Dubai: Sport will bounce back from a host of high profile impending or confirmed retirements and the records those legends have set will be broken, according to Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time.
The 32-year-old US swimmer won a record 28 Olympic medals, 23 of which were gold, eight of which came in a single Olympics in Beijing in 2008.
Phelps retired after last summer’s Olympic Games in Rio and was joined this summer by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who cemented his legacy as the greatest sprinter by completing the triple-triple in Brazil last year.
It comes at a time when icons in sport across the board are nearing an end — from Roger Federer and Serena Williams in tennis to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in football — begging the question: what comes next?
“In some sports you see there are kids that are hungry that want to go out and do different things, you see a lot of up and coming athletes, so sport will forever change,” said Phelps on the sidelines of an Under Armour store opening in Dubai Mall on Monday.
What it takes to stay on top
“One of the frustrating things I see in swimming though is that there are some people who feel they deserve to be given something instead of working for it. That frustrates me because I know how hard it is not just to get to the top, but to stay there.
“I think once people get there they lose sight on what it takes to stay there or how hard it is to stay there.
“I hope in sport that over the next couple of years people will emerge and I believe that there are people out there, and I feel there has to be someone out there, who is hungry enough, and hopefully they are doing it the right way,” he said in reference to doping.
“If you talk about the Olympics, we can also talk about doping too and that’s something that has to change as well. For sports to really grow and change I would like to see federations step up and police certain things so we are all competing on an even-playing field.”
On the chances of his own records being broken, he added: “A lot of people thought what I did was impossible. So, if there is a kid out there who is truly willing to dream, and dream so big that he will literally shock himself, then anything is possible.
“How many people said I wasn’t going to break or tie Spitz’s record?” he said of former US swimmer Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
“Ian Thorpe publicly said I wasn’t going to win a medal at 31,” he added of the former Australian swimmer.
“Records are always there to be broken and I honestly truly wish and hope there is a kid there that wants it and believes that they can do it.
“I’ve always said the only thing we are not going to be able to do is fly, to stand up flap our arms and just go, but anything else we can truly accomplish and I believe that. You may have to sacrifice and work and there are components to it but I really believe anything is possible.
“It will be hard, because it’s getting harder nowadays, especially in swimming where there are people coming up all over the world. In the early 2000s it was just us [the US] versus Australia and that was it but now we have countries from all over the world stepping up and winning gold medals.
“Look at Schooling,” he said of Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling who beat Phelps to 100-metre butterfly gold at Rio. “I don’t even think Singapore had an Olympic medal before. So, things are changing, and I’d truly like to see it happen in my lifetime. I’d like to see someone try it.”
On whether his star ability was natural or nurtured, he said: “I’ve seen people win medals off hard work and what’s between their ears. Your mental game at that level is so important, the Olympics is where you see real athletes ready to perform and handle anything.
"You have to be prepared for that moment or your whole race is blown and you have to wait another four years. I worked on every single aspect of my preparation from the age of 11 or 12 visualising being ready for whatever might happen.
“So, it truly takes a full package to be great. You can sneak through if you don’t sacrifice as much but you’re mental game is 10 times stronger than everyone else.
"But I think to really be able to be at the top you need everything and some people are given it and some people have to work for it.
"For me, I think I was obviously given a talent to swim, and I capitalised on other things, and it was only because I wanted to and it was a passion of mine.”