Report #4 - The Michael Phelps Phenomenon

Going into the Athens Olympic Games, everyone knew what the big story was going to be. Swimmer Michael Phelps had caught fire at the 2003 world championships, breaking more than one world record. Speedo, and no doubt Michael’s agent, suddenly realized that they could be sitting on a gold mine with their young, good-looking swimmer. Heading into 2004, Michael Phelps was everywhere… from magazine covers to VISA commercials. So when I found out I would be helping at the swimming competition for the first week of the Olympics, I knew it was going to be a busy time.

I had helped with swimming at the 2003 Pan American Games. But USA Swimming sends its “B” team to the Pan Am Games. Not to mention that only a couple U.S. media outlets sent reporters, so it wasn’t very hard to help and I actually enjoyed meeting some new athletes.

It was a whole different ballgame… or swim meet in Athens. When I arrived at the swimming venue and hour early, the place was packed. I had trouble getting in the regular entrance because swimming was a “ticketed” event even for media. U.S. media had to show up at the USOC office early in the day to see if they had gotten a ticket. If they did, they could cover the event. If not, they were out of luck. There’s only so much space in the media room and you can’t have every newspaper that suddenly decides to jump on the Michael Phelps bandwagon show up.

Mary and Terra, USA Swimming’s usual PR team, explained that my role would be to stay in the media room, stay in contact with them by cell phone, and then tell the media what was going on. I knew many of the media from my days as a reporter… or from triathlon, so I didn’t think it would be too difficult.

Phelps’ first event came on. I think it was the medley. He broke the world record. He was ecstatic. The crowd was ecstatic. It was a happy moment.

Immediately following the race, the press rushed to the “mix zone.” This is an area where the media is on one side of a fence and the athletes come off the field of play on the other. Usually, the athletes will stop and give interviews.

Anyway, the Greek venue officials’ plan was that the athletes would do their awards ceremony, then go do a formal press conference. As Phelps went to the awards stand to receive his gold medal and his olive wreath for his head, the media celebrated by pushing and shoving each other to get to the best seats in the very poorly arranged press conference room. However, 15 minutes after the ceremony, Phelps still hadn’t shown up.

I got a call on my cell phone from Terra.

“Michael has to warm down for half an hour and then he will come into the press conference,” she said.

First off “warming down” is what most people might call “cooling off.” The athletes get into the pool and swim some slow laps to get the lactic acid out of their systems.

“Um,” I said, “the media’s not going to be too happy about that.”

Terra said she knew but that she had to respect the decision of Michael and his coach.

So I went down to the press conference room where most of the media was now gathered. I didn’t think that what I was doing was going to be a big deal. I guess I’m pretty naïve. Up I trotted to the front of the room.

“Michael Phelps won’t be here for at least another half hour,” I said.

Suddenly, I realized I might have done my job a little too hastily.

The faces of the media members gaped at me in disbelief… “Another half hour? What? Why?”

Meanwhile, Greek officials were running up to me: “What? How can you do this? Think of the other athletes! You are going to push everything out of schedule.”

Me? I was going to push everything out of schedule at the Olympic swimming event? I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then a guy named Greg who is with FINA – Swimming’s international governing body – pulled me aside and said “B.J., you have to think about this. You can’t just make decisions like this. They have consequences.”

OK, this was too much. I called Terra. “Help, I’m being accosted by the venue people. They’re not happy.” She replied that she knew they wouldn’t be but that I did the right thing.

I wish I could say that things got better from there, but they didn’t on that night. The press conferences did fall behind and get pushed into each other. The media was not happy. I gained a lot of respect for what the “big sports” go through at an event like this. With so many very successful athletes, it is a huge task to stay on top of it all.

Stay tuned for Part II