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Mike Wise

Everything Phelps Touches May Not Turn Into Gold

By Mike Wise
Friday, August 13, 2004; Page D10

ATHENS

It used to be just Playboy and Maxim. But between the prurient interests of Time and those sultry NBC promos, this objectification of the human body has got to stop.

That's it.


U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps likely will try for eight gold medals at the Games. However, he says he would be happy winning one. (David Gray -- Reuters)

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 Olympics
Last-minute frenzy and unforeseen expenditures have stretched Greece almost beyond its capacity.
In its first Olympic competition since its country was shattered by war, Iraq upsets Portugal, 4-2, on Thursday.
Michael Wilbon: The boxing tradition has suffered in Sydney, and just might suffer in Athens too.
Sally Jenkins: Anti-doping chief Dick Pound should quit trying to enlarge his reputation by attacking others.
Mike Wise: Everything Michael Phelps touches may not turn into gold.
Athens Snippets: Things are heating up in Athens.
The Olympic Games return to their birthplace Friday.
Dawn Staley will carry the U.S. flag during Opening Ceremonies.
Notebook: Greek sprinters Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou were taken to a hospital after being involved in a traffic accident.

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Photos: Athens puts on a colorful show for its Olympic visitors.

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The Post's Liz Clarke will discuss gymnastics Friday at 11 a.m.
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Audio: Athens is ready for the start of the Games.
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Enough of Michael Phelps's navel.

Not that a "Men of the Pool Deck" calendar is an awful idea. But when an Olympic cover boy's torso gets more exposure than Jessica Simpson's, something is very awry.

Really, what kind of message does this send to adolescent boys who will never grow up to be a rangy 6-foot-4 Poseidon in Speedos, driving a blinging, bass-booming Cadillac Escalade by 19? How can sports writers and other cretins with Phil Mickelson's physique take off their shirts in public again?

Michael this, Michael that. You would think Jordan was hurting for attention again.

Before the Phelps clan and the Baltimore suburb of Rodgers Forge cancel their subscriptions en masse, we should explain.

U.S. Swimming's golden child climbs into the pool at Athens Olympic Sports Complex for his first race Saturday, and there is no tangible reason to root against his superhuman quest. Phelps is going after the most hallowed Olympic record remaining: seven gold medals in one Games, which Mark Spitz managed in Munich 32 years ago.

Bob Beamon's long jump world record of 29 feet 2 1/2 inches set in 1968 -- once thought to be a more secure mark, in some corners, than Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak -- lasted 23 years before Mike Powell broke it by two inches in 1991.

To watch Phelps even approach Spitz's record at the ancestral home of the Games, to see him have a chance after the first week of competition, would make us special witnesses to history.

But to see him fall short, to see him come close, might be better for him and his sport.

Not that anyone wants to see the kid lose, but what if the glut of glossy magazine covers, all those ab-and-pecs shots, are the most indelible images of Phelps's career? Is it wrong to hope someone 19 years old still has something to shoot for at 23? Doesn't the under-publicized sport of swimming deserve better than merely that $1 million bounty Speedo put on Phelps winning seven gold medals? He wins eight medals -- say five gold, two silver and a bronze -- and that means nothing? Imagine explaining that to the ancients.

Spitz came to Mexico City in 1968 and boldly declared he would win six gold medals. When he won two, he vowed to come back stronger four years later and did. Phelps in Athens will be something to behold. But Phelps in Beijing in 2008 could be otherworldly.

If Phelps wins gold in seven or all eight events he is entered in, it would go down as the single greatest achievement in the history of the Olympic Games. With all due respect to other nations and competitors, you can't help but selfishly want to see him pull it off.

But here's the rub: That's it, the defining moment in his life will have happened as a teenager. It can't get better in Beijing. Or even 2012, when he would be barely 27. Maybe this is misplaced sap and sentiment, but the Olympic experience should be more than just blowing off an enriching event such as the Opening Ceremonies, which Phelps will on Friday night to concentrate on his first swim.

The plain truth is Phelps will be very fortunate to come home with five golds. The United States will be favored in two of three relays Phelps will most likely contribute to. But in his five individual events, Phelps would have to defeat world record holders in the 200-meter freestyle and the 100-yard backstroke. It's not impossible, but given the grueling schedule of 17 races in eight days it's highly improbable.

On Wednesday at a media gathering, Phelps weathered the international media well. His eyes were deeply receded, set back from his brow. His expansive ears and his long, angular face almost gave him the look of a young John Kerry.

As the questions grew more personal and probing, Phelps kept sticking to his claim that one gold medal remains his goal. It sounded nice and rehearsed.

Which is fine. He's 19. He is supposed to listen to his agent, say "uh" a lot and stumble as a public speaker. It makes him look less a pre-packaged, telegenic poster boy with vending-machine answers and more a goofy Baltimore kid listening to 50 Cent's "Gun Runner" through his headphones. (And you thought kids belonging to elite swim clubs could not co-opt gangsta rap for street cred. Hah.)

But in four years, who knows, Phelps may have seen and experienced the world more. Maybe he'll be a little more articulate and funny and less worried about mentioning his sponsors' names.

We rarely give our sports icons any handicap for their age anymore. We turn NBA franchises over to unprepared twentysomethings and we hinge an entire soccer league's marketing plan on a 14-year-old. And when they fail or do something irrevocably juvenile, we castigate them for it like they were 35 and asleep on the job.

In a 1997 magazine article, the writer Charles Pierce used verbatim some sexual jokes with racial overtones that Tiger Woods had told to a limo driver and to a couple of young photographer's assistants. To this day, Tiger is scarred by the depiction of himself as a crude kid telling dirty jokes. Which, at 21, is what he was. Imagine if someone published the jokes you told at 21? Would you have the job and the life you have today? Maybe not.

The point is, Phelps and these prodigies never get the chance to be kids before we need them to be adults.

Seven gold medals would turn the Olympics on its ear. But you worry about this obsession with the Olympic cover boy, all those torso shots, all that attention. What it's going to do to him when he does not win seven gold medals?

Do we just dispose of him like Matt Biondi and every other swimmer who failed to match Spitz? Whether the kid is financially secure or not, that's a lot to handle at 19.


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