Phelps’ Feat in Beijing Growing More Impressive

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By John Lohn

LONDON, July 31. PERSPECTIVE is something we try to find whenever analyzing an outcome or result. We want to understand what something means against the backdrop of history. We want to recognize the simplicity or difficulty of the achievement. We want to determine impact. And sometimes, perspective isn't immediately located.

Through three days of the action at the Olympic Games, fans of the sport have been treated to a multitude of spectacular performances. At the same time, a few outcomes have unfolded which did not follow the script. Consider the following:

* Before the Games, Australia was viewed as the heavy favorite to capture the gold medal in the men's 400 freestyle relay. Certainly, the Aussies would earn some kind of medal. They didn't do either, James Magnussen and James Roberts coming up woefully short of the form they exhibited at the Olympic Trials.

* In the 400 individual medley, no one envisioned Michael Phelps failing to medal in an event in which he was the two-time defending champion. Yet, when the medals were presented, there were none for Phelps, who lacked the power which has been his trademark.

* In the 200 freestyle, reigning world champion Ryan Lochte was expected to medal against a stacked field. Ultimately, he finished fourth, blown away by Frenchman Yannick Agnel and unable to get to the wall ahead of Sun Yang and Tae-Hwan Park, who shared the silver medal.

What does this all mean? It shows the unpredictable nature of the sport and how the blueprint of expectations can be torn to shreds in an instant. It also casts greater perspective on that unbelievable showing we witnessed four years ago in Beijing. You know, when that Phelps guy went 8-for-8 in the gold-medal count.

Back in 2008, after the United States captured the 400 medley relay and officially gave Phelps his record-breaking eighth gold medal, the Baltimorean's performance was called the greatest in Olympic history. It was a correct assertion and what Phelps did in the Water Cube certainly received the attention it deserved. Still, was it really appreciated enough? Was enough perspective available to truly revere what went down?

Because of what has shook out in the early stages of the 2012 Olympics, it's becoming more and more clear that what Phelps did was other-worldly. Just look at Lochte. After winning the 400 individual medley in dominant fashion on the opening night of competition, Lochte was viewed as being the Phelps of the London Games. Two days later, those comparisons are long gone.

First, Lochte was overtaken by Agnel on the anchor leg of the 400 freestyle relay, which allowed the French to exact revenge from Beijing. A night later, Lochte had his miss in the 200 free. That quickly, his star had dropped. It's unfair, to be honest, as Lochte could easily close this meet with additional gold medals in the 200 backstroke, 200 individual medley and 800 freestyle relay. If that scenario unfolds, he'll be one of the most-decorated athletes of the Games — in any sport.

As for Phelps, he heads into Night Four competition with one medal, the silver he earned on the 400 free relay. He didn't look good in the aforementioned 400 individual medley and his qualification in the heats and semifinals of the 200 fly wasn't typical of Phelps, who has owned that event through the years. For all he's done, Phelps is often seen as a robot who can go out and win whenever and wherever. He's taken for granted. It's forgotten that he raised the bar for the rest of the world. It's forgotten that he's 27 now, and not capable of doing the same things as when he was 23.

In Beijing, Phelps was as good as he was ever going to be. His career had been pointed toward that moment, the game plan carefully and meticulously designed by coach Bob Bowman. On an athletic basis, he was perfect. Still, Phelps needed to catch a few breaks in order to deliver his Olympic masterpiece. Everything had to go his way.

For one, Phelps wouldn't have won his eight gold medals without Jason Lezak running down France's Alain Bernard in the 400 free relay. Lezak's split of 46.06 remains the fastest in history by a wide margin. Meanwhile, Phelps' extra half-stroke in the 100 butterfly proved to be what was needed to upend Serbia's Milorad Cavic by .01. It was an instinctual move by Phelps, and there is no guarantee he would have finished the race the same way if given a replay.

Over the final five nights of competition, we'll be sure to witness a few more startling turns of events. Some favorites will not win gold, and some might miss out on a medal altogether. Hey, it's already happened. There could also be another extraordinary finish, one with a surprising twist or turn.

The events which have unfolded in London have not just been entertaining. They have provided perspective and have forced us to take an additional step back when assessing history. The lens which was used in Beijing to view Phelps' performance revealed greatness. The lens which through we look today reveals something even greater.

Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn

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