Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Flash in the Pool: See Phelps, Don't Blink

ESPN's Jim Caple has a celebratory piece up on Michael Phelps' unprecedented 8 gold medals.
I was 10 years old the summer Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games, and I still vividly remember getting the news of his latest races in Munich. For 36 years, those seven golds loomed as one of the few true magic numbers in sports, like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams' .406 batting average and Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game. Spitz's mark was so special that a little part of me wanted Michael Phelps to fail in his quest to surpass him. But I soon was swept up pulling for Phelps to break the record just as everyone else was.

And Sunday he did, replacing Spitz's seven on sports' ever-changing ledger with an eight that will mean as much to current kids as Spitz's number meant to me.
I think Caple's wrong about Phelps' feat having the same impact on kids today as Spitz's 7 did. When Spitz won 7, I was in the womb. The sports world Jim Caple inhabited at the time, and the one that I grew up in, was measurably different from today's.

For sports entertainment, you were lucky if you got a couple of network broadcasts a week. After that, it was radio for your favorite MLB team and college, whatever your Dad took you to see of the local high school kids, the papers and, if you were really dedicated, Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News in your mailbox.

Today, there's a fire hose of coverage. Phelps' amazing achievement will be like a dazzling flash shining briefly out of the torrent--bright in the eye for a moment, then turned under by the tide and forgotten until the next Olympiad. Caple provides the proof of it in his own story, by comparing this moment to the saga of the New Jersey Favres:
Sports is filled with hyperbole, but rarely does the moment live up to the hype. (Jets fans will know what I mean by the first week of October.) This did.
That's the flood. Unless Phelps does something horribly wrong or is revealed as a doper, his time to shine is almost at an end already. And even a negative event like an investigation will prolong it only a few weeks--and ensure it doesn't re-ignite in London four years from now.

There's no room for imagination and anticipation to burn significance and wonder into us today. We track Phelps achievements immediately (if we're interested at all), and hold on to them about as long as a sand-castle's lifetime. Sure, a few dedicated kids will pin Phelps to their walls and dream of medals at night. But those kids are already in the pool. There's just not much room for greatness in unconventional venues to penetrate a market that's already under a flood of more profitable dreck.

I point out the New Jersey Favres story, because it's exactly what I mean. That could have been handled in three reports: Favre reinstated, Packers seek trade, Favre signed by Jets. Instead, we got the polit-bureau tea-leaves-reading version, where every time he took a shit we were subjected to a full report--and it's still going on! Even at the moment when our sporting eyes should be riveted to Beijing.

There are more TV channels than ever, but proportionately less that's worth watching. And all the Phelps's in the world aren't going to change that.

1 comment:

Petrie & Trixie said...

Amen brother, we are so flooded with "news" that it makes me naseaus. How horrible is it that we are all phelpsed out, a man doing an amazing thing, and I can't stand to hear about it anymore! Nice post.