Now the 80s.
Now the 70s.
For those of you old enough to remember, think back to the 60s, the 50s, maybe even the 40s.
Now dig into your mental history books, and try to remember every aspect of those years. Every event, every trend, every pivotal moment.
Chances are, somewhere in your review of each decade, you thought of a sports moment. And chances are, you only thought of one for each.
But what about this past decade, the last 10 to 15 years or so? In the past handful of years, has there truly been a defining moment in terms of sports?
Penn State might come to mind, or the O.J. Simpson trial even, but those are crime stories, not necessarily sports ones.
What about BountyGate, the MLB steroid scandal or the 2004 Red Sox World Series? As enthralling as those stories and others may be, none of them really stick like, say, the 1980 Miracle on Ice or Lou Gehrig's 1939 farewell speech.
And as you rapidly file through memories of the last several years, struggling to come up with a moment that places itself at the apex in your mind, stop, pause and remember that the most influential moment in recent sports history might not be a moment at all. Rather, the most memorable and significant piece of sports history in the past decade or so might be a career.
The career of Michael Phelps.
Phelps' journey is an ongoing chronicle, one that will end in just a few short weeks. And with the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games will come the end of the story that will define this decade of athletics. It is a display of dominance that will, in the long run, forever etch its place in history.
We watched Phelps take to the Olympic scene in 2000 as a gangly yet confident 15-year-old and from there watched him blossom from prodigy, to flourishing athlete, to utter dominator in a matter of years. He now holds just about every Olympic record there is and has enough gold medals to make King Midas jealous.
Where, in the last 10 years or in the history of sports for that matter, we wonder if we have come across an athlete whose talent is so undeniable, that winning is not only hoped for but expected. Each time Phelps stepped onto a starting block, everyone in the crowd, the television audience, the judging booths and even the starting blocks to the left and right of him knew who was going to win the race.
Only now, at the end of his illustrious career, are we beginning to see a steady decline. Only now are the god-like layers of Phelps' athletic talent beginning to peel back to reveal some sign of human qualities. He is becoming uninterested. His coach, Bob Bowman, revealed that the 14-time gold medalist would miss months of practice at a time. Even Phelps himself stated that he was becoming disengaged despite being three gold medals short of surpassing Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian of all time.
If he does that, not only will he be remembered as the greatest Olympian of all time, but he will be the most dominant athlete in the world's truest test of athletic measure. That's not opinion, that's black and white, written in stone, fact. It's the Olympics, and Phelps has stood on more podiums than any other male in history.
We will not primarily remember Phelps for his dominance, though. Yes, his dominance was undeniable, but we will most remember Phelps for being a true game-changer. And furthermore, Phelps was a game-starter. Many will admit with no remorse that swimming was a non-factor to them before Phelps burst onto the scene.
Quick, name one male swimmer who competed before Phelps.
Maybe you thought of Ian Thorpe or Mark Spitz, and even that would be impressive. But Phelps made swimming watchable. He made it popular. He made swimming a sport to be taken seriously again.
Unlike a Stanley Cup victory or a photo finish at Daytona, Phelps' career will extend far beyond the reaches of sports. He will forever be remembered not in sports history alone, but throughout history as a part of culture. The past ten years will be remembered by a face, not a game. A man, not a team.
So as we watch the career of Phelps come to an end in London this summer, remember, we are not just watching another set of races he is likely to win. Instead, look at the big picture.
Phelps has given us an opportunity to say we lived through something great, something memorable. Like those who lived through the lives of Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky or Babe Ruth, we too have the opportunity to watch the unfolding of an athlete who will someday be deemed "the greatest."
Find something more significant than that over the past ten years, and I'd very much like to hear about it.
Thumbnail photo via Facebook/Michael Phelps
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