Image: Michael Phelps
Jerry Lampen  /  Reuters
Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, breaking Mark Spitz' record for golds at a single Games.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/25/2008 7:44:29 AM ET 2008-08-25T11:44:29

Want to win a bar bet tonight? Try this sports trivia question: Who were the three swimmers who saved Michael Phelps’ historic Olympics in the men’s 4x100-meter relay?

It happened little more than a week ago, and it was the race of the Olympics. I’m sure you remember the finish. An American had to swim the race of his life to make up a big deficit and beat somebody else by a fingernail. Already, I’m betting that a lot of you can’t even remember which country that other somebody was from. I know not one in 10 can name the heroic American who swam the last leg, and probably not one in 50 can name the entire relay team. I wrote about it and even I’d forgotten one of the swimmers already.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it out at your neighborhood sports bar. Everyone will know Phelps, of course. Some will know that the French team finished second. A few will remember that Jason Lezak is the hero who swam the fastest 100 meters ever swum to save the day. And virtually no one will be able to tell you that the other two American swimmers were Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones.

And that’s today. Wait a month or two, and virtually no one will remember Lezak, the true hero of that relay, the man who made the Phelpsian Feat of eight gold medals possible.

So it is with all Olympics. Some of us watch from dawn to dusk, churning through the cable menu, suddenly absorbed in table tennis and badminton and field hockey and water polo and fencing and team handball — who knew such a sport even existed? We keep checking the results online at work and maybe watch some live streaming video.

And a week later, what we remember are two or three moments that forever will define 2008 and Beijing in our memory banks.

Slideshow: Best of the Olympics This year, it’s Phelps and Usain Bolt, the Jamaican rocket who set world records in both the 100 and 200 meters and then tacked on a third gold in the 4x100 meter relay.

Phelps was impossible to avoid. His quest to break Mark Spitz' record of seven gold medals at a single Olympics was the hyped as the story of the Games, and rightly so. Phelps swam 17 races, won eight golds — with a little help from his friends — and established himself as the greatest athlete of all time .

So how does one try to match a feat like that? You run to world records in track & field's glamour events. Bolt blew away the field in the 100-meter dash, setting a world record despite slowing up more than 10 yards from the finish line. A few days later, he broke Michael Johnson's 12-year-old record in the 200, and ran a leg on Jamaica's record-breaking 4x100 relay. He was the Phelps of track, if you will.

After them, you’ll probably remember the golden girls of beach volleyball, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri “Six Feet of Sunshine” Walsh, the first team to win back-to-back gold medals in their sport.

But you probably won’t remember the guys who matched their feat a day later — Todd Rogers and Philip Dalhausser. Maybe if they wore Speedos and went bare-chested, they’d have a better shot at being remembered. Maybe not. On the beach, babes in bikinis always rule.

Slideshow: Emotional moments If you remember one more person, it’s likely to be Dara Torres, who didn’t win a gold at all but was celebrated far and wide as the 41-year-old Olympic mom.

By the time they snuff the torch on Sunday night, there will have been 302 gold medals awarded to athletes in 28 sports. When they re-light it in London four years hence, most of those winners will be dim memories.

You can say you’ll remember, but start flipping through your Olympic memory bank. I’ve been doing it myself, going back to the first Summer Games I attended in 1984 in Los Angeles. That was Mary Lou Retton and Carl Lewis. I also remember Daley Thompson, the decathlon champion, but I doubt many others do. Edwin Moses, the greatest 400-meter hurdler of all time was in the mix as well.

In 1988 in Seoul, it was Lewis again, Florence Griffith-Joyner, who somehow managed not to get caught by the drug police, and Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who did get caught. Greg Louganis split his head open hitting the springboard in diving, but won both diving medals anyway.

Barcelona hosted the 1992 Games, and that was all Dream Team all the time. The other crystal-clear memory of Barcelona — aside from rambles on Las Ramblas and spending three weeks in one of the world’s greatest cities — was of Derek Redmond, who tore his hammy in a 400-meter heat. He finished the race in tears while being supported by his father, who came out of the stands to help his son cross the finish line. No gold there. Great memory, though.

The Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996, and that was Kerri Strug and that vault landed on one leg. What’s funny about that is that it turned out Strug didn’t need to land the vault for the U.S. women to win team gold. But no one knew that when she did it, and so she’s the person we remember even more than her teammate, Shannon Miller, who established herself in Atlanta as perhaps the greatest female American gymnast ever.

Atlanta was also Michael Johnson’s golden double, the 200 and 400 sprints. No one had ever won those two races, and Johnson set an Olympic record in the 400 and a world record in the 200 that stood until Usain bolt broke it her. He also wore nifty gold spikes. The other name everyone knows from Atlanta is Richard Jewell, the man who was not responsible for the Olympic Park bombing.

For the 2000 Games, we went Down Under to Sydney. I remember Ian “Thorpedo” Thorpe in swimming, but I doubt many other Americans do — he's an Aussie after all. I also remember Rulon Gardner, the American super-heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestler who beat previously undefeated Alexander Karelin. Most people probably remember Marion Jones, who was a great hero for winning the women’s 100 and 200 sprints before getting stripped of the medals years later for cheating.

Four years ago, it was Phelps trying for the Mark Spitz thing and coming up one gold medal short. Carly Patterson’s all-around gold in gymnastics is in there, too. The other overriding memory is of the U.S. Nightmare Team losing to Puerto Rico, among others, and finishing third in the basketball tournament.

Everybody has other favorite moments, depending on their favorite sports or stories that tugged at their heartstrings. But the moments I’ve listed are probably on most mental checklists. The rest is pretty much a colorful blur of gold-medal smiles, fourth-place tears, and stunning pictures of exotic locales.

There were 302 individual and team victories. If four years from now you remember 10 of the names (naming the Redeem Team doesn’t count), you’re way ahead of the curve.

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