement, and we were right. We still don't believe it anytime Tiger tees off, no matter the evidence to the contrary.
Right or wrong, through our eyes, these guys don't lose.
Through their eyes, too, judging by their interview sessions Thursday at the Main Press Centre.
"I want to become a legend," Bolt said. "I will definitely be disappointed if I don't win. This is what I've been working for. This is what I want. This is my goal in life."
Asked about the back trouble he has partially blamed for the losses to Blake, Bolt snapped back: "I am always ready. I keep telling you guys: It's always about the champs. It's never about one run, never about the trials."
He meant the Olympics. They're what counts.
Phelps sounded no less fueled when talking about these being his self-declared final Games and about his disappointment with the recent losses to Lochte.
"I'm more emotional because these will be the last competitive moments of my career," Phelps said. "Once I get into the pool, I won't be holding back."
Anyone really betting against these guys?
I loved how Ato Boldon, NBC's sprinting analyst, described Bolt's place right now: "He's Ali now. The Ali who lost to Foreman and Frazier. And he'll be even bigger for it."
Ali himself will take part in the opening ceremony. Talk about passing the torch.