Plunge into history makes a big splash

August 29, 2004|By Paul Moore

AS TONIGHT'S closing ceremonies mark the end of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, it feels like months, not weeks, ago since the games began. I mean this in a positive way. The past two-plus weeks have provided viewers and newspaper and online readers with incredible drama, unexpected successes, monumental failures and controversial and confounding decisions by judges and officials.

But for reporters, editors and readers of The Sun, one thing stands far above everything else: the Michael Phelps story. Whether one believes there has been too much coverage of Mr. Phelps, whether one thinks it was too negative or whether one thinks there can never be too much written about him, this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation for his hometown newspaper and its readers.

For anyone who might have missed the news, the 19-year-old swimmer from Rodgers Forge won eight Olympic medals, six gold and two bronze, including a record four individual gold medals in swimming. He conducted himself with poise and class and is inarguably the American sportsman of the year. Assistant Managing Editor Randy Harvey, who has covered 13 Olympic games, said, "What Phelps did might have been one of the three or four top accomplishments in Olympic history."

The Sun reported, opined and photographed all of this in great detail, and not without controversy. The Aug. 16 front page used the large word "DUNKED" to summarize the story and photo about Mr. Phelps and his 400-meter freestyle relay teammates' failure to win a gold medal. Readers reacted with anger. "It was denigrating, unfair and reflects the unrealistic expectations of the media," wrote Gwen Gibson.

There was too much emphasis on Mr. Phelps's attempt to equal or break Mark Spitz's record of a total of seven gold medals, and the presentation that day reflected that. Once it was evident that this record would elude Mr. Phelps, The Sun realized that the possibility of winning a total of eight medals was still an incredible story.

The newspaper began devoting significant resources to covering Mr. Phelps in 2003 during the world championships in Barcelona and with a continuing series, "The Road to Athens," where for more than a year, Sun reporter Paul McMullen chronicled Mr. Phelps' life in and out of the pool.

The decision to do the series was based on reader interest, just as the newspaper allocates significant resources to covering the Ravens and Orioles because of reader interest. Sometimes that can be construed as hype. What's important is maintaining the distinction between reporting and becoming boosters.

Most sportswriters cover teams, not individuals. It is not unlike covering a political campaign. You seek to be truthful and detached, but you always have to been concerned about your access. As Mr. Harvey said: "If you are at any time perceived by the camp you are covering to have been unfair, you risk your ability to gain valuable insights into your subject."

Mr. McMullen first interviewed Michael Phelps in the spring of 2000 when the swimmer was 14 years old. Since then, Mr. McMullen has written dozens of articles about national swimming competitions, the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the world championships and the U.S. Olympic trials. He has written about Mr. Phelps' growing up, his family life - including his parents' divorce - his training and eating habits and his life as a high school student.

"Our last one-on-one interview was the best," Mr. McMullen said last week. "I never brought up Athens or the Olympic trials, just growing up, getting picked on and other issues, like the hurdles he had to overcome in the classroom. He seemed grateful that I wasn't asking the same old, same old."

Despite the years writing about his subject, Mr. McMullen did not lose his sense of detachment and the drive to fully inform readers. When Mr. Phelps gave his spot on the 400-meter medley relay to his teammate, Ian Crocker, the gesture was duly, and accurately, noted by all as magnanimous. In the same Aug. 21 article, Mr. McMullen also reported that Mr. Phelps and Mr. Crocker are represented by the same agent and that the group hopes to put together a swimming tour after the Olympics. Giving Mr. Crocker a chance to win a gold medal was good business as well as good sportsmanship. Mr. McMullen provided these facts in the context of the larger story without commentary.

Reporting and writing about the Olympics have tested Mr. McMullen's stamina as well as his journalistic skills. "It's three weeks of 16-hour days, always on a Sunday and no hugs from the loved ones," Mr. McMullen said. "But the stories are great, and that's why we come."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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