A super summer of new records

There was a time when the world was normal.

When people and things and events existed in regular shapes, sizes and manners. No more.

Sports fans around the world got to see a summer of extremes. Athletic greatness, which has been redefined so many times in recent years, soared even higher this summer alongside the superheroes who destroyed box offices and the global powers who flexed their military muscles to prove their might.

Today’s ever-more-spectacular athletes have fewer constraints than those of the past. They push a little further, needing to be better not just than the others on the field but better, too, than those in the record books. And there’s only one way to beat a dead guy: forget him.

A lot’s been forgotten in recent years. I’ve seen it in my favorite pastime. Ushered out of memory by a new era of sport that is played by bigger men in smaller ballparks, baseball’s past heroes and records are no longer learned by young fans. A few years after records began to fall, the athletes who broke them followed, and today the sport is soaked in a grime that is short of shame but well beyond embarrassment. Meanwhile the past is further gone.

That was all before this summer.

It took Michael Phelps to get the world to watch swimming with soccer passion. His portrait now painted, his face to be remembered by history as not simply the image of a man but as a symbol — greatness itself for anyone who needs inspiration. His individual races (let those be remembered, too) also told a story, with chapters and a conclusion as moving as any ever told.

One, two, three … eight, his medals added, making him a real-world superhero. But in the fractions of a second and in the strokes he completed before his competitors touched the wall, he showed the world domination and he showed the world luck. A hundredth of a second made him the greatest, and the luckiest — two designations that will never be divided in our collected memory of his races and these games.

But the fish-man from Baltimore wasn’t the only phenomenon in the pool this year. In the Water Cube, the men and women competing swam 32 races, and 19 times they set world records. Will I see such a feat again?

It’s not just the athletes who are better. February began the age of the LZR, the new swimsuit that has swimmers and countries breaking endorsement deals (sorry, TYR!) to wear the best, a gift from above that literally lifts swimmers up, almost out of the water, and propels them to victory and new speeds. Michael Phelps may be an instant legend, but his legend is in part made of polyurethane that sculpts already-godlike bodies into the shape I believe we would take if we had evolved to swim as much as we walk.

And then there was the track. There was 9.69. And 19.67. And a single name that was too good to be ruined by NBC’s clichés. Like a — yes! — bolt, Usain Bolt shot off the blocks, took a few strides and dropped his arms before the finish line. Here was a man (really a man?) so good he didn’t need to compete, didn’t need to sprint to the end. In 80 meters he put it away, and put himself in the record books. No magic suit on him. But magic he brought to the Bird’s Nest.

And forgive the jump away from sports, but remember that this was also the summer of the fictional superhero Batman, who showed off a new and better (but still not magical) Batsuit, and who also broke records with a phenomenal opening weekend. The Dark Knight framed a summer of humans doing the inhuman, bringing to cultural attention that which non-sports fans may have missed.

But the real action wasn’t in Gotham. Instead it was, for the first time, in China and, like the old days, in Russia. War broke out once more in a historically troubled region, and unrest was missing entirely in the capital of a police state that has figured out how to package and market itself to the global economy of the 21st century, allowing athletes the whole stage.

And when we looked to home, we heard about a celebrity, a man who may very well be our next president, and who already draws hundreds of thousands when he speaks on other continents. A superhero he isn’t, a superpower he does not (yet) possess, but a superstar he has become. Phelps, Bolt, Obama and China are the stars of today. The stars of yesterday — Russia, Bonds and Federer — are forgotten except when they rear their heads for final, dying roars. And the stars of tomorrow are probably still in the crib. With the help of some juice, technology not yet developed and the ever-faster march of history, they’ll be here soon enough. And by then we’ll have forgotten that which amazed us in 2008.

PETE MARTIN is a junior in Morse College. Contact him at peter.martin@yale.edu 

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