Michael Phelps? Perhaps you haven't heard of him. That is, you might not have heard of the teenage swimming champ from Towson if you've been avoiding The Sun, The Washington Post, Time magazine, or USA Today, and also if you determinedly ignored NBC or any of its sister cable stations carrying the Athens Olympics. Phelps was challenging - almost dead-certain to break, really - Mark Spitz's record-setting total of seven gold medals from 1972, to listen to all the stories.
Except it didn't happen. And it became clear that it wouldn't happen in the Olympics' opening 48 hours last weekend, sending many of the 20,000 journalists in Athens to cover the games into rhetorical fits as Phelps' fortunes waxed and waned from meet to meet.
In the last few days, in fact, Phelps has been transformed from media darling to seeming failure to has-been to success story. He thinks he's exhausted? We're exhausted. Is he a hero or not? And, more to the point, why can't the media resist such simplistic story lines in the first place?
"It's this maddening concept," says Mark Schwarz, a veteran sports correspondent for ESPN, from his home in Howard County. "We can't allow this event to unfold in its natural course. Because of the monstrous demand for information and column inches, we jump really hard at the first sign of a result. And then, if it changes a lot, we find ourselves clawing to get to the other side."
About a year ago, Phelps broke a slew of world records during an international competition in Barcelona, Spain. His eyes got big at the chance to enter the realm of sports legends. And the eyes of his corporate sponsors got even bigger at the thought of the media blitz that would ensue. So he told reporters, sure, he'd like to shoot for Spitz's title. Speedo offered him $1 million if he tied or beat the record.
Phelps is a 19-year-old with a chance to win $1 million and the adoration of millions. That was his excuse for getting caught up in the hype. But what excuse do the rest of us have?
Before he had won a single Olympic gold medal, however, Phelps had already been built up into a sporting hero. He made the covers of Time, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times Magazine, and almost pushed Hollywood star Reese Witherspoon from the cover of Vanity Fair. (The New York Observer reported that her publicists intervened to prevent that calamity.) At a time of insecurity over war and terrorism, a hunger for heroes outside combat is understandable. But a little perspective might have been welcome.
On Sunday night, NBC's Pat O'Brien set the tone for the network's coverage. "Good evening from the center of the sporting universe," he said. "Tonight, we've got a full plate, including highlights from the Olympic aquatic center, where U.S. superstar Michael Phelps began his assault on swimming record books." Notice that Phelps wasn't even participating in a swim competition anymore. According to O'Brien, his focus was exclusively on sporting history. (NBC paid well over $700 million for the U.S. television rights to the Olympics - and its ratings tend to spike when U.S. athletes are in the hunt for gold medals.)
If Phelps truly launched an assault, it was pretty quickly repelled. He came in third in the 200-meter freestyle to the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband and Australia's Ian Thorpe, who is also something of a media sensation. Third means bronze - an actual medal. It's an impressive showing, particularly for an event that is not considered one of Phelps' strongest ones. But the media didn't think so.
On Tuesday, CBS' Hannah Storm pressed Phelps' mother and sister several times on whether his bronze medal - and the loss of Speedo's $1 million for now not being able to match Spitz's record - was a disappointment. (He'll still get a big payday from Speedo and other sponsors.) A columnist in The New York Sun deemed Phelps "a 19-year-old failure." A columnist for the New York Daily News wrote of the "sigh of disappointment" enveloping the men's swimming team. After a loss by the Americans in a 400-meter relay, a headline in the Los Angeles Times explained: "Bad Start Is Worst-Case Scenario for Swimmers."
But then Phelps started to creep back up in the media's esteem, as he won two gold medals Tuesday (one in the 800-meter men's relay, thanks to the fevered swimming of teammate Klete Keller, who held off Thorpe and the Australians).
Here's what The Sun published in a front-page story yesterday by Paul McMullen, a reporter who has been tracking the swimmer's progress for several years: "Phelps had returned to the top of the Summer Games 24 hours after being written off for failing to duplicate Mark Spitz's seven gold medals of 1972."
That's probably true. But it's pretty sad. Phelps had hardly been written off by his rivals. He hadn't been written off by his family. He seemed likely to continue racking up medals victories and to win a smaller, six-figure bonus from Speedo. And he may well hit his prime four years from now, during the 2008 Olympics, when he'll be just 23 years old. Who exactly had been writing off Phelps?
Oh, that's right. Much of the media.
And how come his failure to match Spitz was such a disappointment? Because the press set him up for it. "With a victory [in the 200-meter freestyle], he will rise closer to the stratosphere of U.S. sports stardom and begin to build a solid platform for his campaign to make swimming more popular in the USA," wrote USA Today's Vicki Michaelis earlier this week. "If the 19-year-old from suburban Baltimore doesn't win, he lets the air out of it all."
Really? Why is that?
As Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press, wrote, "The hype machine will judge this a failure. The hype machine has engine trouble." The bronze medal in the men's 200-meter freestyle was no failure, Rosenberg wrote. "We all wanted to believe so badly, we forgot to look at the facts. The truth is, had Phelps entered no other races, had there been no thoughts he would catch Spitz and no dream of the story that would be, nobody would have picked him as the favorite in this race."
Commentaries like that provided an excuse to tell readers that they should entertain the idea that Phelps has fallen terribly short - even if only to shoot down the idea.
Next thing you know, someone will be rehashing Phelps' fluctuating fortunes and adding to the reams of articles about the young athlete in an attempt to criticize how the media has handled his story.