Twenty years ago, it was different. Track brought the glamour. It featured flash, ego, gigantic U.S. stars with huge personalities. Flo-Jo. Jackie Joyner Kersee. Carl Lewis. Swimmers wore too-small briefs, disappeared under water and won their myriad gold medals with less dash and drama.
But the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney marked a turning point for both sports: Michael Phelps emerged as a precocious 15-year-old in the pool, and Marion Jones dominated on the track, only to admit using steroids years later.
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.
Then there’s the exuberant Missy Franklin, 17, a high schooler with Missile as a nickname who could win seven medals in her debut Olympics.
“When you have somebody like Michael Phelps, who commands 80 percent of the air time during a two-week Olympics, it is bound to help the sport,” said swimming great John Naber, who won four gold medals and one silver during the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. “Then you have Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin come along, and it’s a perfect storm. . . . This is a very unique time.”
NBC made swimming a priority over track during the overlapping U.S. Olympic trials this year, showing all eight nights of competition in prime time, its most expansive Olympic trials coverage ever. Four of the nights were among the week’s 10 most-watched television programs.
On NBC’s best night of the trials (July 1), track and field drew 5.69 million viewers; swimming drew 7.89 million; and gymnastics, which features a dazzling rivalry between young stars Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas, 10.2 million.
“Swimming has definitely gotten cooler,” two-time Olympian Brendan Hansen said. “People are recognizing it more and more and starting to see swimmers really as household names. We never had that before. Now you hear Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps.”
Track athletes garnered nine Sports Illustrated covers during the Summer Olympics from 1984 to 1996, while swimmers claimed just four. But during the past two Summer Games, track athletes haven’t earned a single SI cover as Phelps landed five all by himself.
This summer, track brings the surgically repaired Tyson Gay and the reputation-challenged Justin Gatlin, who served a four-year drug ban despite insisting he never knowingly took steroids, to try to upset Bolt for the title of the world’s fastest man. But Bolt seems more likely to have his hands full with countryman Yohan Blake. LaShawn Merritt, who served a ban for a steroid found in an over-the-counter product, will chase a gold medal in the men’s 400.
Athletes and experts say track has been hampered by frequent management turmoil and disarray — USA Track and Field has had three chief executives since 2008— and was nearly crippled by the fallout in 2003 from the infamous Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative drug scandal.
More than a dozen track athletes, including Jones, were implicated in the scandal, but swimming escaped unscathed. Whether U.S. swimmers were cleaner, or just luckier, is unclear, but for sure they avoided the massive negative publicity that the exposure of widespread performance-enhancing drug use brought to track and other sports, including football and baseball.
Almost a decade after the eruption of the Balco episode, many track stars roll their eyes at questions about performance-enhancing drugs. It is a sensitive — and some argue overdone — subject. The most famous U.S. track athlete to test positive since Beijing, Merritt, was exonerated of intent to cheat by an arbitration panel, which ruled he inadvertently consumed a steroid. Still, he received a 21-month ban.
“I definitely feel we’re past it,” said Sanya Richards-Ross, a three-time Olympic medalist and reigning bronze medal winner in the 400 meters. “Many athletes have built a great reputation as being clean athletes. I think it’s in the past. People are always bringing up the sore things in life.”
Though memory of the scandal has largely faded, no superb U.S. sprint star has emerged since to reignite excitement and capture the nation’s fancy like Phelps or Bolt.
“We need to find a couple of those type of superstars — not just great athletes but great personalities, too,” said Bruce Jenner, the decathlon champion at the 1976 Summer Games. “We live in a personality-driven world.”
Indeed, Phelps’s personality and his extraordinary eight gold medal quests in 2004 (he won six golds and two bronzes) and 2008 lifted an entire sport. Wielgus said USA Swimming’s budget has grown from less than $30 million during the 1996 Olympic quadrennium to $123 million during this one. Before 2000, the organization had one major sponsor, Speedo. Now it has 10. Membership is up 15 percent this four years, and the sport gets more television exposure than previously.
“From 2000 to 2004, we were buying [air] time,” Wielgus said. “We don’t do that anymore.”
Swimming’s challenge will be surviving without Phelps, who has said he will retire after this summer. The high-tech underwater cameras that follow swimmers from start to finish, however, and the jammer shorts that swimmers say are both more modest and hip, will remain.
And, most importantly, Lochte and Franklin — and whoever else emerges during the next two weeks — likely will be back.
“No disrespect to Michael,” Wielgus said, “but it’s no longer a one-man show.”
Rick Maese contributed to this report.
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