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Sunday, 17 August 2008


Nice to hear the appreciation, Mike: we feel the same way down here in the Caribbean!

I'm with you on this one. I was happy for the kid. He seems to have found his place, and after seeing him interviewed, I'm glad he's found something at which he can excel.

All of us more "normal people" can continue to anonymously strive towards perfection in photography, but, undoubtedly, more people will appreciate people like Phelps than they do people like Bresson.

Even now, as I write this, my spellcheck recognizes the name Phelps, but not Bresson. One wonder how Henri's backstrokes might have been, had he known.

Well, here's why I think swimming is great (aside from the fact that it's great exercise): I love the feel of gliding through water, and the wonderful non-jarring rhythmic quality of a good long swim. Meditation in motion.


Well, I don't watch the Olympics out of a general lack of interest, but I can definitely understand wanting to watch MP even if it is entirely likely he'll smash his competition specifically *because* he will. Not that I think a rout is interesting to watch, but *because* he is so superior in this field it is a treat to see such exceptional performance. This is the same as in any field where there is a competitve field of technical mastery. Who *wouldn't* want to see one of the greats at their peak? Wouldn't you want to see Leonardo create? Secretariat win the KY Derby? Ali beat Sonny Liston? Listen to Miles Davis record Birth of the Blues? It isn't the competion I'm interested in, it's the personal excellence on display.


(side note: Documentarian D.A. Pennebaker made a fascinating documentary on the recording of the Broadway show Company's cast album. Talk about watching greatness in action. The sequence showing Elaine Stritch trying to record The Ladies Who Lunch is heartbreaking to watch, and thrilling at the same time. Talk about performers at the top of their game (or not, as the case may be).

I sink like a rock too in water, but if you want to see Phelps "turning it on," check the 400m medley relay (the last event). Each swimmer swims two laps. Michael was trailing a wee bit at the turn, and then he just ZOOMED past the Aussie to an almost 3/4 body length advantage at the end.

When Bolt did his quarterfinal with the easiest (9.92?) you have ever seen, you know some big moment would be coming. In a sport where each 0.01 second is celebrated, this win is just huge, impossibly huge.

So glad we share a view on swimming Mike, last time I swam was 1982 and then only because it was hot, the water looked inviting and on a Yugoslavian nudist beach it didn't matter if you forgot your swimming trunks.
Here in the UK (this household at least) we're enjoying the Olympics for a change, almost unprecedented success and the construction of the Manchester velodrome is paying off in spades for our track cycling results.
On an Olympics photographic note - there appear to be more members of the public with SLRs rather than P&S this time.

Cheers, Robin

I just started to watch the Olympics this weekend: rowing, real volleyball (not the gimmick game in the sand), track and field events yet to come. These are sports I can relate to. Is it because that I played some of them when I was young and/or photographed them when I was in school??

There were a couple of excellent races and some blowouts..plenty to keep me watching. I like swimming because it's a stripped down event, like running. How fast can you get from a to b. I've enjoyed this Phelps thing and I've enjoyed what seems to be a well bonded and supportive American swim team, boys and girls.

Mike, we teach kids to swim so they wont drown. In the poor communities this is a huge problem. Kids who haven't learned to swim, kids who are naturally drawn to water...water's fun so we try to make them comfortable there, give them some knowledge. If you don't know it already, this fear of water thing gets handed down to the generations in these communities.

I had a classmate who was an inner city kid from a broken family, tough part of town..He never learned to swim. He drowned at the beach one day. It was a tragedy and it's something that happens all over the place every day.

Sorry didnt see your comment on beach volleyball. Dear lord, if i need to sleep that'll do it every single time. boring.

I hear you on Phelps, Mike; I don't get the hoopla either. Yes, he worked hard, but so did everyone else who swims at the Olympics. There's just a good chance that Phelps was born with a body that was better suited for swimming than the other hard workers were; he simply has more "natural gifts," as they say. To me, the fact that he's something of a freak of nature takes away some of the appeal; it certainly doesn't enhance it.

The dominant role of "nature" (i.e., inborn athleticism) in at least some sports makes seeing success in those sports a completely different ball of wax than watching Da Vinci or Miles Davis or Cartier-Bresson or a Broadway play, at least to me. The rest of us mortals can better relate to the struggles overcome by the star in non-athletic pursuits more than we can relate to a swimmer with flippers for feet* or a 7'1" basketball player.

*While lying on his back on the floor, Phelps can arch his size-14 feet so far that he can touch his toes to the floor. Try that at home!

I saw a good column in which the sportswriter said that not only is Phelps not "the greatest Olympian ever" (as everyone keeps saying he is); he's not even in the top five:


I'm from a land where swimmers are superstars and this week I've watched MP positively trounce my countrymen over and over again. And I think he is simply awesome.

You may have no interest in swimming but what he's done is truly remarkable. In 20 years from now the commentators will still be comparing swimmers to him. I don't care for golf but I can appreciate Tiger Woods or basketball but I admire Michael Jordan. Woods, Jordan, Armstrong, Phelps. He certainly deserves to be in that company.


Wow, what an amazingly offensive post. Why do you assume that Michael is a 'freak' - because he swims better than anyone? Is Tiger Woods a freak because he hits the ball harder than anyone? Is Yao Ming a freak because he is tall? No, these guys are all great athletes because they took some innate ability and combined it with incredibly hard work to achieve their goals.

As a photographer who shoots a lot of swim events, I can attest to the incredible number of hours in the pool that it takes to rise to the level of national, let alone Olympic, competitor. I have also seen plenty of kids with all the physical attributes of a great swimmer fall by the wayside because they could not train hard enough.

To call Michael a freak is to belittle his enormous dedication to his sport and his ferocious competitive instinct. It is also to denigrate the great sport of swimming, and the hundreds of thousands of athletes who swim competitively in the United States.

I will proactively grant you that I am a little biased having swam competitively throughout high school (and almost college) some twenty years ago, so I could be biased.

Having said that, however, I believe that the hoopla isn't really about the swimming per se. It's more about surpassing a record - and a long standing one at that. Additionally, it was done at an event that only happens once every 4 years - not like baseball, football, soccer, tennis, golf, basketball, or any other sport. That means it will take at least 30-40 years (if not longer or ever) to see someone else come close.

By comparison, how long will it take the closest competitor to tie/beat Cal Ripken's streak? Or Joe Dimaggio's? Or Pete Rose's? Or Marino's or Elways or *gag* Favre's? What about Wilt Chamberlain's, Steffi Graf's, Michael Owens, or even Tiger Woods?

These others are very well known for establishing some of the most impressive feats in all of sports. Sports and athletics by their nature are competitive, and the competitive drive is what makes athletes from any discipline appreciate the significance when a long standing record of achievement in any sport has been extended, surpassed, or broken.

Forget understanding the nuances of swimming - you don't have to understand the nuances to appreciate what just happened this year. Phelps made history. Recognize it and appreciate it for what it is - an athlete at the pinnacle of accomplishment.

As a follow-up, making assertions that one athlete doesn't measure up as "one of the best ever" when comparing athletes of completely different sports is merely an exercise in futility as any determination is completely subjective. How can you say Phelps is worse than Ali? Swimming and boxing are two completely different sports. Comparisons of this type are always made, yet none are really indicative of anything other than one persons opinion. I saw another survey done on ESPN (and which entity has a better understanding of sports overall, the Chicago Tribune or ESPN - let's think about that one folks), where the "rankings" of athletes of all time paint a very different picture. Don't confuse or try to mitigate the accomplishments of anyone by trying to compare them to those of another's that doesn't even relate. If you don't like swimming, or don't like the Olympics, or don't like sports, that's fine. But to devote time and energy to minimalizing the significance of this particular moment in history is an exercise in ignorance and futility.

For those interested in the rankings of 15 of the best athletes of all time, go here:


The irony is that, for the vast majority of people, photography is "swimming", in Mike's sense.

Tom K.,
I think you've seriously misread the tone of this post.

Next up, I hear from all the wounded beach volleyball enthusiasts....

Mike J.

P.S. Of *course* Yao Ming is a freak. His *father* was the tallest man in a country of 1.3 billion people, and Ming is eleven inches taller than his father. How do you define "freak"? My dictionary says it's "a person with unusual or abnormal physical characteristics." How is Yao Ming not a person with unusual or abnormal physical characteristics?

Mike J.

Swimming really isn't much fun as a "spectator sport," is it?

I enjoy the Olympics and also enjoy watching many other sports. My problem is more with our definition of accomplishment. Woods gets world fame and countless millions for being good at pushing a little white ball around the grass. Phelps will make millions and already has world fame for swimming fast. Their personal rewards outweigh their contribution to the world, in my view. They are both doing what they want to do. How do we reward the greatest scientists and doctors and teachers who make incredible sacrifices, work just as hard, contribute as much or more to society and are unknown and underpaid - sometimes struggling to get by. We consider athletes, cops, fireman and soldiers to all be heroes. Some are, some are not, but many less visible heroes are left out. Those who do not choose to be an athlete or who do not have the genetics go unnoticed, but the world is full of unsung heroes who also deserve recognition and support.

From the way Phelps describes the sacrifices his mother made to provide for him and his sisters, maybe she deserves a gold medal, some recognition, and a few million. (Actually I am not worried about her). But if Phelps had not been successful, her efforts, like many other's, would have gone unnoticed.

The simple fact is that local heroes such as firemen do great things, but they're not in the line of work to receive winnings and product endorsements.

'Fireman Joe Bloggs sponsored by Sure, keeping him cool & dry when the heats turned up'

For scientists there are prizes and grants they can receive and great fame within their community. I mean, would you rather have fame and respect by a small group, whos opinion you really care about, or be briefly famous worldwide?

Phelps may be a freak, but a far more impressive than the ones gurning on reality TV shows...

As a cynical newspaper hack, the first word that leapt to mind when I saw the performances of Phelps and Bolt was "drugs". I really hope that these guys are clean but athletics, swimming, cycling - in fact, just about any sport outside of golf - is awash with banned chemicals. Look at Bolt and his countrymen and women. He ran 9.69 with his hands at his sides. The Jamaican women had never won an Olympic sprint gold and then they go 1-2-3 in the 100m. Now, it's entirely possible that Jamaica is enjoying the fruits of a supremely gifted and hard-working crop of sprinters. It's also possible that they have the best drugs programme. Who knows? For me, atheltics has never been the same since Seoul and Ben Johnson.

Bruce, who has the natural buoyancy of a brick.

Mark Spitz never wore a bathing cap.

@Bruce: It's hard to watch these results without some degree of skepticism, but I see no reason to assume that golf is clean either. Where there is money and the possibility of a leg up, there will be cheating. I am a cycling fan and have been watching that sport be ripped up for the last several years--while other sports be-bop right along with negligible testing programs at best, or have powerful players' unions that dramatically weaken any semblance of testing or enforcement. I sure hope that we don't get any bad news of this kind concerning any of these athletes winning big at the Bejing games--I for one would be very disappointed but unfortunately not all that surprised.

I still can't used to men wearing women's swimsuits. :-)

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