Weight of expectations could sink Phelps' star

Laura Vecsey

LET THE GAMES begin?

They've already begun for Michael Phelps, who is either going to be golden boy of Athens or the boy in the busted bubble.

Phelps got a fairly rotten Welcome Wagon greeting at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, when some knee-jerk press clippings painted Phelps as an 18-year-old punk who is not only history-deficient, but lacks a sense of proper feet-kissing.

All this because, for some reason, Phelps had not made a point of seeking out Mark Spitz or begging his counsel before the trials.

As if Spitz, who does not exactly have a reputation as the world's greatest team player, had ever gone out of his way to welcome Phelps to the precipice of greatness. Here kid, here's what you do, here's what to expect.

Considering all the stories about how Spitz alienated so many people before and after his heavy medal run in Munich, it's probably a good thing Spitz has kept his distance from Phelps, and vice versa.

As if swimmers, with their faces buried in pool water for thousands of hours, are natural chatterboxes anyway.

It's tough to imagine that two swimmers who share so much in the way of talent and drive could be any more different than Phelps and Spitz.

That's why it might be important to sound a note of caution to the national and international press corps, which is no doubt already champing at the bit to tear down Phelps the split-second his legend grows a little too tall for his swim skins: He's just a kid from the neighborhood.

Phelps may be the athlete most likely to conquer Athens next month; he may have agents and handlers and a Speedo contract; he may drive a tricked-out Escalade with more bells and whistles than an aviary. He may earn big prize money befitting a pro swimmer and be in line to win a million-dollar bonus from Speedo. But it's hardly who Phelps is.

Mostly, he's just a neighborhood kid from Rodgers Forge who hangs out with friends, wolfs down 3,500 calories in pancakes, anticipates the start of snowball season in Baltimore (syrup over chipped ice) and is generally amused and slightly mystified by his growing celebrity.

That's why we should all be cautious of framing our entire sporting relationship with Phelps based on The Prediction and what happens if he doesn't do what's expected of him.

Frankly, it's a boatload of chlorine: If Phelps doesn't win seven or more gold medals, he's a failure. If he doesn't match or beat the medal mark set by Spitz, he's a loser.

What a wonderful drumbeat sounding this week at the trials, where Phelps is attempting to qualify for every Olympic event this side of the dog paddle.

You've got to love predictions. They're good for no one, except maybe Joe Namath.

Look at Marion Jones. In her pre-BALCO days leading to the 2000 Summer Games, she gladly ran with the prediction that she'd win five gold medals in Sydney. When she won "only" three, plus a silver and a bronze, her accomplishments seemed a letdown. She has never recovered her early publicity as the next Ali, the next Jordan, in part because of her "failure" to win five gold medals.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has even created programs like Podium 2002, pre-setting a goal for the number of medals American Olympians might win. We never seem to learn.

Remember speed skater Dan Jansen and how he was supposed to win four golds, even after the death of his sister. When his first three attempts turned up short, he was the heart-wrenching picture of desperation. A prediction was what escalated that drama to such unenviable expectations and proportions. But at least it was good for the TV cameras.

Remember the last time a swimmer was billed as the next Spitz? Matt Biondi isn't even the answer to a trivia question, having "failed" to meet the mark, winning "only" five gold medals in 1988.

Medal predictions as a pre-ordained measure for success, for greatness, are such a trap. For as much as they're supposed to pump life into an athletic quest, they can also suck the life out of it.

The hard number locks an athlete and his or her audience into a simpleton drama. It's as if striving to win or the unexpected events leading to the finish line aren't as much the compelling aspect of competition as is victory.

The predictions about what Phelps will do in Athens help fan the flames of pre-Olympic hype. It's apparently a necessary item in these overbearing days of over-the-top sports.

And so now it's a done deal. The bar for Phelps is so high that anything less than seven, maybe even eight, gold medals will be a disappointment. Or worse, a bust.

Even his rival, Australian star Ian Thorpe, had some advice for Phelps that flew in the face of conventional wisdom. With the extra round of semifinal heats that swimmers must compete in that did not exist when Spitz swam his Olympic events, the task is more demanding than it was 32 years ago.

"I think he will have an incredible trials and I suspect that he'll have an even better Olympics," Thorpe told the Associated Press last week.

"I think that he's going to walk away from it a very successful athlete in the pool. But if he's basing his success, and his reasoning for success, being winning seven or more gold medals, I think he's going to walk away disappointed and he shouldn't."

But the star-making machinery is cranked so high on Phelps, he can't escape. He's now in the crosshairs of a telescopic/microscopic view-finder that is isolating and defining him in a relentlessly unyielding fashion.

It's takes some of the thrill and some of the beauty out of the pursuit to think you might wind up being considered a "loser," even though you've won.

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