Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And more than 35 world records have fallen at the Beijing Olympics as of this morning, seven of them thanks to Michael Phelps, who swam to an unprecedented eight gold medals last week. You can see him and his medals on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated. Next month, he'll be on cereal boxes. Commentator Frank Deford has been fielding questions about Michael Phelps and his place in history.

FRANK DEFORD: In quick succession, I've been asked to lend my presumed wisdom to the following questions. Number one: Is Michael Phelps or Babe Ruth the greatest Baltimore athlete? Number two: Is Phelps the greatest Olympian ever? And number three: Is Phelps the greatest athlete of all time?

Sports being both competitive and argumentative, this stuff is indigenous to the subject. Who's better? Whaddya think? I'd say ESPN has made an art form out of it, but I don't want to insult art.

Still, sports couldn't survive off the field without pitting someone against someone else. But hey, the questions are impossible. First of all, how do you even begin to rate any team athlete against an individual-sport athlete? What is the basis of comparison between a shortstop and a golfer? It's hard enough judging two shortstops. None of this nonsense takes place anywhere else.

Excuse me, we're taking a poll. Who do you think is better: Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Mozart or Caruso?

The issue of pre-eminence in sport is heightened because, of almost all the institutions in the world, it's about the only one where it is accepted that the principals get better all the time. In sports, it's an article of faith that somebody paints a better Sistine Chapel ceiling about every other weekend.

Remember when, oh, about five minutes ago, Roger Federer was surely the best tennis player of all time? Now, all of a sudden, he may not even be considered the best player of his generation. And, of course, in sports where performance is measured by the clock, we can see that, intrinsically, humans are getting faster. With his times from 1936, Jesse Owens wouldn't get near the Olympic starting blocks.

In sport, we bow to the numbers and worship the immediate, but that's unfairly out of context. You don't measure Jesse Owens against runners 70 years later who have improved equipment, training, diet. You measure how he did at that time that he was given to compete. It's like saying that Napoleon was a lousy general because he didn't know how to deploy air power.

But I think you can say this, that what Phelps did may well constitute the single most sustained success that any athlete ever achieved in an intense period. But I'm sorry, I have no idea where he ranks in the pantheon of athletic greatness. I just know that by what he did, with as much grace and courage day after day, Michael Phelps made the human spirit ascend. And that's as good as it gets, whenever, wherever.

MONTAGNE: And commentator Frank Deford joins us when? Each Wednesday. Where? From member-station WFHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR New. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford
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