Entering the London Games, which kick off with Friday’s Opening Ceremonies, U.S. track sits mired in a decade-long Olympic slump as swimming enjoys the enviable rise in stature that has accompanied Phelps’s historic career.
“Michael could have very easily been an athlete who transcended his sport and left the sport behind,” USA Swimming chief executive Chuck Wielgus said. “We will be forever grateful that Michael never did that. . . . We were able to fix our wagon to Michael.”
Track, meantime, seemingly got stuck to a vehicle in retreat.
While swimming has ridden Phelps’s success — streamed into living rooms through more dynamic underwater cameras and in cooler swimsuits — track has stumbled since 2000, when the one-time American darling Jones captivated the nation by winning five medals.
“Without in any way being disrespectful to our sister sports,” Wielgus said, “I think we can now say we are the marquee summer sport.”
At the Beijing Games four years ago, NBC asked swimming, rather than track, to endure the inconvenience of an inverted schedule (finals in the morning instead of at night) so the U.S. prime-time audience could watch Phelps’s successful quest for eight gold medals live. The ratings during the first half of the Games, when swimming took place, significantly surpassed those from the second half, when the track and field got underway (a 17.2 to 14.5 household rating; the two sports overlap for two days in the middle). Even with Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt dazzling the world in the 100- and 200-meter sprint finals, that represented the widest disparity between halves of any Games dating from the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, according to NBC figures.
A similar schedule flip-flop occurred in 1988. Only back then, track got most of the prime-time slots, which were allocated across several sports.
“We know we’re competing in a dying sport,” said U.S. track star Lashinda Demus, the reigning world champion in the 400-meter hurdles. “And we definitely want to rebirth that sport. . . . We’re always for bringing the sport back to what it used to be.”
The task seems huge. This year’s U.S. Olympic track and field team features no household names, is considered a sprint underdog to Jamaica and includes two U.S. trials champions returning from drug bans. (Both claimed innocence of wrongdoing).
The U.S. swim team, in contrast, will unveil a trio of electric stars embarking on television-friendly quests that could net a combined 20 medals.
The sport’s resident global icon, Phelps, leads the charge. After struggling for motivation for most of the past four years, he committed to a final Olympic run in time to pursue seven medals and the title of most decorated athlete in Olympic history (he needs three medals to surpass Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won 18 from 1956 to 1964). He’s joined by the wavy-haired, blue-eyed Ryan Lochte, who can break world records, preen for cameras and make teen girls swoon simultaneously; he’s after six medals, two in head-to-head races against Phelps.