The Man With All the Medals Blows a Golden Opportunity

Sports Illustrated should have let Michael Phelps be his own man, instead of having him mimic Mark Spitz's iconic '70s pose.
Sports Illustrated should have let Michael Phelps be his own man, instead of having him mimic Mark Spitz's iconic '70s pose. (Ho - Reuters)
By Robin Givhan
Sunday, August 24, 2008

Before assessing the supremely unflattering Sports Illustrated cover that celebrates Olympian Michael Phelps's eight gold medals in Beijing, one thing must be made clear: Phelps is an extraordinary athlete. He is an amphibious marvel. The man set an unprecedented goal for himself and then made accomplishing it look easy. He will undoubtedly serve as inspiration for generations of swimmers to come. All hail, Michael Phelps.

But Sports Illustrated did him an injustice with its Aug. 25 cover. The photograph treats Phelps like a pinup, like beefcake, like a babe. And he is none of that. He epitomizes athleticism, but he is not swoon-inducing in the manner of Tom Brady, Rafael Nadal or Michael Jordan. He does not have the golden boy grin of Tiger Woods. Nor does he have the kind of boy-band appeal that would make people who don't know diddly about swimming go ga-ga over his very presence.

The cover echoes the famous poster of swimmer Mark Spitz, whose record of seven gold medals at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 was surpassed by Phelps. Clearly, it was a visual reference too tempting to ignore.

In the Spitz photo, the swimmer is posed in his swim trunks with his hands on his hips and his medals draped around his neck. Spitz's medals are hanging from thin metal chains, a detail that gives the photo a kind of 1970s cool. You could imagine him in some fern bar wearing those medals with a pair of bell-bottoms and a polyester shirt with a collar the size of elephant ears. The photograph captures a particular '70s sexy aesthetic a la Burt Reynolds in the Playgirl centerfold. It was perfect for its time. Even today the photo maintains an air of macho magnificence, although that bushy mustache is now a grooming flourish only American Apparel CEO Dov Charney and porn stars can carry off.

Phelps's photograph has him striking the same pose: hands on hips, medals spread out and forming a Mr. T lei around his neck. But Phelps's medals are hung on wide red ribbons. All those ribbons combine to form a thick V-shaped sash around his neck. And when you first look at the image, it appears as though he is wearing some sort of "Project Runway" midriff-bearing Olympic halter with a gold-spangled hem.

Phelps's torso is otherwise naked. He has the lean physique of elite swimmers. But it is not the kind of pumped up, six-pack Hollywood torso typically found on the cover of Men's Fitness and that has come to define today's sexy man. Aesthetically, it's a 1970s torso, not a 2008 one. To understand its power, it needs to be seen in action barreling through the water like a torpedo.

There's no hint of swim briefs -- not even if you squint. Phelps's exceptionally long and hairless torso seems to go on and on until the photo is abruptly, thankfully cropped. Instinctively, you know your eyes shouldn't slide any lower, but all warning signs have been waxed away.

The cover disappoints because Phelps has looked so spectacular on Sports Illustrated in the past. Other photographs have captured him in the water. That is his realm, and he looks most comfortable there. The Aug. 18 cover has him swimming directly into the camera's lens. His iridescent goggles are pressed tight to his face; his swim caps -- he wears more than one at a time -- are vacuum-sealed to his head. His mouth is open as he comes up for air. His body is in motion and he looks invincible. He is a superhero.

On the July 28 cover, he's in the pool again. This time, he's come up for a break. His wet hair is pushed back off his face and his goggles are perched on his forehead. He's not smiling. He's staring down the camera. Phelps exudes square-jawed intensity. His championship energy practically leaps from the page.

In previous images, Phelps looks elegant and self-assured because he has been captured in the midst of athletic endeavor. He comes across as incomparable. And ultimately that's what's so frustrating about the eight-medal photograph. That image isn't about the uniqueness of this swimmer. It's about someone else's greatness and his relationship to it.

Spitz owns that pose. Phelps deserves his own cultural iconography, an image that will help to embed him in the minds of non-sports fans, those who don't watch the Olympics and those who find it hard to get excited about swimming. Sports Illustrated is part of the machinery that makes such a thing happen. That's why this cover photo matters.

But the photo is so busy celebrating the shattering of a record that it fails to take into account the man who accomplished the feat. Phelps has talked about wanting to do for swimming what Woods has done for golf or Jordan for basketball. Part of their success has been because they were so utterly of their time and because they signify something off the green, away from the court and without their stats.

Phelps is pure magic in the pool, a blur in a ripple of water. But what does he represent on dry land? He is an iPod-obsessed, hip-hop-listening, bulldog-loving champion. He is, he has said, a mama's boy. His Sports Illustrated victory cover tells us he's one gold medal richer than Spitz. But in terms of cultural resonance, Spitz still comes out ahead.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company