For such a moment in Olympic history, it was a strangely hole-in-a-corner celebration. The medals ceremony for the men’s 200m freestyle on Tuesday took place under an overhanging ceiling at the end of the pool, in mid-morning (in order to get on US prime-time television) before another less than full house.

However, the champion won’t have noticed: he has a season ticket to the top of the podium. This was Michael Phelps’ third gold medal in Beijing and his ninth Olympic gold in all, equalling the all-time record. “That’s pretty cool,” he said.

He has now joined the highest tier of the Olympic pantheon, standing alongside the athletes Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi (“the Flying Finn” of the 1920s), the Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina and the American swimmer Mark Spitz.

Nurmi in particular might look askance at being joined by someone who competes in what looks like fetish-wear. But it is probably only a brief stop. On Wednesday Phelps may climb above them by claiming number 10 in the 200m butterfly, perhaps on the way to beating Spitz’s 1972 record of seven golds at one games.

This may, however, only be the half of it. Phelps is still only 23, and he is thought to be hungry enough to keep going until London 2012, by which time he might have surpassed Fort Knox.

It’s true that swimmers have more opportunities: Lewis did not have the chance to win sprints running backwards or upside down. But the essence of Phelps is that he is relentless.

Spitz had to be persuaded to go for his seventh gold in Munich. This man needs no persuading – if the swimming were stretched out more thinly, he could and would enter more events. He would probably win gold at backstroke and possibly at breaststroke too.

He is also an astonishing physical specimen, even by Olympic standards. His legs seem to go higher up his body than other people’s, a trait normally associated with supermodels.

“He holds so much water,” explained his team-mate Matt Grevers, a silver medallist in the backstroke on Tuesday, meaning that his arms take him further with each stroke. When he’s swimming butterfly, Phelps surges through the water like some primordial beast scenting dinner.

As a child, he was regarded as a big-eared, long-armed freak: bullied at school in Baltimore, useless at running and ball games, given Ritalin pills to curb his hyperactivity, and written off by his teachers (“You’re child will never be able to focus on anything,” one told his mother). Then he discovered swimming.

Before a race, the once-unfocused boy goes into a zone of unshakeable remoteness. All his rivals wave to the camera when their name is announced; Phelps doesn’t pause from his pre-race routine.

After his poor swim in the 4x100m relay on Monday, when he owed his gold to team-mate Jason Lezak, he was awesome on Tuesday. The gold looked assured by the first turn, the world record by the halfway mark.

We also got a glimpse of a winning personality too. A Chinese journalist asked a minute-long question at the press conference, and the interpreters were off duty. Everyone was laughing at the poor man, and even the Beijing official in charge wanted to move on. Phelps wouldn’t have it: he insisted on knowing what he had been asked.

Finally the translation came through: “Are you good at mathematics?”

The disastrous schoolboy could answer that. “No,” he said. “I was horrible at math.”

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article