With seven world records and eight gold medals in eight days, Michael Phelps, alongside Usain Bolt, became the face of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Four years on and now 27, Phelps vowed that his Olympic career was to end after the current Games.
Much talk, then, centred on just how much Phelps could achieve in London. Phelps, of course, was already recognised as one of the greatest ever Olympians. Before the competition began, the American himself stated that the question now was ‘how many toppings he wanted on his sundae.’
It has been a strange experience watching Phelps’ performances in London. At Beijing, he seemed obsessed by competition, completing a near-unbelievable gold rush and smashing records. But then he appeared to lose some of his edge - his focus on swimming waned, seemingly intent on enjoying his mid-twenties, and he was banned for three months in 2009 for a now infamous photograph.
Many have viewed this Olympics as a changing of the guard, as Phelps hands over the reins to his American teammate Ryan Lochte, yet such a view ignores that Phelps and Lochte are the same age. As Lochte demolished Phelps earlier this week, it was difficult not to feel sorry for one of the greatest ever sportsmen.
Yet on Tuesday evening, the absurdity of taking pity on such a great was exposed, as Phelps took an individual silver and team gold to become officially the greatest Olympian in history. Phelps now holds 19 medals, 15 of them gold, and if this is a man on his way to retirement, then it will not be a bad way to bow out.
The London Olympics so far have gripped the British public, though the opening week has not gone by without controversy. Alexandr Vinokourov was banned from cycling in 2007 for doping and yet was here to win the Games’ first medal, whilst questions of performance-enhancing drugs were also raised in the pool after Ye Shiwen’s gold-medal win for China. There was disappointment, too, as Mark Cavendish was shut out in a road race most expected him to win.
Yet controversies and disappointment aside, Phelps’ performances have assured that London 2012 will, first and foremost, be the Olympics where the most decorated Olympian ever took his undisputed place in history.