“The next Mark Spitz”. It is the sort of tag that could be too heavy for some athletes to carry into a swimming pool. But comparisons with the Olympic swimming legend will be dusted off again over the next 10 days as America’s Michael Phelps attempts to win eight gold medals – one more than the all-time record for a single Games set by Spitz in Munich 1972.
And that is not the only Spitz record under threat in Athens. Ian Thorpe, who became the pin-up boy of the Sydney Games by winning three golds on home ground, will swim in six events in an attempt to match his record of career golds, nine. The only comfort for Spitz is that both Phelps and Thorpe will compete against each other and may just cancel out each other’s record attempts.
The powerful Phelps, who measures 6ft 4inches, surpassed Thorpe to become the number one swimmer in the world when he set five world records and won four gold medals at last year's world championships in Barcelona. But the scale of what he is attempting in Athens – 20 races in eight days – makes him the story of these Games, win or lose. That one of his sponsors has offered him $1m should he match the record, merely adds extra spice.
The 19-year-old will compete in five individual events (he originally planned to race in six but dropped out of the 200m backstroke after losing at the US trials): the 100m and 200m butterfly; the 200m and 400m individual medley; the 200m freestyle; and the three relays. Only in the 200m freestyle will he go head to head with Thorpe, although they are also likely to clash in the relays.
The rivalry between Phelps and Thorpe, however manufactured it may be, promises to make swimming the event for which this Olympics are remembered. Not since Spitz in 1972 has that happened.
Phelps qualified to compete in an unprecedented six individual events at last month’s US Olympic trials. But not all went well: he lost to both Ian Crocker, in the 100m butterfly, and Aaron Peirsol in the 200m backstroke and subsequently dropped out of the longer event. His place in the relay teams is also uncertain.
Even if he does make the teams, he will be at a disadvantage when compared to Spitz in 1972. Then, the US had such a strong team it could afford to use a second string in the relay heats and give Spitz a rest. Three of Spitz’s golds came in relays in which he had not had to swim in the heats. Phelps will not be so lucky.
His place in the 4x100m freestyle relay team is complicated by the fact that he did not swim in the 100m freestyle at the US trials and therefore has not registered a time for his inclusion in the team. And he will need to win the individual 100m butterfly to guarantee himself a place in the 4x100 medley relay. In the 4x200m freestyle, meanwhile, he and his team-mates will come up against world champions Australia, Thorpe and all.
In my day, Thorpe, still only 21, would have retired after Sydney to make a living but now, armed with sponsorship money, he is still going, and over the 10 days we can watch swimming the like of which has not been seen for decades.
Thorpe will need every drop of his talent to retain his position as top dog in the pool. In the 100m freestyle, he faces arch-rival Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and the legendary grandfather of sprinting, 32-year-old Alexander Popov, who started his Olympic career with golds in both the 50m and 100m freestyle events 12 years ago in Barcelona. Popov is world champion in both events.
If it is luck that Thorpe needs, then he has perhaps already exhausted it after being originally disqualified from the 400m freestyle at the Australian Olympic trials before being later reinstated. He is only competing in the event, in which he is defending champion, thanks to the bizarre withdrawal of team-mate Craig Stevens and the extraordinary, but ultimately pragmatic, decision of the selectors to allow him to step into the spare slot. Thorpe’s greatest rival in this event will be team-mate Grant Hackett whose domination of the 1,500m is so complete that his wake has died by the time his so-called rivals have reached it. In the 200m freestyle, Thorpe will again face Van den Hoogenband and Hackett. But the real story here will be his clash with Phelps.
Thorpe has said that it will be impossible for him, or indeed “anyone else”, to match Spitz’s 1972 achievement. That may have been a ruse to put pressure on Phelps, but the reality is that it is probably too early for the American to break the record.
In comparison to the task Phelps has set himself, Spitz achieved the seven the easy way. But perhaps that is Phelps’ strategy – to swim as many events as possible and if he fails, to go down in a blaze of sympathy rather than glory. After all, even Spitz failed at a similar stage in his career, when in 1968 he won a mere two golds (in the relays), a silver and a bronze medal.
However talented, it is highly unlikely that Phelps will stretch his talent far enough this Games to match Spitz. But at just 19, he is likely to be around long enough to enter the annuls of the truly great. His pursuit begins on Saturday.
Duncan Goodhew won gold in the 100m breastroke at the 1980 Moscow Olympics