Commentary

Olympics: Witnessing greatness, for perhaps the last time

One last glance at Michael Phelps basking in victory on the pool deck, a few more observations jotted illegibly on my weathered notebook, and my own athletic sprint at the Olympics begins.

The elevator never comes when you most need it, so down two floors and four flights of stairs I run, racing to get from the spectator stands to the mixed zone - the area athletes go through to be interviewed by the media - before the American swimmer gets there.

That was 2012 at the London Games. Four years later, much has changed over an Olympic cycle, yet a few things have remained the same. I made that same mad dash yesterday to catch the same guy, going down a few levels at the Olympic Aquatics Centre.

Because when you are after the greatest Olympian in history, you had better hurry and make sure you get there before he does.

That, plus the fact that I am the owner of short limbs and must jostle with countless other journalists - most of them big, burly and Caucasian - and tiptoe to reach a tiny gap through sweaty armpits where I can stick my voice recorder. Positioning is everything.

That day in 2012, I made my way to watch Phelps compete in what I then thought would be his last competitive race. He retired after the London Olympics but would be found back in the pool some 18 months later.

Like each time we are given the privilege to witness greatness, it was an experience to be treasured.

Yesterday, as I watched him in two races, one of which was the 200m butterfly, widely considered to be his signature event, I prepared myself again for that possibility.

Phelps is pencilled in for at least two more races in Rio, but the Olympic Games pulls you in a hundred different directions at once. Other ongoing events, and the luck of the draw - journalists have to ballot for tickets to swimming finals - mean I may not catch him racing again.

With journalists tucked elbow to elbow in the press tribunes, many more from many nations also came to watch the American in action.

One of the night's races featured a Brazilian and it felt like the crowd went through the roof, for one of their own. But Phelps is the Olympic world's superhero and when he was announced, the Richter scale must have shaken a little.

On my left was someone from Belgian broadcaster VRT. On my right, a Ukrainian journalist who slung a camera to his wrist and trained it on his every move. Tempting as it was to join in the smartphone brigade, I did not whip out a device, for the last time I see Phelps compete in person should be made of images in my memory and not digital pixels on a screen.

 
 
 

I watched for that predictable pre-race ritual of his: a superhuman stretch of his arms behind his back, then two hard flaps around himself on the starting block.

I admired as Phelps, at 31 years and 40 days old, showed the incredible competitor is still the great racer and winner of 21 golds - so far. As he finger-wagged and sat on the lane rope in triumph, beckoning the world for adoration, he was challenging those who came behind him but also saying: I was - and still am - the champion.

I even felt myself stirred as the swimmer, hand over his chest as the Star-Spangled Banner blared through the arena, had a rare show of emotion on the podium.

Phelps later explained that the emotion stemmed from reclaiming the title he lost at the 2012 Olympics. It is what he came out of retirement for. Seeing the number "1" next to his name again, in an event he called his "bread and butter" over 16 years, was "mission accomplished".

Before the Rio Games began, a colleague asked me who the one non-Singapore athlete I hope to cover was. My answer: Phelps at his last race.

This was not his last, but it very well could be the last one I get to see, so like each time we are given the privilege to witness greatness, it was an experience to be treasured.

One last glance at Michael Phelps, in deep reflection as he spoke to the media in the wee hours. There is an image that lingers in my mind - his personalised logo, which bears his initials 'MP' and designed to look like 'MVP'.

That is what he is: the Most Valuable Player the Olympic Games has ever witnessed - and is likely to ever see.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Witnessing greatness, for perhaps the last time'. Print Edition | Subscribe