Sunday, August 17, 2008

Mr. Phelps Completes Mission: Impossible

What a week for Michael Phelps! Like the rest of the nation, I became caught up in his quest to surpass Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis as the all-time Olympics Gold Medal champion and to pass Spitz for the single-games gold medal mark... and I was fortunate enough to do it while working as a freelance anchor at WBAL in Baltimore - Phelps' hometown. Baltimore loves its sports heroes - especially the ones who are homegrown!

For some reason, the sporting Gods decided to plant two of the all-time greatest athletes in their respective sports right in Charm City... Cal Ripken grew up just north of Baltimore, in Harford County, and spent his entire career with the Orioles. And now, Towson's own Michael Phelps, who spent the past four years away at school in Michigan, is coming back home to live and train!

Michael is probably going to get to enjoy his achievements a LOT more in the short term than Mark Spitz did back in 1972. I remember watching his races from our family's rented beach cottage in Ocean City on something called CATV. It was an early generation version of Cable TV... Ocean City was too far away from Salisbury to reliably get reception via rabbit ears, so the whole town was hooked up to cable, which still only got you the three major networks... But anyway, I digress...

Mark Spitz won his medals in the first week of Olympics competition in Munich, and he became the toast of the sports world. - And then, tragedy struck. A terrorist group called "Black September", stormed a dormitory in the Olympic village, and took several members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage. The two-day ordeal ended with 11 Israelis and five terrorists dead, and Spitz being whisked out of Munich for fear, that he, as a Jewish athlete, would be a major kidnapping target.

Anyway... Michael Phelps will hopefully not have that kind of distraction as the Team Phelps marketing machine kicks into another gear. Michael has been clear in saying his goal in chasing all of that gold is not money, but a desire to raise the profile of swimming to make it more than a once-every-four-years sport in the eyes of the world. He'll be facing mighty long odds to do that. Mark Spitz didn't. Neither did Mary Lou Retton for gymnastics, or Carl Lewis for Track and Field. The closest any classic Olympic sport has come to raising its profile as a continuing sport has probably been figure skating, but even then, pro skating is seen more as theater than as sport.

If Michael is going to raise swimming's profile, there's no better place to do it than in his own hometown. As I mentioned, Baltimore loves its heroes. Tens of thousands of Ravens fans stuck around M&T Bank Stadium after the Ravens lost to the Vikings last night to watch Phelps win his 8th Gold Medal on the big screen... Maybe some of them would join a Michael Phelps swim league and compete in a Michael Phelps-brand aquatic center? Hell, you could even throw in fellow Baltimorean Katie Hoff as a guest instructor!

Don't be surprised if a BUNCH of the US swimmers in London in 2012 are crab-eaters, hon!

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