Let's not sink Phelps in a sea of expectation

August 09, 2004|By KEVIN COWHERD

GEE, I WISH Michael Phelps was getting a little more ink.

What are his PR people doing, taking the summer off?

All we know about him so far is that he's the best swimmer in the galaxy. And that he has a shot at bringing home more gold than you'd find at a P. Diddy cookout when the Athens Olympics begins Friday.

OK, and we know all about his upbringing. And his years at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. And his parents' divorce.

And we know all about his training methods. And his diet. And what products he endorses (Speedo, Visa, AT&T Wireless, etc.) And the bling bling he's flashing (Cadillac Escalade, BlackBerry, iPod with 850 songs.)

And how he loves the Ravens and practically spits on your shirt if you mention the Yankees.

And we know he's been on the cover of Time and Sports Illustrated. And that he's so heavily promoted in NBC's Olympics commercials that if he tanks, at least a half-dozen network execs will promptly shoot themselves at their desks.

But, c'mon.

Isn't there a lot more we can find out about this guy?

For instance, how's he feel about Fantasia smoking the field on American Idol?

And Martha Stewart maybe doing some basket-arranging in the slammer?

And the Kerry-Bush mud-wrestling match coming up?

OK, obviously, we kid here about Phelps not getting enough publicity.

Obviously, the pride of Rodgers Forge is one of the most hyped Olympic athletes ever - and he hasn't even gotten a toe wet in Athens yet.

And that's why I feel a little sorry for the guy - well, as sorry as you can feel for a young man who, even if he cramps up and sinks to the bottom of the pool in every race, is financially set for life.

I feel sorry for him because no Olympic athlete of 19 has ever had the pressure this kid has.

Sure, the people who love him, who know him best, are telling him: "Michael, go to the Olympics, enjoy the whole experience, have fun."

But how can you have fun when everywhere you turn, someone's sticking a microphone in your face and saying: "Michael, the pressure to win all those gold medals - it must be unbearable."

How can you yuk it up with your U.S. teammates when all anyone wants to talk about is whether you'll break Mark Spitz's record of seven golds?

And here you haven't even won one yet?

From all that's been written about Phelps - and who's given the kid more ink than, ahem, the newspaper that espouses "Light for All?" - he seems like a nice, level-headed kid.

And apparently he's dealing with the hype as well as can be expected.

I just hope we all cut him some slack if this dream of Olympic immortality falls a tad short.

If he comes home with six gold medals instead of eight, does that make him a bum?

If he comes home with only four golds, are people going to yawn and say: "Yeah, Mike, that's great. How 'bout those Ravens, huh?"

If he comes home with only two golds, do they descend on his home with torches and pitchforks?

Let's face it, that's what we tend to do with our athletic superstars.

Oh, we set the bar high for them, all right. We have no problem doing that.

And we love them and embrace them - as long as they meet our expectations.

But if they fail to meet those expectations, we turn on them like crazed wolverines.

Ask the Yankees, who haven't won a World Series in a few years now, about all the heat they take on sports-talk radio from their howling, fickle fans.

Ask golfer Greg Norman, who spit up a six-stroke lead at the 1996 Masters and lost to Nick Faldo and was burned at the stake by the media for months.

Ask the Buffalo Bills teams of the '90s that lost four Super Bowls in a row and now regularly appear on every "All-Time Worst Chokers" list you see.

Please don't let that happen to Michael Phelps.

Let him go to Athens and have fun and swim and do his best.

And let the rest of us be satisfied just to watch a great athlete compete - no matter how many medals they drape around his neck.

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