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Editorial: A big splash at the Games

Don’t be surprised if you see more youngsters enrolling in swimming classes or practicing their butterfly strokes in the community pool. Ditto for a surge in sales of goggles and Speedos.
That’s what an athlete like Michael Phelps can do for his sport and for viewership of the Olympics, which has enjoyed spikes in ratings during segments that featured Phelps and the U.S. men’s swimming team. Just as golfer Tiger Woods’ 1997 victory at the Masters inspired legions of youngsters to hit the greens, Phelps is likely to have a ripple effect on swimming. By capturing eight gold medals at the Beijing Games ó breaking the record set by Mark Spitz in 1972 ó he becomes an instant sports legend, an international celebrity and a megabucks marketing machine. At 23, he can look forward to oceans of cash in endorsement deals (one estimate puts his lifetime earnings potential at $100 million), not to mention having his photo splashed across the covers of magazines and being invited to share couch time with Leno and Letterman. Plus, Pizza Hut is giving him and his teammates a year’s worth of free pizza and pasta ó just the thing for carbohydrate loading.
Given the nationalistic pomp and circumstance, the doping cases and occasional scoring scandals, the lip-syncing and knee-capping (remember Tonya Harding?), it’s easy to drift into cynicism regarding the state of the Olympic Spirit. These days, the Olympics can appear to be an extravaganza designed more to enhance the prestige and finances of the host city or score political points than to showcase extraordinary athletes. A story line like Phelps’ helps put the focus back where it belongs ó on individual or team accomplishments and the drama of watching their sagas unfold in real time, before a global audience. Think of it as the ultimate reality show.
That Spitz’ record stood for 32 years attests to the difficulty of Phelps’ achievement ó and the commitment required to reach it. Of course, as solemn adults, we must acknowledge here that most young swimmers won’t perform Olympian feats, just as most young baseball players won’t hurl a no-hitter in the World Series, and most young basketball players won’t drill a three-pointer to clinch an NBA title.
Still, swimming is darn good exercise ó one that’s easy on the joints and enjoyable into the golden years of adulthood, unlike, say, pole vaulting or Greco-Roman wrestling. Just the thing for a nation of young and not-so-young couch potatoes. So go ahead and hit the pool, kids. You could do worse than want to be like Mike.

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