Commentary

More than one clash in London

Updated: July 29, 2012, 6:30 PM ET
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

LONDON -- OK, Lochte versus Phelps was more dud than classic, a beat down, a walkover. It was Tyson knocking out Spinks in 91 seconds. Can you say no mas if you're face down in a pool of water? No matter who you were rooting for, you couldn't have expected Michael Phelps, The Greatest Swimmer Ever, to finish fourth in the Great Race. He looked like Jordan wearing that No. 45 jersey. This is what happens when one guy is stopping to smell the roses, while the other wants to put roses on his rival's watery grave.

Look, you're not going to read a lot of criticism here of Phelps. He owned 2008 like no one has owned the Summer Games since Flo Jo in 1988. Phelps doesn't owe anyone jack, but if you come to the Olympics looking to essentially take a victory lap even before the competition begins, chances are some uber-ambitious lad who wants what you've had is going to stand over you and beat his chest when all is said and done.

The day before the Olympics began, Phelps told the assembled media he had gone into Beijing trying to "conquer everything and anything" in his path, and having been there, done that he wasn't approaching London with the same maniacal passion. London, Phelps said, was "about how many toppings do I want on my sundae." In less than four minutes in the water in the first Big Event of the Olympics on Saturday night, the 400-meter IM final, Phelps' hide was a trophy on Ryan Lochte's wall.

[+] EnlargeUsain Bolt
AP Photo/Petr David JosekWill Usain Bolt be able to repeat his accomplishments from the 2008 Beijing Olympics?

I don't buy the notion advanced by one of his teammates that Phelps is somehow a slacker when it comes to training and got by on talent in his prime. He trained every day, as in every single day, for six years leading up to the 2004 Athens Olympics, and I didn't doubt him one bit when he said Thursday, "I'm going to get in the water and race as hard as I can."

But what we can conclude now is that Phelps can't race as hard as he once did. It's not 2002 or 2003. We're not leading up to Athens anymore. Or Beijing. The fanaticism that is the hallmark of every once-in-a-generation athlete isn't there anymore, which isn't anything to be ashamed of; it's just a fact that will prevent him from beating Lochte. Yes, they'll race again here, but it's not like Phelps can switch to a 2-3 zone or go to a smaller, quicker lineup or make some off day adjustment. This is what it is, as the kids say now. And even with all those medals Phelps already has, it has to be hard to swallow, getting your butt kicked on the world's grandest stage.

If you're not going to have a classic, might as well have a dominating, get-the-hell-out-of-my-way performance to kick off the 16 days here, which is exactly what Lochte gave the world. Now if only we can have that kind of anticipation/confrontation a few more times while we're in London. Actually, it's not farfetched. While controversy or politics, or both, often carry the day at the Summer Olympics, there's every chance the human drama of athletic competition will be the lasting highlight of the London Games.

Lochte versus Phelps was the first big thing, but it sure as heck won't be the last. The stars already seem to be aligned. The person who ought to be more than a little worried after Saturday's swimming result is Usain Bolt. The difference between Phelps and Bolt would be what, exactly?

Let's see ...

Lochte and Phelps, countrymen and teammates, have trained together for years. They both say all the proper things about each other publicly, but everyone else had the sense that Lochte performed better at the U.S. Olympic trials and wanted to beat Phelps' brains out, and damn if he didn't. Bolt and Yohan Blake, countrymen and teammates, have trained together for years. They both say all the proper things about each other publicly, but a lot of folks have sensed, after Blake beat Bolt at the Jamaica Olympic trials last month, Blake wants to beat Bolt's brains out, and he might.

I'll admit, I was rooting for Phelps. I usually root for champions, especially the all-timers who raise the profile of a sport then in no time have to start shooting back at the young gunslingers coming after them. So I'll be rooting for Bolt, no question. He's the most important man in track and field since Carl Lewis. He's not as good as Lewis, mind you, just important to his sport, a headliner, a showstopper and a star, baby.

Maybe Bolt, like Phelps, did the work of a lifetime in Beijing, and that's it, he's done, check please. Maybe. While people ponder for the next week whether fast times and late nights are about to take down Bolt, I'm staying with the champ. But goodness, if you think Lochte-Phelps was big -- hey, the queen and the first lady hit the pool Saturday -- wait until the men's 100-meter final in which we get to see Bolt and Blake alongside Asafa Powell, Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay. America may not get track and field anymore, but the Europeans adore it, understand it and celebrate it. London will explode during that race.

The women's 100 should be nearly as star-studded, with Carmelita Jeter, Allyson Felix, Tianna Madison and Veronica Campbell-Brown in the field. Before all that, Oscar Pistorius will have become the first Olympian to participate using a prosthetic -- two of them, actually -- and all he has to do after making history is run against favorites U.S. star LaShawn Merritt and Kirani James from Grenada. It promises, just from a sports standpoint, to be a heck of a lot more exciting than pouring over NFL training camp cuts. Nothing that happens in a forced August preseason game could possibly come within a thousand miles of creating this kind of excitement.

And no one trying to make an NFL roster could be under as much pressure as Great Britain's Jessica Ennis, the favorite in the heptathlon, who, if you're in the country for five minutes, you'll find out is the prettiest, nicest person in the country carrying the hopes of an entire nation. This nation wants her to be the smiling, triumphant face these Games are remembered by when people get on their flights and go home. They're not asking a lot of Ennis, are they?

Oh, yeah, there's real sports stuff everywhere -- expectations, pressure, careers to make and legacies to leave. The U.S. men's basketball team is, and should be, favored to win gold, but there's one game any real basketball fan should be rooting to see -- United States versus Spain. OK, Brazil has enough size to threaten the U.S. for a while (like during that "friendly" in Washington, D.C., a couple weeks ago) but it couldn't possibly beat the U.S.

Spain could. It's not impossible. Suppose Tyson Chandler, the only real big man Team USA has, gets into foul trouble or rolls an ankle? You know who coach Mike Krzyzewski has to call in from the bullpen? Anthony Davis, who is exactly a year removed from high school. You think Gasol, Gasol & Ibaka are cowering in anticipation over a kid who hasn't even been to an NBA camp yet?

Women's soccer could be even better, because we already know Japan can beat the U.S. after last year's World Cup. A rematch certainly isn't out of the question. And it would help keep people back home from fixating on Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas, another set of countrywomen and teammates who could have their own little rivalry while their team tries to beat its biggest competition, Russia. My reservation about gymnastics is roughly the same as it is about figure skating: judges ... and crying ... and parents ... and watching 16-year-olds navigate nerves and the pressure to be perfect.

The Olympics surely are about more than contests, but the Games still should be highlighted by sport, pure sport, human competition and the drama produced by the effort and results. Yes, there are acts of sportsmanship in the Olympics that will make you sob and acts of kindness and thoughtfulness unlike anything you're likely to see in the everyday arena of professional sports in America. Having covered sports for the past 32 years, people often ask what my favorite moment has been and then look at me in disbelief when I tell them I could barely breathe when Cathy Freeman won the 400 at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It was the only time I've ever written a column on a wet keyboard.

So much about the Olympics -- from the awarding of the Games to the construction of stadiums and arenas to the financing to the various local hijinks -- can wear you out and obscure why they are staged in the first place. But sometimes, once the pomp is over, men and women do the damnedest things in the name of competition and country.

Maybe I'm crazy, but this feels like one of those times.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon