Lochte, Phelps and the puzzle of ‘Free Will’

michael phelps

So I guess we now know the answer to the question I posed in my rivalry piece for the July issue of WAG (“The Best of Frenemies”):

“Can (Ryan) Lochte supplant (Michael) Phelps?” I asked. “Or will he forever be the Red Sox to Phelps’ Yankees, the Frazier to his Ali, the Alydar to his Affirmed – the brilliant No. 2 who would’ve been the best, save for one?”

In a sense, it is a rhetorical question. Lochte is a very talented swimmer. Phelps is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. But if some in the media have been accused of overhyping Lochte, we shouldn’t commit the equal journalistic transgression of undervaluing him now that the rivalry has drawn to a close and Lochte has been found wanting, again. (The word “again” keeps coming up in Lochte headlines. Ouch.)

Let’s face it: Even if Lochte had won six gold medals, he was not going to equal Phelps’ Beijing performance – or make viewers forget that Phelps has become the most successful Olympian of all time in London. As it is, Lochte won five medals – two gold, two silver and one bronze. His Olympic stash of 11 to date ties him for second place with swimmer Matt Biondi behind Phelps for most decorated American male Olympian. And that doesn’t begin to address the horde of hardware Lochte has garnered from national and world championships.

But Lochte has said repeatedly it was his time, only to discover that the clock seems to be set to Phelpsian. Still, does that make him a failure? Is Novak Djokovic a failure, because he’s not Rafael Nadal or may never reach the rarefied plane of Roger Federer? Should I stop writing this blog post, because I’m not Hemingway?

An answer may lie in a book I read while watching Lochte and Phelps race – Sam Harris’ “Free Will.” In it, the well-known atheist states that free will is an illusion. Science has demonstrated that all our decisions are made in our brains before we become conscious that we are making those decisions. So consciousness is merely our awareness of something that is fait accompli.

If Harris is right, then Lochte and Phelp couldn’t help but do what they did. (And chillingly, neither could Colorado gunman James Holmes.) Still, Harris writes – somewhat unconvincingly, given his thesis – we must all accept responsibility for our actions.

I couldn’t have written Harris’ book anymore than I could out-swim Phelps or Lochte. Here’s what I think, though:  We are all strands contributing to the pattern of the universe. It was Phelps’ strand to be the most decorated Olympian of all time. It was Lochte’s to be his great rival.

A CBS News blog suggests that Lochte should’ve spent less time rivaling Phelps. Each, however, benefited from pushing the other – Lochte in particular.

Indeed, Robert Browning might’ve had the swimmer – 28 years old today – in mind when he wrote in his poem “Andrea del Sarto,” “Ah, but a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

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