Silver? You Can't Be Serious
In this age of hype, more and more is worth less and less
By Bill Littlefield
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page B01
If all goes according to plan -- and the unapologetic intention is to create the next preposterously successful Olympian -- then Baltimore's Michael Phelps will swim two races in Athens on Aug. 14, four races on Aug. 15, three races on Aug. 16, three races on Aug. 17, two races on Aug. 18, three races on Aug. 19, two races on Aug. 20 and one race on Aug. 21.
And he will win them all.
Actually, since the earliest among those races are qualifying heats from which more than one swimmer will move on to compete again, Phelps doesn't have to win them all. But if he comes in second, even in a qualifier, say to world record holder Ian Thorpe in the 200-meter freestyle, he must be prepared for the sort of headline that followed two of his 17 races in the U.S. Olympic trials in Long Beach, Calif., last month: "Phelps Beaten."
According to the publicity machinery that has been churning out pre-Olympic razzmatazz for a year or so, Phelps is not supposed to be beaten. What Phelps is supposed to do is win as many gold medals as Mark Spitz won at the '72 Games in Munich, which would be seven. In fact, the morning line had it that Michael Phelps was supposed to break Spitz's record. So compelling is this narrative, so appealing, that nothing seems to stand in its way, not even Phelps's announcement that he would swim in only five individual events instead of six, thus putting increased pressure on the spear carriers who will be swimming with him in several relays.
Somewhere along the line, the motto of the Games -- "faster, higher, stronger" -- was augmented by "more, more, more." Whether that renders the Olympics a diminished thing depends on your point of view. The mad expectation that the 19-year-old Phelps will return from Athens draped in more gold than Mr. T could comfortably tote is extreme, but not unique. Likewise the potential for another "Phelps Beaten" headline if he loses to another world-record holder in a backstroke or butterfly final by, say, three-hundredths of a second, and has to slink home with only four gold medals and a silver or two, or, God help him, a dreaded bronze.
Generations of athletes have gone to the Olympics burdened with their own outsized ambitions, other peoples' dreams and the melodramatic orchestration of whichever network is packaging the show. How else to explain Japanese figure skater Midori Ito's apology to her nation after gold eluded her at the '92 Winter Games in Albertville, France? Or the situation in which American high jumper John Thomas found himself at the 1960 Olympics in Rome? Thomas, the world record holder, hadn't lost in two years. David Wallechinsky's recently published "The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics" tells the story of how, before the Games opened, "American sportswriters boasted that the high jump was one gold medal that was 'in the bag' for the United States."
Still a teenager, Thomas finished third and felt proud to have won the bronze medal. Much of the same U.S. sports media that had celebrated his promise failed to share his pride. Thomas was savaged for choking in the clutch. He was later quoted as saying, "That was the first time I learned that people didn't like me. They only like winners. They don't give credit to a man for trying. I was called a quitter, a man with no heart. It left me sick."
Not, as it turned out, too sick (or heartless) to return four years later, when he and the Soviet Union's Valery Brumel tied for first in Tokyo with matching jumps of 7 feet, 1 3/4 inches. But Thomas had to settle for the silver medal because Brumel had missed less often at a lower height.
"TV has made the Olympic athletes 'the good, the bad and the ugly,' " Thomas told me recently. When I asked how he characterized himself, he smiled. "The good." It's an apt choice. Though the Cold War provided a poisonous backdrop for the '64 Games, Thomas made a point of befriending Brumel. When Brumel was badly injured in a traffic accident the following year, Thomas sent him a telegram that read in part, "Sometimes a twist of fate seems to have been put there to test a man's strength of character. Don't admit defeat. I sincerely hope you come back to jump again." Unhappily, there are no gold medals for such grace, compassion and class.
Recent Olympic history suggests that where the games are concerned, inflated expectations, fickle affections and various other idiocies know no boundaries of gender or season. At the 1960 Winter Games in Idaho's Squaw Valley, Penny Pitou was the favorite to win a gold medal in the downhill, something no American had ever done. "The predictions that I'm going to win make me nervous," she said at the time. "America is putting its hopes on me and it's a terrible feeling. I'd be much happier being a normal girl, sitting at home or going to school."
Following her second-place finish, the 21-year-old Pitou received a visit in the Olympic Village from Vice President Richard Nixon.
"I was really thrilled," Pitou recalled when I talked to her some years ago at a symposium in her home state of New Hampshire. "He shook my hand, and I can remember seeing the little black hairs on his nose twitching, and he said, 'Miss Pitou, I understand that you came in second. I'm sorry.'
"I told him, 'But Mr. Vice President, I won a silver medal.'
© 2004 The Washington Post Company