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On Sports

Michael Phelps is the new Olympic gold standard

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On Sports
Rochester Business Journal
August 19, 2016

He remains somewhat of a mystery, even to Olympic historians. But thanks to sublime swimmer Michael Phelps, what little we do know about Leonidas of Rhodes was dusted off and retold this past week. The trip way, way, way back in time was prompted by Phelps’ 13th individual gold medal. That victory enabled him to supplant Leonidas as the all-time Olympic champion, breaking a record that had stood for 2,168 years.

For 21 centuries, the ancient Greek runner from a gorgeous island southeast of Athens had been the Olympic gold standard. In four Games, from 164 B.C. through 152 B.C., Leonidas won a total of 12 races of varying lengths, including four long ones that required competitors to wear armor and carry swords and shields in temperatures that occasionally hit triple digits. In the ancient Games, events were winner take all, and laurel wreaths rather than gold medals were presented to the victors. Not much more is known about this Olympic hero, other than that his name derives from the Greek word for lion and that he was described as having “the speed of God.”

That’s an apt description for Phelps, too, for he appears to have “the speed of God” in the pool. Asked to describe an illustrious career that has seen him win 28 medals, including 23 golds, over five Olympics, Phelps used the word “insane.” Works for me. There were seasons when Babe Ruth hit more home runs than entire teams, and a time when Tiger Woods was so dominant that golf officials worried he might make venerable courses obsolete. But one can make a convincing argument that no athlete—not the Babe, not Tiger, not tennis super-duper star Serena Williams—ever dominated his or her sport like Phelps has. Chew on this: If he were a country, he would be tied for 38th all-time with South Africa for most gold medals.

His gold rush began at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The fact he was only 15 and the youngest member of the U.S. swim team didn’t quell enormous expectations. Some predicted Phelps would break Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals at those Games. He came close with six golds and two bronzes. I was at the Water Cube in Beijing four years later when he did surpass Spitz with his eight gold medal performance. Still one of the most memorable events I’ve chronicled. At the London Games in 2012, he tacked on four golds and two silvers. That was supposed to be his swan song, but Phelps decided to give it one more shot. At age 31, he came to Rio, and finished with a flourish, winning five golds and a silver.

“This is the true way that I dreamt of finishing my career and hanging my suit up,” Phelps told NBC Nightly News. Some, though, don’t want to see him climb out of the pool. Phelps smiled as he recounted a recent conversation with his mother, who’s encouraged him to continue competing. “I said, ‘Mom, we’re done. We’re not going to Tokyo (for the 2020 Olympics). This is it. We’re finished. I’m happy with my career.’ Then she was like, ‘What about the 100 butterfly? The relay?’”

Phelps sounds ready to move on. He looks forward to spending more time with fiancée Nicole Johnson and their 1-year-old son, Boomer. And Phelps appears to be dealing well with the demons of addiction. Two falls ago he entered a recovery center after a second arrest for driving under the influence. Since coming out of rehab, he has been quite open publicly about his problems. As one reporter wrote, Phelps has been more eager to present his authentic self, flaws and all. “I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life,” he said.

That place includes a spot atop the all-time medal standings and the “insane” title as greatest Olympian ever after eclipsing an ancient Greek runner’s record that had stood the test of time.   

Here’s hoping the purchase of the Ralph Wilson Stadium naming rights by the Buffalo-based New Era Cap Co. means a new era is unfolding for the Bills—one that sees an end to the team’s playoff famine and includes that elusive Super Bowl championship.

Some fans are upset there will be a name change, but this was inevitable. You can’t blame new Bills owners Kim and Terry Pegula for seeking a return on their investment. As we learned with the new contract given to Tyrod Taylor, even quarterbacks with much still to prove don’t come cheaply. Wilson himself gave his blessing to peddling the naming rights while he was still alive. The Pegulas did the respectful thing and waited a few years.

And let’s not forget, the stadium wasn’t always known as “The Ralph.” From its opening in 1973 until 1998, it was called Rich Stadium after the Buffalo-based food company that had brokered one of the first corporate stadium naming rights deals. I wonder what people will nickname the place now. Will fans say, “We’re going to the Cap” or “the New” or “the Era”? Just as long as they don’t say, they’re going to the “Error.”

Joe Carter flashed his infectious smile when I told him I was there for his historic, World Series-winning home run in Toronto on Oct. 23, 1993. “You and about half a million others,” the former Blue Jays slugger joked, after signing a few hundred autographs at a recent Rochester Red Wings game at Frontier Field. I pulled out a scorecard from that game as well as the newspaper column I wrote about it as proof of my attendance. “Well, I guess, you really were there,” he said, chuckling. “I’m just skeptical at times because through the years I’ve heard from so many people claiming they were there that if everybody was telling the truth, the SkyDome’s seating capacity would need to be increased tenfold.”

It’s understandable why people would want to say they were there because Carter joined Bill Mazeroski (1960) as the only players to end Fall Classics with homers. “It’s cool,” Carter said, “that all these years later those iconic moments still mean something to so many.”

Best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

8/19/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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