ATHENS -- The suffocating throngs of global media inquisitors gathered Wednesday to test their theories that American swimming teen idol Michael Phelps is the only member of the U.S. Olympic team whose pursuits in the 2004 Athens Games are worthy of attention.
But Phelps and his U.S. teammates defiantly presented a united front, insisting that the hype around Phelps' pursuit of as many as eight Olympic gold medals at age 19 is only one of the objectives when competition begins Saturday in the open-air swimming venue here.
"I think I speak for everyone," said first-time Olympian Natalie Coughlin, among the most dominant collegiate swimmers of her era. "I don't feel we are in a (Phelps) shadow. We are one team with the same goal."
The U.S. men's Olympic coach and University of Texas coaching legend Eddie Reese declared the team united, disciplined and totally committed to success.
Reese was less forthcoming on the subject of the three men's relay events, which factor into the equation through which Phelps mounts his assault on the seven-gold medal standard established in 1972 by Mark Spitz at the Olympic Games in Munich. Phelps qualified in six individual events last month at the Olympic Trials in Long Beach, Calif., but ultimately decided to compete in five at the Games because the schedule of events dictates that six are too many. He would then have as many as three other gold medal chances -- for a total of eight -- in the men's relay events, but the U.S. staff refuses to summarily assign him to all three despite the frenzy accompanying Phelps' emergence this year.
Without being specific, Reese said only one of the four who will comprise the 400-meter relay is certain, presumably referring to the top qualifier in 100-meter freestyle at the Olympic Trials, Jason Lezak.
Regardless, the thousands of media who are assembled to report on Phelpsmania could not restrain themselves on Wednesday as Phelps faced what was likely the largest gathering of cameras and reporters he has seen in his life. At one point, a spokesperson for USA Swimming, the federation that governs the sport in the United States, admonished the press to consider the collection of world record holders and other accomplished swimmers on the panel other than Phelps. She insisted questions be directed to Phelps' teammates for at least a few minutes.
But eventually the questions returned again to Phelps, who competed as an unknown in the 2000 Games in Sydney without collecting a medal, only to secure his place as the emerging star of American swimming by setting five world records in a matter of days in the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona.
That performance inspired swimming apparel maker Speedo, a USA Swimming and Phelps sponsor, to establish an unprecedented incentive for a U.S. Olympian. Speedo will pay Phelps a $1 million bonus in 2004 if he matches the Spitz mark of seven gold medals. The offer also applies to the 2008 Games in Beijing.
"It is a bonus, something a little bit extra," Phelps said. "It does add a little incentive."
Phelps already is earning well into the high six figures under endorsement deals negotiated by his agent, Peter Carlisle of Octagon, with Argent Mortgage, AT&T Wireless, Omega, Speedo and Visa USA, among others.
Visa will feature Phelps in a television ad that will air on NBC during the Games. The consumer charge card provider already has created a Phelps-themed VISA card bearing the swimmers image, and included information about his achievements in a customer statement insert mailed to 60 million cardholders.
Speedo executive Stu Isaac, who has been associated with the company for 30 years, said in Athens this week that he has never seen an American swimmer attract as much attention as Phelps ahead of the Olympics.
But Phelps refuses to participate in speculation about how many medals he can or will win this month.
"The first goal," he said, "is to get one. I came back from Sydney with nothing.
"All along, I've been sticking with the one gold medal. That's been my goal and that's going to stay my goal until I accomplish it."
That is likely to come as early as Saturday in the 400-meter individual medley in which Phelps set a word record in the recent U.S. Olympic trials.
Whether that event turns out to be his first step toward Olympic immortality and the $1 million prize remains to be seen, but Phelps rejects suggestions that his journey and the financial rewards at stake detract from his teammates, a group that includes world record holders Aaron Peirsol and Brendan Hansen.
"I don't think there is a downside to it at all," Phelps said. "I think everybody feeds off the attention (to swimming)."
It is an opinion shared by 200-meter breaststroke world record holder Amanda Beard, a three-time Olympian and professional model who has garnered widespread attention of her own as a pictorial subject in several recently published fashion and lifestyle magazines.
"It's benefiting all of us," she said regarding the fixation on Phelps. "Michael is an amazing athlete, and he deserves a lot of attention."