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ATHENS 2004 | Mike Penner / THE DAY IN ATHENS

If Only the Great Ones Could Achieve It First

August 17, 2004|Mike Penner

ATHENS — The record of that 1972 dolphin, Mark Spitz, is safe for another four years.

So who's popping champagne corks now?

Speedo has to be happy. Michael Phelps' swimsuit sponsor dangled a $1-million bonus in front of the kid with a wink and a nudge, knowing that was one check it would never have to write. Spitz's seven-gold-medal haul is to Olympic swimmers what Miami's 17-0 perfect season is to NFL teams -- the Holy Grail, swallowed by Moby Dick, and carried off to Atlantis -- and wasn't '72 some kind of year for unassailable sports records?

Spitz, of course, is happy. He got a whale of a public relations ride because of Phelps' crusade, getting the same kind of name-check Roger Maris received when Mark McGwire chased down his single-season home-run mark.

One advantage Spitz had over Maris: He was alive to see it.

One other bonus: Now millions of previously clueless American kids know who Mark Spitz is.

Including one Eminem-loving 19-year-old from Baltimore, name of Michael Phelps.

Maybe now everyone can back off a little, leave Phelps alone with his headphones and his rap downloads and let him be what he is: a 19-year-old kid from Baltimore who has completed three swim finals at the Athens Olympics, his first Olympics, and, contrary to international media reports, hasn't "failed" twice.

He has won one gold medal and two bronze, with five races to go.

That isn't bad, considering that Phelps' sole gold represents one-third of the American gold-medal collection so far in Athens. Three days down, three gold medals won by the United States. After winning 40 gold medals in Sydney in 2000, the U.S. is on a gold-a-day pace for a total of 16 in Athens.

Of course, things should pick up from here.

Then again, the American men's basketball team shouldn't have lost by 19 points to Puerto Rico, so you never know.

Phelps-Spitz was much more a cultural study, now versus then, than just a cold medal grab.

When Spitz swam, Olympic athletes earned their magazine covers and television commercials the old-fashioned way. First they won the gold, then they cashed in.

Thirty-two years later, the process has entirely flip-flopped. Today, athletes are thrown their laurels on spec, on the chance they might win seven gold medals, or five, or one, despite the fact they have never previously dipped a toe into an actual Olympic competition.

Marion Jones received the same treatment in 2000. Then an Olympic rookie, she was billed as the five-gold-medal woman before her plane touched down in Sydney. She won her five medals, but two of them were colored bronze. Consequently, an otherwise extraordinary individual performance was viewed as something of a letdown.

We want the future, and we want it now. We can't wait to see if Phelps can handle the intense five-ring pressure, we need to have him out on all the Olympic preview magazine covers and Visa has to have him churning cross-Atlantic laps on a commercial that aired weeks before Phelps' first Olympic swim.

Is that a bronze card bearing Phelps' name now?

With two Olympic finals under his belt, Phelps entered his third race, Monday's 200-meter freestyle final, as an entrant in the so-hyped "race of the century." Well, OK. The century is young. Not even four years old. There was a chance it could have been the best race of the last four years.

Phelps came in third. Was he a bust? He broke the American record with a time of 1 minute 45.32 seconds. But he wasn't as fast as Australia's Ian Thorpe, who has dominated the event since 2000, or the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband, the Sydney Olympic champion. Does that make Phelps a disappointment? Phelps' third-place time Monday would have won the gold in Sydney.

Most of these Games have been played in front of sparse audiences so far, but the 400-meter rush to judgment remains an ever-popular event. Media pundits couldn't wait for the Games to begin to declare Athens' Olympic preparation a "surprising success" before the first day of full competition, the first transportation foul-up, the first operational gaffe.

Once again, spoke too soon.

Bob Graham, a reporter for England's Sunday Mirror, wrote a story in which he claimed to have placed three fake bombs around the Olympic Stadium, getting into the facility by using such aliases as "Michael Mouse" and "Robert bin Laden" and describing the lax security as a "terrorist's dream."

George Voulgarakis, minister of public order, denounced the article, saying in a statement, "I would recommend Mr. Bob Graham to read fewer detective stories. Articles of this kind constitute profound insult for journalism and the principles of subjective and responsible information."

Lax security? Monday night's men's synchronized diving competition was interrupted by a fan who found his way onto the pool deck and onto the platform, from where he launched a dive into the water.

In its own way, the prank was a pure form of synchronized diving. The fan had an accomplice, who distracted security guards by attempting to climb over a railing. While the guards surrounded one fan, the other broke clear to the deck and the platform and eventually the water, before the efforts of an all-wet volunteer and the scrambling guards could corral him and take him away.

It was either do that, or thank him for buying a ticket and showing up.

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