If Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German writer, had arrived in Rio for one last look at Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, he might have felt moved to write a celebratory poem. Goethe, after all, wrote that "I love those who yearn for the impossible" and in spikes and Speedos, over somewhat similar distances of the 100m and 200m, the long-legged Jamaican and long-armed American have repeatedly and lyrically done just that.
Goethe wrote one of his finest poems in his 70s and as these relatively sporting geriatrics exit the Games they, too, are ambitious even if ancient. Phelps is 31 years, five Olympics and 18 golds old; Bolt is a 29-year-old, four-Games, six-gold relic. Together they have more gold than Brazil has collected in 21 Games. It makes you think that if the German writer's works were often set to music, then these men will probably be set in stone and steel. In fact in Germany, years ago, a statue of Bolt emerged which was impossibly impressive: It was made of iron bolts.
For the Jamaican and American this word, impossible, has long been a familiar friend. Impossible, they first said, it was for a man so tall to run so fast. Impossible, we thought, as Phelps whipped himself on the blocks with his own arms. Impossible, they claimed, that a man could win the 100m by a margin so delightfully vulgar. Impossible, we insisted, that a human could even consider eight golds at a single Games.
Now we have to bid farewell to all this, now is the goodbye Games, now is the final look at Bolt sauntering and grinning and exploding, now is a last glimpse at Phelps pounding the water in triumph. Now is everyone's chance to watch these swan-song swims and these so-long sprints on "live" TV. If Singapore doesn't get to see them it will be impossibly annoying.
But the world is in the mood already. In recent days the New Yorker has offered us a lively piece titled How Fast Would Usain Bolt Run The Mile? and soon we will ask how quickly Phelps could swim to Cuba. There is nothing, after all, we believe they cannot do because they have proved there is nothing they will not do.
It took 13 years for Asafa Powell, Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery, Maurice Greene, Donovan Bailey and Leroy Burrell to lower the 100m world record by .11 of a second. Then Bolt did all that in a single race. Phelps' feats flirted equally with the impossible: He broke both the 200m butterfly world record and the 400m individual medley world record eight times each. How great they have been will only be fully understood when they have gone.
If they represent the best of land, and water, then Lin Dan, Kohei Uchimura and Wu Minxia have for a while been the artists of the air. At 32, the levitating Chinese badminton star is chasing his third Olympic gold; at 27, the Japanese gymnast who returns to land only after powerful aerial ballets is chasing a second all-around gold; at 30, the Chinese diver has won gold every year since 2004, a case of perfect harmony from a synchronised diver.
They won cleanly, coolly and captivatingly, both of them amiable evangelists who brought us closer to perfection and restored respect to the Games even as they provoked argument. Phelps could swim multiple events, Bolt was a sprinter with only two individual events. Who was greater?
"He is not a human being," said Uchimura's coach once and we understand, for such precise elegance is alien to most athletes. The Japanese star will probably stay till the next Games for they are in Tokyo, but as Lin and Wu say ciao in Chinese, entire eras of sporting greatness will come to a close.
Yet for all their appeal this is still the Phelps & Bolt Show. They won cleanly, coolly and captivatingly, both of them amiable evangelists who brought us closer to perfection and restored respect to the Games even as they provoked argument. Phelps could swim multiple events, Bolt was a sprinter with only two individual events. Who was greater? Could six golds on land equal 18 in water? Separating them is still the most impossible of feats.
Phelps kept taking breaks but returned as if he could not adjust to land. Bolt never quit because standing still seemed sinful. They kept going, swimming and running, as if they are terrified they will quit without having completely explored their talent. They kept going because they are swimming and running, they set the limits in their sports, they decided what is possible for them and thus impossible for others.
They are not as fast as they were for neither has broken an individual world record since 2009 and yet they are fast enough when it matters. In short, they know how to race, to summon talent, to gather it, to own a moment.
Phelps' training for the 2012 Olympics was "a joke" and yet he won two individual golds. Bolt's body was disobedient and yet Justin Gatlin could not beat him at the world championships last year. They cannot precisely tell you how they won but only that they just know how to win.
As evening sets on their careers, there will be mourning. Yet there remains something audacious and refreshing about these ageing, beaten-up athletes who did not take the safe way out: They did not go out on top but came back to discover how far that top could be stretched. It is possible, of course, that they might lose in Rio, but it will be impossible to ever say these men have failed.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2016, with the headline 'Impossible truth as the Bolt & Phelps Show is fast disappearing'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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