Phelps likely won't keep public attention long
LONG BEACH -- When Michael Phelps took his first strokes in the 400 IM final here last week, he was greeted with a memorable sound: silence.
Yes, he got a nice ovation when he walked to the starting block. Yes, the crowd stood and shouted as he chased and reached a new world record in his final lap. But the biggest cheers of the entire week were for Aaron Piersol when he beat Phelps and set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke. The next morning, a local headline read, "Not so fast, Phelps!"
Why is Phelps appreciated, but not adored? Why isn't Phelps cheered for what he is -- a once-in-a-lifetime swimmer?
"People talk like this is the beginning of a trend," says legendary Texas coach Eddie Reese, who coaches Peirsol and Ian Crocker. "You need to know it's not. He's really special."
Phelps' endurance and superiority is unmatched in swimming history. No other American swimmer has ever qualified for six individual events. Unless something odd happens, he will take home seven medals from Athens. Eight. He should bring home at least five golds (400 IM, 200 IM, 200 fly, 400 IM relay and 400 free relay -- assuming he's included on the team), and he has a shot at three more. That means Phelps has a legitimate chance at the greatest single Olympic Games achievement in history.
Phelps is the Secretariat of his sport. So why doesn't he have Smarty Jones' appeal? There are more than a few possible reasons for these attitudes.
And speaking of which, Phelps swims like a man possessed. So why is he saying he wants to win just one gold medal? This cannot possibly be true. Otherwise he would be as thrilled with second place in a trials final as Coughlin was when she barely lost the 100 free. Perhaps Coughlin would be happy with one gold medal, considering her past struggles with sickness and injuries. Phelps? He wants to take the sport where it's never been. He wants to be an icon of swimming. He wants to be to his generation what Mark Spitz was to Phelps' mother: a hero. He can't do that with just one gold medal. Or even four.
Phelps should embrace his role as the nation's best swimmer, and then the nation will follow. Barry Bonds might not be the most popular guy, but no one faults him for wanting to pass Hank Aaron. Lance Armstrong is the source of spite in a good part of Europe, but he fully intends to make Miguel Indurain a cycling also-ran. Nobody blames Maurice Greene for wanting his world record back, or for touting himself as the fastest man alive. And no matter what's said about Bonds, Armstrong or Greene, any right-minded sports fan would go for the record books if he or she had the talent. So should Phelps.
Michael Phelps might be cursed as the favorite, but there is nothing more compelling than unprecedented domination. In three weeks, we will see a performance we have never seen before and might never see again. That should be enough reason to watch, and maybe cheer a little.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.