Silver? You Can't Be Serious
"He said, 'Yes, but don't feel too badly. Tomorrow, you'll have another opportunity to win the gold.'
"I was really depressed for about 10 seconds. Then I realized that, of course, I should be proud of myself for winning the silver medal. In my other event [the giant slalom], I won another silver, which was great, and I couldn't help giggling about Vice President Nixon probably brooding over the fact that -- as far as he was concerned -- I'd failed again."
Why couldn't Penny Pitou have been president? She'd certainly would have brought a healthier attitude to the job than did Mr. Nixon, whose "winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" theory of politics helped bring a premature end to his career.
The material stakes are higher for Phelps than they were for Pitou or John Thomas. If Phelps, who is entered in five individual events and may swim as many as three relays, matches Spitz's seven gold medals, Speedo, the swimsuit company that sponsors him, will give Phelps $1 million. Even his pre-Olympic commercial potential has been considerable: By virtue of his association with the Omega company, he was presented a $3,500 watch by Cindy Crawford after last month's Olympic trials, perhaps so he'd have no excuse for showing up late for any of the score of races he's facing. More commercial opportunities will certainly flow the swimmer's way if he comes back from Athens a seven-time winner, even though apparently the best comment he could muster after the Omega photo op was "Pretty swell watch."
Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, has claimed that Spitz's record and Speedo's million-dollar offer will call forth Phelps's greatest performance rather than put too much pressure on him. Maybe Coach Bowman's right. Certainly wealth and celebrity are standard carrots, compared with some of the gimmicks coaches have employed in the past, even the distant past. At the 404 B.C. Games, an athlete named Promachus was moved to victorious effort in the sport known as pankration (a combination of wrestling and kick boxing) when his coach told him that the girl Promachus loved had promised to sleep with him if he won -- although the girl had said no such thing. No record survives regarding the subsequent fate of the coach.
But I digress. The point today, in these Olympics, is the great risk and loony irony built into both the million-dollar challenge Michael Phelps has taken on and the glitzy campaign that has so vigorously promoted that challenge. If his performance in Athens does not reach the heights of the unbelievable and almost unprecedented -- if it is merely terrific, merely extraordinary -- there will be those who will conclude with righteousness, and even glee, that he has failed.
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Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio's weekly show "Only a Game." He is the co-editor of "Fall Classics: The Best Writing About the World Series' First Hundred Years" (Crown).
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