Report #5 - The Michael Phelps Phenomenon, part II

Michael Phelps did eventually show up at the press conference that first night of swimming and the reporters went away feeling better. The pack mentality that develops at an event like this is hard to explain. Many reporters’ greatest fear is that they will miss a story that somebody else gets. Michael Phelps was the biggest story going into this Games. All the major sportswriters at the Games showed up at swimming: Christine Brennan, Rick Reilly, George Vescey, Phil Hersh… etc.

The majority of U.S. media was not on deadline at this Olympics because Greece is seven hours ahead of the East Coast of the United States. But they did want to be reassured that they were going to get the athlete they needed to talk to in a reasonable about of time after the races. That was supposed to be my job at the swimming.

After the first night of racing, I was asked to escort Eric Vendt back to the Main Press Center for another press conference. Eric is one of the many swimmers who will go down in Olympic history as having finished second to Michael Phelps. He didn’t seem too upset about this and was very excited about his silver medal. Waiting for him back at the MPC were media members who could not cover the swimming event either because they didn’t get tickets, or because they were TV networks that were not NBC.

As you may have heard, Greece has spent more money on security than has ever been spent at an Olympic Games. The place is so secure, that you cannot get into Olympic Park if you do not have an event ticket. This is truly too bad because a lot of people who don’t have event tickets should be able to see this wonderful park with its many fountains, moving metal sculpture, giant archway and, most importantly, Olympic store. It seems to me that many people without event tickets would love to buy some souvenirs and food and watch events on the giant screen in the shade. It is too bad that they are not able to.

The MPC is no exception when it comes to security. Bags are X-rayed and humans must walk through metal detectors. The contraband they detect can be anything from scissors to Olympic pins (more on that later).

The reason I bring all this up is to tell you that when we returned to the MPC that night with Eric Vendt and his precious silver medal, he wore it, under his jacket, through the metal detector.

And nothing happened.

Does this mean the medal was not metal… or that the detector was not detecting?

Is it fair to say that the Michael Phelps phenomenon ended on the second night of the swimming competition? Not really, but it sure lost some momentum. That was the night that Michael Phelps won two bronze medals. There would be many swimmers who would be more than ecstatic to win two bronze medals. I think Phelps was disappointed, but not so much about the bronze in his individual event. He was more upset about the bronze in the relay, where the U.S. lost to South Africa and the Netherlands.

I believe Michael Phelps really was more concerned about how the team did than his own individual success. Let’s face it… competition is a lot more fun when you are part of a successful team, no matter how you are doing personally.

So after that second night, the media pack thinned out. The pressure was also off of Phelps and he ended up winning his next four events. But he wasn’t done making the news.

On the second to last night of swimming, Phelps was doing the final press conference of the night. The night had gone really smoothly. No one had been disqualified and re-qualified. Gary Hall, Jr. had raised some eyebrows by wearing a star-spangled boxing robe instead of the team-issued jacket, but he had won his race anyway, so nobody was arguing.

As Phelps sat there with his personal coach and his team coach, someone asked him about swimming his final event, the relay, the following night. Before Phelps could say anything, the team coach said, “I think I ought to take that one.”

What followed was the announcement that Phelps would not be swimming the finals of the 4x100m medley relay the following night. I have never been to a press conference where the media gasped at an announcement. But here it was. Jaws dropped, breaths exhaled… No one could believe that this was happening.

Because Phelps had swum in the relay qualifying race, he was assured of a medal if the team won one in the final. But it was still amazing that Phelps would turn over his opportunity to race to Ian Crocker, the athlete whose poor swim had led to the bronze medal on the second night. Some may believe that this was a carefully crafted publicity move. But I don’t think so. While I think it was difficult for him to give up his relay spot, I think he was OK with giving a teammate another chance.

So after my eight days working at the swimming event were over, I came away feeling happy for Crocker and the other members of the U.S. swim team. They may not have performed up to their own high expectations, but they were a good group of athletes who genuinely seemed to have a good time and like each other.

I also felt happy about the Greek volunteers who ran the venue. They were so eager to please and do a good job. Once we had all figured out what our roles were, we all got along famously. Pins and smiles were exchanged on a regular basis.