For a solid week I have planned my life around NBC's Olympic coverage. I do not normally arrange my activities around a television schedule, but this week was special.

A 23-year-old swimmer from Maryland had the chance to do something no one else has ever done — win eight gold medals in one Olympic Games. So when Michael Phelps was in the pool, we were in front of the television hoping to see him make history.

It was thrilling — even from thousands of miles away, hours after it actually happened. We were riveted and even stayed up for the interviews.

Then came the analysis.

Why do sports writers and broadcasters have to ruin what he did by trying to "put it in perspective" for the rest of us? I have heard dozens of times, "Yes, what he did was amazing, but does it make him the greatest Olympian ever?" Columnists argue yes, while others make their cases for why he is not.

Several writers have even ranked the greatest Olympic athletes — comparing Carl Lewis' ability to win gold medals in four different Olympics to Jesse Owens' winning gold in Nazi Germany. They try to compare the world of Mark Spitz to the world of Michael Phelps and decide which one is the better swimmer.

To fans of sport, it really doesn't matter.

In fact, I think by trying to rank these moments, these achievements, these athletes, we diminish them. To say Michael Phelps accomplishment is greater than Jesse Owens or Mark Spitz is to reduce the magic of what those men did in their own time, against their own demons.

Trying to compare one situation to another is futile. It's like going into a hospital and trying to determine which patient is suffering the most. It's all relative.

Each Olympian had the pressure of expectation, the angst of competition, the battle with self-doubt. Every athlete struggles with his or her own set of unique circumstances, challenges, adversity. They set goals, make plans, suffer setbacks and then the best of them find a way to make their dreams a reality anyway.

What one athlete finds career ending, might be a blessed detour for another.

What do the best coaches always tell athletes who are nervous about the competition they might face? They remind them to focus on what they can control — themselves. The reason people like Michael Phelps can see themselves doing what hasn't yet been done is because their most intense rival is found in their own minds. Their goal isn't beating Joe So-and-so; it's attaining their personal best.

And for fans, just by watching, we in some small way share the joy of the accomplishment, the beauty of the moment, the awe of another broken barrier.

Don't analyze it; savor it.

In the end, Phelps said it best himself. After he'd won his seventh gold medal, tying the record set by Mark Spitz in 1972, Bob Costas asked both men whether Phelps was the greatest Olympian ever. Spitz, ever-gracious, said Phelps was. Phelps, however, said just being mentioned in the same sentence with athletes like Carl Lewis and Mark Spitz was enough.

And the fact that we can sit on our couches and revel in and be inspired by the unbelievable feat of another human being should be enough for all of us.


E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com