By Jack Engelhard
Is this payback for ingratitude?
As we all know, the hero of the recent Olympics is (was!) Michael Phelps, and he did it all in the water. He won eight gold medals at the 2008 Games, finally surpassing the previous record of seven held by Mark Spitz. Those were the headlines of a short time ago. Today’s headlines remind us that no one is perfect.
Phelps was caught smoking marijuana. Give him credit. He doesn’t deny. But he’s already been tarnished, first by reputation, and now by finance. Kellog just announced that it will not renew its endorsement contract with him, other sponsors are on the verge, and the Olympic Committee has suspended him for three months. He will lose millions.
Yes, how the mighty have fallen – and so fast!
Now, instead of touring the nation and the world as a hero, he’s all over the place apologizing.
There is no joy in this. He seems like a good kid, and no doubt he is still a great athlete, the most gifted swimmer in the world.
But something strange happened at those Olympics, which may explain why all this bad karma happened.
Even before the swimming events began, the talk was about Phelps – Phelps and only Phelps – as if the other members of the USA swim team didn’t even exist.
Certainly, no one talked about Jason Lezak.
Yet, Lezak’s performance made it all possible for Phelps. For that one shining moment, Lezak was as much a hero as Phelps, but Lezak never got the credit or the publicity or even the thanks. To get that record for Phelps of EIGHT Gold Medals during a single Olympics, a team effort was required for the 4×100 meter freestyle relay.
Lezak ran the anchor. (Sorry. Don’t know much about swimming. I’m much more comfortable using racetrack terms.) Lezak, in other words, was last in the water, and he was up against the champion and world record holder from France, Alain Bernard, who had already bragged that he would win – and it sure looked like it from the start.
The Frenchman beat Lezak at the bell and kept improving all the way around. At the final lap, Bernard was pulling away length by length, so much so that the announcers were already saying it was over; USA would do no better than silver. Phelps would have to settle for seven gold medals, forget eight.
This was indeed expected, for Lezak was the oldest member of the team. He was 33, an “old man” by swimming standards. True, he was a champion in his own right. But all those records were from long ago, when he was young. Too bad. But then, nearing the wire, it became Affirmed meets Alydar.
Just when it seemed that Lezak was slipping back, had no more to give, this California kid, swimming for the USA, swimming for his team, swimming for Michael Phelps – Lezak found new heart, new soul, new guts, a new gear, and drew up to Bernard to achieve, in split seconds, what seemed impossible. Could he actually catch up to the French champ?
Could this “has-been” actually BEAT the boastful French Champ?
Yes he can! Yes he did!
Lezak won the gold for himself, for his team, for his country, and guaranteed the Olympic record for Phelps.
But here’s the kicker. In all this hoopla, hardly any mention was made of Lezak. The news media was still focused entirely on Phelps. Lezak was still an afterthought.
I don’t recall Phelps praising or even thanking Lezak, Backstage, perhaps, but publicly, Phelps took all the credit for himself.
He did acknowledged Lezak, but only for a moment, and he had to be asked. He didn’t volunteer his gratitude.
I still say that Phelps is a good kid. He made a mistake with the marijuana. He deserves to be forgiven. Come on, we’re a nation that has a heart.
But – are we witnessing a form of poetic justice from above?
Novelist Jack Engelhard, author of “The Bathsheba Deadline” and “Indecent Proposal” can be reached at his website www.jackengelhard.com.