Just in case, though, Phelps had his own personal closer, Jason Lezak, ready to pick up a save in a relay race that would stamp his teammate as the most golden of all Olympians.
It hardly proved necessary because Phelps did the heavy lifting himself this time, swimming past an Australian and a Japanese in the butterfly to hand Lezak a lead he wasn’t about to lose. The only thing left was to celebrate and break out a calculator to add up the medal haul.
Medals don’t lie and Phelps now has an astonishing 14 golds in his career, five more than any Olympian ever. His eight this year alone is just one shy of the most any other Olympian has won total.
Four years from now in London, barring some freak injury or the emergence of another freaky swimmer, Phelps is likely to add to his total.
So now the question becomes, is he the greatest Olympian ever?
The answer to that is no.
Not until he wins even more in London, or does something even more freaky, like pick up a gold in the triathlon.
OK, so maybe the idea of Phelps on a bike or taking a run after a swim is a bit far-fetched. The point is that swimming medals are so plentiful that it’s the only sport where someone can even think of winning more than a handful in any given Olympics.
As good as the U.S. basketball team is, the players will get only one medal when they finish off their Olympic run this week. And as awesome as Usain Bolt runs, the fastest man on the planet will go home to Jamaica with no more than three gold medals, for the 100 and 200 meters and the 400 relay.
Phelps was able to win eight golds in nine days because, yes, he’s the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time. It also helped that his toughest race came first in the 400 individual medley and he excelled in events that were spread out at just the right intervals.
But greatest Olympian ever? No.
Give that nod to Carl Lewis, who won nine gold medals over four Olympics, including the long jump four games in a row. Unlike Phelps, Lewis won his medals doing two very different things, using his speed to win the 100 and 200 meters and his leaping ability for the long jump.
He likely would have had even more medals but the United States boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow where Lewis had qualified in the long jump and as a member of the 400 relay team.
“I don’t want to appear to be putting Phelps down,” said David Wallechinsky, the Olympic historian who has literally written the book on the games. “But I need a little more longevity to name him the best Olympian ever.”
The people at NBC would certainly debate that because they built the first week of the Olympics around Phelps’ quest for eight golds, scoring a ratings bonanza that will pale only to the endorsements Phelps will haul in after the games.
But if George Eyser were alive and competing today, the network would have made him a hero, too, if only to tug at America’s heart. Eyser won six medals in 1904 in gymnastics, despite a left leg made of wood after his original one was run over by a train.
Wallechinsky believes a case as the greatest ever could also be made for Finland’s Paavo Nurmi, who won nine gold medals in middle- and long-distance running in the 1920s. While much has been made of the 17 times Phelps had to swim in these games, he never did anything like Nurmi did when he won both the 1500 meters and 5000 meters within two hours of each other in 1924.
Nurmi would likely have won even more, but he was banned from the 1932 games in Los Angeles on a 13-12 vote by Olympic officials who declared him a professional after he appeared in advertisements.
And who knows what Jesse Owens might have done had world events not denied him the chance to compete past the 1936 games, where he ran and jumped his way to four gold medals under political and racial pressures that Phelps never had to face.
Phelps is a testament to great training, hard work and incredible natural ability. It took 36 years for someone to break the record of seven golds set by Mark Spitz in Munich and this record may be untouchable long after that.
He celebrated Sunday morning at the Water Cube with fists in the air and hugs from teammates. The look on his face was one of triumph mixed with the relief that he had done what some thought was impossible.
Great swimmer, yes. Greatest swimmer ever, OK.
But no matter what NBC tries to tell you, it’s too early to declare him the greatest of all Olympians.