Sport still not making a splash

April 06, 2007|By RICK MAESE

As Tiger Woods embarked on winning a fifth green jacket at this year's Masters, he took a moment to reflect on another athlete, someone nearly 10,000 miles away whose athletic uniform wouldn't come close to satisfying the dress code at Augusta National.

"Anyone who is a sports fanatic, you are always going to be intrigued by other sportsmen, and what they are able to accomplish. What he's done, truly remarkable," Woods says. "Not only is he winning, but he's also setting records, world records. So it's phenomenal to watch."

It was enough to make Michael Phelps chuckle. After all, Phelps was just 11 when Woods won his first Masters in 1997. And "when I'm at home," the swimmer says, "I'm playing Tiger Woods [video game] on my PlayStation."

This is the world Phelps is in now, where we don't think twice about comparing Phelps' dominance to that of superstars like Woods and Roger Federer. While Phelps has managed to sway sports pundits and American media, I'm still not convinced that the casual sports fan appreciates what Phelps accomplished at last week's world championships in Australia - seven gold medals and five world records.

Even worse, I'm not convinced they care.

"I'm not sure there's any objective way to measure the growth of swimming beyond participation," concedes Peter Carlisle, Phelps' longtime agent.

From where I sit, we just had one of the greatest athletic displays of our time and it was completely overshadowed by bad Final Four games and sports reports that misled us to think that Pacman Jones controls the weather.

Certainly no one's going to argue that swimming should trump our traditional favorite sports, but the disinterest is notable. I can break it into four parts.

(Important disclaimer: Snarky comments are intended to reflect popular sentiment, not author sentiment.)

1. Phelps broke records in Australia, which means they might have included a different number system and frankly, we don't have time to do the conversions.

2. He basically did the same thing in seven different ways - he swam. It's not like we get excited when a sprinter runs backward or alters his stride.

3. Um, this is swimming. Call me when it's an Olympic year.

4. I tuned into ESPN, but it was instead focusing on the NFL draft (update: ONLY 22 days away!) and ESPN2 was showing some 250-pound truck driver holding a flush draw.

Let's throw out the first three because the fourth is really the key to Phelps' ability - and by extension, the sport of swimming's - to resonate with casual sports fans.

While I compare the attention and awe devoted to Phelps to what I feel it should be, those in swimming circles compare it with what it would've been just a few years ago. They measure the growth in baby steps.

"What Michael's trying to do and [Towson swimmer Katie Hoff's] trying to do is build popularity in swimming. ... Just recently there's the beginning of conversation and debate as to where a swimmer sits in comparison to some of the greatest athletes of other sports," Carlisle says. "I think that's very good for our sport. That forces people to try to understand the sport of swimming better."

In Australia last week, Phelps woke up each morning and because of the time difference, he was able to watch ESPN's afternoon and evening programming live.

"It was definitely an experience to be able to sit in Australia and get American ESPN and watch PTI and Around the Horn and sit there and watch these guys talk about swimming," Phelps says. "I was smiling from ear to ear. ... I grew up watching ESPN and still do today, so to be on those shows and talked about, it's definitely pretty cool.

"It's guys my age who are able to see swimming on ESPN. That just allows people to get involved in the sport. I think hopefully it gets people excited for the sport. I can really already see a change. A year ago, swimmers wouldn't be a topic on Around the Horn. ... That's something I'm extremely excited for."

Athletes like Phelps deserve more. Because of swimming's status in this country, he'll have to win seven golds at the Beijing Olympics to really create a stir. It's difficult for any achievement in a fringe sport to cut through the white noise of our athletic world.

Sport in America can be tough to navigate. When Mark Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Games, there was no ESPN, no 24-hour sports talk, no UFC, X-Games or televised poker tournaments. As our options have increased, it's become easier to drift toward the most sensational. But swimming is a sport with no gray area - first to the wall wins - and that leaves little room for debate.

No, Phelps probably will never be as famous and celebrated as an NFL quarterback, but slowly, he's distinguishing himself from the clutter. Certainly his accomplishments shouldn't be diminished because he wasn't wearing pads or sneakers, and the appreciation we shower on him shouldn't be lessened.

Phelps leaves Australia tomorrow and heads to China, where he and Hoff will tour the country and sell their sport at every stop. Already Phelps has become the face of the 2008 Summer Games. Even bigger, regardless of how Woods does this weekend, Phelps is the most dominant athlete competing today. He's on the verge of transcending a sport like few before, which is why Woods' kind words are so meaningful.

"I really have admired what he has done in his sport," Phelps says. "He has changed how people look at golf, and that's something I want to do with the sport of swimming."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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