ATHENS, Greece – So who came up with this eight gold medals thing anyway?
Was it Michael Phelps himself, in a fit of youthful gumption, who figured why not suggest the impossible? Was it his marketing team at the Octagon Group, eager to win the media hype wars?
Was it USA Swimming, starving for attention and seeing its chance? Was it Speedo, whose public relations staff made a million in free publicity with its $1 million offer to Phelps if he did it?
Was it us, a cheerleading press?
Whoever it was, what a shame. Peddling hype pays the bills and sells papers, but it also sets the stage for failure.
Monday, a day after Phelps' bid for eight golds ended in a relay bronze, so too did his drive to tie Mark Spitz's seven when he couldn't hang with Australia's Ian Thorpe and the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200–meter freestyle.
So the 19-year-old only won bronze.
After three events he is only one–for–three.
And isn't that "only" everything that's wrong with what the over–commercialized Olympics have become?
"I did what I wanted to do," Phelps said after his 1:45.32 set an American record. "I did my best time, and I raced the two greatest 200–meter swimmers of all time, so I am happy."
Good for him, although that isn't how the headlines will read.
The sad part is that it is the ultra–competitive athlete who has to tell everyone else that not all is lost when you win bronze. That ridiculous Nike advertising slogan from the Sydney Games – "you don't win silver, you lose gold" – is worthless except as insight into the mind of a marketer.
Phelps is still young, famous, talented and rich, so no one should shed a tear for the kid. But you have to feel for him on some level.
At some point, the breathless expectations everyone was selling around him – "eight golds!", "better than Spitz!" – became ridiculous. It got him on the cover of magazines, got him the endorsement deals, got him the attention.
It must have looked great on paper: Win eight, get hailed as America's greatest Olympian ever, collect millions in endorsements, pick a Hilton sister and live happily ever after.
But it was obviously a pipe dream. And one with consequences.
Michael Phelps, the great Michael Phelps, may still leave Athens with four or five gold medals and seven or eight total. Yet he'll spend the rest of his life explaining why he didn't do better.
"Michael is capable of going home with eight medals," said teammate Aaron Peirsol. "In this day and age, that's fantastic. It's the Spitzian feat of our time."
This is what it has come to though; athletes oversold by a hype machine designed to create income-generating attention first and worry about reality never.
If Ian Thorpe comes along and kicks ass, well, move on to the next client.
It seems these days you are the G.O.A.T. – the Greatest of all time – or just merely a goat.
Monday, in the star–studded "Duel in the Pool", which swimming aficionados were calling the greatest race ever, Phelps was never a threat to win. He was great, just not great enough. It was no surprise.
Thorpe, the world record holder, is the man from the land down under, 6-foot-5 and full of muscle. He bit the competition up like a Vegemite sandwich.
His 1:44.71 was a new Olympic record.
Phelps produced a fine, medal–stand worthy performance. But afterward some of the questions were about what went wrong, not what went right.
"I had fun out there," Phelps said.
In the run-up to the race you could see this coming; Phelps tried to hedge his bet. He kept saying that his goal was one gold medal, not eight. On Saturday, when he won his first, he made a point of savoring the moment.
But it was too late. The hype was out of the bag. Expectations had overwhelmed reality. Everyone was talking about more. No one else was satisfied.
We should have been.
Michael Phelps of Baltimore, Maryland won a bronze medal Monday in the greatest swimming race of all time.
Congratulations, kid. You did great.
- Michael Phelps
- Ian Thorpe