BEIJING (Reuters) - Odds do not favor American swimmer Michael Phelps winning seven or more gold medals in the Beijing Olympics and matching or eclipsing Mark Spitz’s record, said Matt Biondi, the last swimmer to attempt it.
Spitz entered seven events at the 1972 Munich Games, winning gold and breaking the world record in all seven of them.
It is not that Phelps is not up to the task or is less competitive, said Biondi, who partially matched Spitz by winning seven medals -- though only five of those were golds -- in the 1988 Seoul Games.
“The goal keeps getting more difficult as the field of competitors around the world improves,” Biondi said on Wednesday in a telephone interview from his home in Hawaii.
“I hope he does it,” Biondi said of Phelps’s target of winning eight gold medals.
“It’s not to say it wouldn’t be doable, but he’s going to face specialists in each event ... plus with the semi-finals, he’s got more total swims than Spitz and I did. The odds are less than you’d like them to be.”
The 22-year-old Phelps is expected to compete in eight events at the U.S. Olympic trials starting next month in Omaha, Nebraska, and speculation has already begun over whether the Spitz gold-medal record from Munich might finally fall.
“I think the challenge is certainly a daunting one,” said Biondi, now 42.
“When I swam -- and even more so for Phelps now -- compared with Spitz, the countries swimming well at the Olympics are much more diverse. Spitz’s biggest challenge was at the trials, against other competitors on the U.S. team.”
Biondi, though, said he had great respect for Phelps as a swimmer as well as a diplomat for the sport.
“He’s developing into a true professional. I like the saying ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’. But Phelps is the exception to that. He can master all the events,” Biondi said.
“He also has poise, and he’s matured tremendously with his speaking ability on TV and in public; he’s become a positive role model,” said Biondi, a veteran of three Games with 11 medals overall.
He said Phelps would have to contend with extra pressures on top of those of performing well in the pool.
“Everywhere Phelps goes, he’s going to be pounded” with attention and requests for interviews, Biondi said.
“The challenge is to block that out and focus on swimming.”
Biondi also weighed in on the intermix of politics with the Olympics, which has reached a crescendo with the Beijing Games over China’s human rights record and Tibet.
“I don’t favor the boycott calls,” he said emphatically.
“Groups and others have legitimate issues and are trying to better the world by raising consciousness on the issues. But the things that are wrong in our world take time (to resolve), and the Olympics is not the right venue to voice these concerns.”
He said it was unfair to involve Olympic athletes with the controversies over China’s human rights record, the crackdown in Tibet, China’s pollution, its role in Darfur and other issues that have drawn criticism.
“It’s not the fault of the athletes,” Biondi added. “We need these things to bring the world together. The Olympics is the opposite of a boycott -- an opportunity to remind people of what we are capable of when everyone comes together.”
Editing by Karolos Grohmann and Ed Osmond