ATHENS -- Michael Phelps loves to say, "Anything's possible." He better hope so.
Phelps is the biggest story of an Olympics that hasn't even started -- because of his real and imagined pursuit of the impossible. Not just seven gold medals in one Olympics. That's easy compared to what Phelps really wants. The 19-year-old from Baltimore wants to change his sport.
Two days before Opening Ceremonies, Phelps spoke about his two goals for the Games: to win a gold medal and "to bring more attention to the sport of swimming in the U.S."
In a sense, he has already done it. When was the last time a swimmer made the cover of virtually every major U.S. magazine? When was the last time a swimmer starred in his own commercial? How many Americans even knew who Phelps was a year ago?
But that's only part of the attention Phelps wants. Phelps wants to be America's Ian Thorpe. The Thorpedo can't walk down the street in Sydney or Brisbane without being mobbed. He's the Australian Ashton Kutcher. Phelps is no self-aggrandizing diva, but it burns him that Thorpe comes from a country that cares for swimming like Canada cares for hockey. He wants Americans to talk about swimming not only over the next two weeks -- an accomplishment in itself if it happens -- but also after he has returned home to Baltimore. That's the all-but-impossible part.
In a way, Phelps represents these Olympics perfectly. Softball star Jennie Finch has spent the year pitching her personality and her beauty in the hopes that both will help pitch her sport. The men's basketball team is here to fix some bad reps (Iverson), cement some new ones (LeBron), and convince everyone that these million-dollar players really do care about Olympic gold. Iraq has sent its soccer team hoping it will somehow bring its fractured citizenry together. Even Athens itself has risked financial ruin and public anger in the hopes that these two weeks can transform the city into a new-age metropolis in the eyes of the world. Seems like every storyline from these Games involves some sort of hearts-and-minds campaign.
But these dreams will be tough to make come true. The world has become a stage for entertainment and PR, thanks mostly to America's lead, but no one has figured out how to convince a major part of the global population to feel a certain way.
Examples are everywhere. The U.S. women's soccer team enjoyed a PR coup in the '99 World Cup -- complete with a trip on Air Force One and a special nod from David Letterman -- and the women's pro league, the WUSA, crashed anyway. Now Mia and Julie and Brandi are here in Athens merely to go out on a winning note. The NHL has expanded to 30 cities and now recruits the best players from all over the world. The league has a major TV deal and legions of inline youth hockey players all over the United States, and still it's deemed a colossal failure after only a decade of its Sunbelt experiment.
Perhaps in the Internet age we've become too ravenous for instantaneous results. The war in Iraq might be a disaster in the eyes of a majority of Americans, but is it reasonable to expect democracy to take hold in the Middle East after a few months when it took nearly a century for it to work in the United States? Is it reasonable to expect the WNBA to fill arenas every night when the NBA took decades to get out of the dark ages? Is it reasonable to expect Tiger Woods to eclipse Jack Nicklaus' majors record before he turns 30?
But modern culture has conspired with ambitious marketing to put would-be icons, like Phelps, in an impossible bind. Let's say he wins eight gold medals. Then what? Will Americans pay to see him swim? Where? When? Gary Hall Jr.'s Race Club is a brilliant idea for getting the world's best in the same pool at the same time, but it's not like swimming has a season or even a TV contract. Don't expect to see Monday Night Swimming on ABC.
And if Phelps wins "only" four or five golds, then he's Matt Biondi. Maybe you remember him. (Maybe you don't.) Biondi was the first next Mark Spitz. Then he lost a race he was supposed to win at the '88 Olympics, and no one seemed to care anymore. In the record books, Biondi is one of the greatest swimmers in history. But in the public eye, Biondi barely holds onto footnote status. Sad, but true.
Phelps is young, but that's a mixed blessing. He can still compete in '08 and even '12, but there's no way he'll get the same kind of buzz next time, especially if he struggles this time. This summer, Phelps is a refreshing novelty. By 2008, he'll be all too familiar.
But then there's this: The Olympics are here, and Phelps has the world's eyes squarely on him. That's a victory in itself. And if there was ever a swimmer who could win fans based on talent, it's Phelps. All he ever wanted was a chance to make an impression. In the next two weeks, he'll get it.
And who knows? Maybe Phelps will win seven golds and lose the 100 butterfly in a squeaker to Ian Crocker. That will get Phelps his million-dollar bonus from Speedo, put him in the same breath with Spitz, and set up a rematch only available on pay-per-view. Maybe Phelps vs. Crocker will be swimming's Ali vs. Frazier.
Hey, anything's possible.