COMMENT Athletic greatness was never precisely measurable and it never will be, writes Nirmal Shekar

“Man is something that must be surpassed. What have you done to surpass him?’’ asked Friedrich Nietzsche rhetorically in the prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra. In the Olympic Arena, the most hallowed piece of real estate in the world of sport, Michael Phelps has, arguably, done more than anybody else in striving to surpass human greatness.

By winning his record 19th Olympic medal — 15 of them gold — the legendary American swimmer has become the most decorated Olympian of all time. He has also, simultaneously, triggered the question that many sports fans would love to spend their leisure hours mulling on.

Is Phelps the greatest athlete of all time? Can anybody — man or woman — better his record in the near future?

By the time the swimming events are over in London, Phelps might have added a few more. And, for some time to come, the question about his place at the top in the history of athletics will be debated with some vigour everywhere.

Nietzsche, of course, was dwelling on the concept of “the overman,” as he felt that human beings should be more than just human, all-too-human.

Very much human

Unfortunately, nature/evolution has no room for the Ubermensch. For all his stunning accomplishments, Phelps is very much human, very much a member of a rather flawed species called Homo sapiens. This is precisely why his achievements are all the more extraordinary.

What is more, the great man from Baltimore came into London with a lot of question marks over his form, fitness and motivation. As it turned out, he has not been anywhere near the peak that he touched four years ago in Beijing. Yet, he has managed to sweep past the Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record haul of 18 Olympic medals.

Surely, greatness in sport cannot be reduced to a bunch of medals or a sheet of statistics. For, there is no one matrix for greatness.

This apart, it is difficult — if not impossible — to compare jaw-droppingly astonishing achievements in one sport with something similar in another that takes a different set of skills.

But Phelps’s intrepidness in the face of adversity, his fierce resolve and strong-willed fortitude, are attributes that can hardly be over-stated in a man who has virtually lived in the pool all his life. “The pool is my safe haven,’’ he once said.

Phelps’s success is clearly a case of pure athleticism unabashedly asserting itself to prove that if there was a stone wall between what is possible and what is not in sport, then it is one that is certainly permeable.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle came up with the concept of eudaimonia, by which he meant “self fulfilment through personal excellence.” Since the ancient Olympics, athletes have toiled to achieve this elusive state on the field of dreams. But few might have done it as convincingly as Phelps, leaving onlookers in a state of slack-jawed stupefaction.

Not a gift from nature

But then, even if it does appear that I am getting repetitive and stretching a point, let us get this straight. The giant American with a 6ft 7in wingspan is no superman. If, like many great champions, he seems to exude an aura of being unreachable, untouchable — in terms of his achievements — then the success has not come purely as a gift from nature.

From the age of seven, 20 years ago, when Phelps’s mother threw the over-active kid into the deep end to keep him from messing up the drawing room, Phelps has trained with the zeal of a Zen master.

Few of us ordinary folks can truthfully claim to know what it really takes to become an all-time-great world beater. Fewer still can grasp the enormity of the sacrifices to be made on the slippery road in pursuit of the elusive dream of surpassing excellence.

The sporting god is ruthless, cruel and brutal. Unless you are good enough to make excellence a habit rather than a sporadic accident, you won’t even be deemed good enough to tie the shoelaces of the greatest of athletes.

Love to peak

And the best among the best — ones such as Phelps — are men who simply love the process of attaining peak performance just when it is demanded of them, no matter that the demands may be made four years apart, as on the Olympic stage.

Athletic greatness was never precisely measurable and it never will be. There is an inherent fuzziness about all our concepts and yardsticks of sporting immortality.

But this much is sure: Tuesday night’s Phelps moment — the moment when he broke the all-time Olympic medal record — was an epochal one. It marked a virtuoso feat of human endurance and skills that should go down as a ne plus ultra — the highest point of achievement.

So, where does that leave Phelps? Alone. But it is the sort of aloneness that many great athletes would give an arm and a leg for.