Olympics: Phelps wins for his country and for NBC

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 11, 2008

By Tim Dahlberg
Associated Press
BEIJING ó The greatest swimmer in the world had just blown away the field and set yet another world record at a time most athletes are reaching for their first can of Red Bull. Now, Michael Phelps stood in the water, pumped his fist in the air and exhaled deeply.
Halfway around the world, NBC executives were undoubtedly doing the same.
They juggled the schedule to make sure Phelps won his first gold medal in prime time and he responded on a rainy morning in Beijing with a performance for the ages in the one event where he might be most vulnerable.
Seven more remain before he’s officially crowned the greatest swimmer ever, but that seems a mere formality now, much to the relief of NBC officials who built the first week of the Olympics around his quest for a record eight gold medals.
In front of a bleary-eyed crowd that included President Bush, Phelps did what great athletes do in their biggest moments on stage and he did it with a flourish, sprinting toward the finish to obliterate his own world record in the 400-meter individual medley and win the first gold for the U.S. swimming team.
Four minutes and 3.84 seconds after it began, it was over. The first gold medal was his, and the message to his fellow swimmers was clear.
Swim for the silvers and bronze if you wish. Just don’t think about winning the gold.
Those belong to Phelps.
“I’m pretty happy,” he said. “That was a pretty emotional race, I think.”
Emotional afterward, too. The normally stoic Phelps is used to being on medal stands, but this time he choked up as they played the national anthem.
“I wanted to sing on the medal podium but I couldn’t stop crying,” he said. “I was just happy to get the first one under my belt.”
Phelps wasn’t the only happy one. NBC took an $894 million gamble that American television viewers would put up with taped coverage and odd hours if they could also get some live drama during prime time.
The Chinese agreed to flip-flop the usual times to do just that, despite objections from other countries. About all that remained to be seen was how Phelps would respond to the early wakeup call, and Phelps answered with his best race ever.
The only thing missing was the drama in this race, which began shortly after 10 a.m. and ended much too quickly for Ryan Lochte, Phelps’ teammate who was supposed to give him the toughest challenge in any of his eight events.
Lochte did his best, staying even with Phelps halfway through the race, but it was all he could do to hang on to the bronze as he and Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh chugged to the wall about the same time Phelps was studying the board to see just how fast he had gone.
“It’s amazing,” Lochte said. “Setting a world record, you can’t ask for anything else.”