August 25, 2008

From Beijing back to Baltimore

Well, this is it. The final column has been sent and the bags are packed.

Carmelo Anthony has won his gold medal. The closing ceremony has exploded every firework within 1,000 kilometers of the Bird's Nest. Michael Phelps was in London for the torch handoff -- the same city we'll see him in four years from now. My esteemed colleague Kevin has already landed at BWI. And I'm headed to the Beijing airport myself later today.

Our final recap was published in Sunday's paper. Kevin and I tried to keep to the spirit of this blog, using a dialogue format to discuss the highs and lows of the past couple of weeks.

I hope you enjoyed your time here; I know we did. And if you happened to miss anything, here's a recap of this blog's highs, lows and all the Michael Phelps updates you could ever want.

-- We visited the Great Wall. And it was Great. And it was a Wall.

-- We lamented the president; we celebrated the president.

-- We learned that KVV knows his way around a digital camera.

-- In an exclusive video (!!!), we quizzed the fine people of China about Phelps.

-- Which would you rather have -- a gold medal or a Ravens autographed jersey?

-- We learned about those 'mean streets' on which Phelps grew up.

-- Kevin did his best to make Mark Spitz cry.

-- We debated the merits of the iPod and explored the idea of musical doping.

-- The Sun talked to Phelps' dad; tabloids everywhere got jealous.

-- We caught up with Katie Hoff when her Olympics had concluded.

-- We chatted with Phelps' first coach, Phelps' biographer, Phelps' mom and Phelps himself.

-- And we stood in absolute amazement at Phelps winning eight gold medals.

-- We scolded you for caring so much about Phelps' relationship status.

-- And we looked ahead at what the future might hold for the Greatest Olympian Ever.

And what does the future hold for us? Hopefully London in 2012. Until then ... 

August 21, 2008

Down goes Maryland!

To Kevin, et al

Subject: Carmelo, Georgia -- last hopes

While you were busy studying Michael Phelps' favorite bedtime stories, I'm here to share with you this hidden truth: There are other Maryland athletes competing at these Olympics. At least there were. Two of them dropped out of the Games on Thursday.

First, Gao Jun, the table tennis star who won a silver medal in 1992 for China but now claims Gaithersburg as home, lost in singles competition, just one match from the medals round. In the fourth round of competition, she lost 4 games to 3 to Xue Wu, of the Dominican Republic. Wue had a 3-1 lead, before Gao came back, winning 5 and 6 and forcing a seventh game, which she lost 11-9.

"I was just trying to fight," Gao said. "I was very tired. It was just such a long match. I just couldn't move any more. I missed so many points."

Perhaps more surprising: the U.S. women's 400-meter relay team is done. A bad handoff in the prelims ousted the Americans.

Angela Williams and Maryland native Mechelle Williams got the the relay team off to a good start, but Torri Edwards and anchor Lauryn Williams couldn't make a successful handoff, and the team was DQ'd. As the baton dropped to the ground, Edwards screamed and covered her face.

Here's what Lewis had to say after the race, as provided by Olympic officials:

"Of course, things could be going better. We've had disappointments before, and we have to treat this like any other disappointment."

"We are definitely really good athletes. We're putting our hearts and souls into this. It's just not coming out the way we want it to."

"We still don't know what exactly happened. ...We don't practice those types of things to happen, but we did what we could."

Maryland still has two athletes competing: Carmelo Anthony and the U.S. basketball team take on Argentina Friday (mid-morning in the US), with a chance to advance to the medal round. And mountain biker Georgia Gould also competes Friday (also early AM in the US).

(Photo: Getty)

Sportswriters on food

Kevin, friends, et al

If we can momentarily feed an unfair stereotype: We scribes of the sports pages are particularly good in a couple of areas -- watching sports and eating food. If you've read any of the previous posts, you're aware of the sports part. As first reported exclusively on Elizabeth's Large fabulous food blog -- Dining @ Large -- we now address the food part.

Sadly, we cannot offer the definitive guide to Beijing cuisine in this space. Charged with the most grueling and time-consuming assignment at these Summer Games -- covering Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals -- we’ve had little time for culinary adventure. Much of our dining has come in between assignments and interviews in the first-floor cafeteria of the Main Press Center. As Kevin would attest, McDonald's is one of the more popular options -- for both American and foreign journalists. During the past two weeks here, there are a couple of meals that stand out.

We arrived for a Phelps-related appearance this week an hour early, certain that our cab driver would get lost, as every other one had. Oddly, he didn’t, so we had an hour to kill and wandered into a restaurant called Fat Mother for lunch. It was a hot pot restaurant and there was a hole in the middle of our table with a burner beneath it. Once we ordered our soup broth, a pot was placed in the hole and it wasn’t long before the soup inside started boiling. We’d innocently ordered a chili soup, thinking we could tackle the fiery challenge. With red peppers floating, the soup looked very much like a thin lava. We’d soon learn that it tasted this way, as well. The Fat Mother staff brought trays of food to our table -- mushrooms, spinach, beef, prawns, potato noodles, ham. Using chopsticks, we dumped or dunked our food item in the soup, allowing it to cook sufficiently before pulling it out, cooling it off with a peanut dipping sauce and partaking. It was relatively easy to eat -- mostly because after just a bit of it hit your mouth, your tongue went instantly numb. Like I said, we mistakenly ordered the lava soup. The heat never seemed to cool. We went through a pair of Cokes apiece and I had a pile of about a half-dozen crumpled napkins that had tended to my running nose. The eyes and antennae scared Kevin from even biting into a prawn, but he didn’t want to hurt Fat Mother’s feelings, so he dunked half the slimy critters into the bottom of the soup. We had a sense of accomplishment from dipping into the volcano in the middle of our table and bragged to many people throughout the day. Unfortunately, only three or four hours passed before my stomach began to rumble. It felt like a troop of 12-year-old Chinese gymnasts were performing deep inside me. Needless to say, Fat Mother left a lasting impression.

We’ve had a couple of meals here that cost in the $25-$50 range. But my best meal came from outside of Beijing and cost about a dollar. Visiting the Sechuan province, devastated by an earthquake four months ago, we stopped and ordered a bowl of noodles from a storefront restaurant. We ate on a picnic table set up on the sidewalk. The noodles were in a spicy broth -- tolerable but noticeable -- and also had parsley and a fried egg. The flavor was thick and soothing, hitting your nose long before the chopsticks even reached your mouth. The meal was packed with superlatives: For this trip, it was the cheapest meal, the biggest serving and a taste I’ll dream about back home.

There's virtually no tipping here. And beer can be cheap, if you're into that ($1 at some sports venues; which is quite a bit different at M&T Bank Stadium). Plus, the food is fresh.

We visited part of the Great Wall before the Games began and stopped at a nearby restaurant after. Kevin ordered a fish dish and the staff didn't have to look far. There was a cement pond near the parking lot with a couple of dozen fish inside. Before long, Flounder went from a gay afternoon swim to his spot as a centerpiece on our table. This restaurant, like many here, featured family-style dining. As a rule, I don't eat food that's staring back at me, but Kevin still claims this as his best meal in Beijing. Of course, Kevin's been so busy on the Phelps beat, that he has little to compare it with. The fish is No. 1 in his book; the McDonald's value meal is No. 2. 

Poll: Desperate single people LOVE Phelps

To Kevin, et al

Subject: For the second day in a row, I'm forced to apologize for a headline

You might want to check out this link., as you may or may not know, is a popular dating site. Not that I know anything about it. (For the record, I am NOT the same rmaese3641b who enjoys Scrubs, Wes Anderson movies, seaweed salad, the Sunday Times crossword puzzle and California Pinot Noir.) Anyhow, where was I? ...

Oh, Michael Phelps, Baltimore's miracle merman... users decided pretty overwhelmingly that Phelps should captain their dream team. In fact, 81 percent are on board. And I have no idea what that even means. From the release:

"It's clear that Michael Phelps has found a place in the hearts of our members," said Darcy Cameron, senior director of marketing and advertising for "In honor of his historic accomplishments, would like to offer Mr. Phelps a free membership until he finds that special someone, even though we don't anticipate that he'll be single for long!"

The poll also found that members dig beach volleyball. In addition to advancing to the gold medal game, Kerri Walsh can celebrate that members selected her as the female Olympian that they'd most like to go on a date with, taking 36% of the vote.

Fencing may seem like the most chivalrous sport, but according to members, it's definitely not the sexiest. That title went to beach volleyball with 58% of the vote.

Additionally, when asked who they would rather have "pick them up when they're down," 65% of members decided to go for the gold with swimming sensation Michael Phelps, while only 35% selected Bela Karolyi. *Kerri Strug was not available to participate in this survey.

So he gets a free membership? Wow, that's generous. I'm sure Phelps is going to have a tough time getting dates. I'm sure girls back home are totally turned off by eight gold medals and all those endorsement deals. Yeah, that makes for a bad profile.

August 20, 2008

Phelps' popularity reaches Chuck Norris-like level

Kevin, et al.

Subject: If only he had a cool Chuck beard

I supposed it was inevitable. Michael Phelps is so dominant in the swimming pool that there’s already a site packed with snarky hyperbole in his honor. A sampling from is below. Sure, some are recycled, but come on, it’s a Wednesday. What else you got to do?

Michael Phelps can walk on water but doesn’t want to show off, so he swims instead.

Michael Phelps doesn’t swim through the water… the water swims around him.

Michael Phelps once shot down a German fighter plane with his finger, by yelling, "Bang!"

Michael Phelps doesn’t need to wax; he just wills his body hair not to grow.

When Michael Phelps uses a semicolon; it’s always correct.

The Great Wall of China was originally created to keep Michael Phelps out. It failed miserably.

Michael Phelps doesn’t merely beat competitors. He wipes out their entire existence from the space-time continuum.

There is no ‘ctrl’ button on Michael Phelps’ computer. Michael Phelps is always in control.

Michael Phelps cashed his plane ticket in and swam Butterfly to the Olympics.

Michael Phelps once ate a whole cake before his friends could tell him there was a stripper in it.

Here's how you meet Phelps

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: That headline was a dirty, dirty trick and I apologize

How you meet Phelps: Just lead a multi-gabillion dollar company and be willing to flash that corporate cash. Swimming eight races in nine days was nothing compared to Michael Phelps' busy schedule in the days since. It's certainly been a whirlwind, and because Phelps himself can't quite keep it straight, please forgive me if I've left out any corporate appearances here.

In the last few days, Phelps has made appearances on behalf of: Visa, Speedo, Hilton, McDonald's and Omega. The latest was the Hilton stop Wednesday morning, but this one actually was for a good cause. Plus, it'll most likely end up being Phelps' last time in a Beijing swimming pool.

Here's from Hilton's release:

The 16-time Olympic medalist took to the pool at the Hilton Beijing to swim the 6,250th and final lap of the "Hilton Swim to Beijing Relay," a multi-city charitable event contributing $100,000 to the USA Swimming Foundation to fund swim education programs across the United States.

In celebration of the 2008 Olympic Games, Hilton Hotels & Resorts partnered with the USA Swimming Foundation and embarked on an ambitious relay of 6,250 laps – each lap symbolizing one of the miles between Los Angeles, the relay’s starting point, and Beijing. The "Hilton Swim to Beijing Relay" began with a splash at the Hilton Universal City in Los Angeles where Phelps swam the initial lap in November 2007. After making its way through five U.S. cities, the "Hilton Swim to Beijing Relay" concluded with a ceremonial final lap by Phelps in the pool of the Hilton Beijing following his final competition of the 2008 Olympic Games.

You can bet there will be plenty more of these appearances in the coming weeks back in the United States. As Phelps’ endorsement contracts expire, new deals – much more lucrative – will be struck. It will be interesting to see whether he’s lured away to any competing brands. Another thing to watch for: book deals are about to rain from the sky. If they’re attached to Michael, I suspect you might be able to read their story in book form by Christmas.









(Photos: Associated Press; Courtesy of Hilton)

Phelps addresses the Ravens' quarterback controversy

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: If he doesn't mention Kyle Boller, what does that mean?

I just couldn’t help myself. I had to bring Baltimore’s big debate to Beijing.

I know you’ve been pretty busy these past couple of weeks, Michael. But who are you picking in the Ravens' quarterback battle?

He smiled wide but didn’t immediately blurt out a name.

"I have no idea," he said, taking a seat on the fence. "I just got literally a stack of articles about the Ravens football team. I have to catch up on my reading for it."

Ah, come on, Michael. No favorite?

"I’m excited to see what [Joe] Flacco does, though," he continued. "I was excited when they picked him up, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens."

A-ha! So Joe’s your guy, huh? You’re going with him?

"I met Troy Smith about a year or two ago," he said. "I guess it was right when he got drafted, so it was before last season. We were talking. I was excited to see him in a Ravens jersey."

Doh. Make up your mind, man!

"I’m just excited for the season to start," he said. "I think it’s going to be a good season. Definitely better than last season. And hopefully we can get a little farther in the playoffs."

Well, that’s as close to a QB pick as we’re going to get from him. He definitely revels in talking Ravens, though. Phelps still hasn’t nailed down season tickets, but he says that won’t keep him from the games.

"I can’t wait to get to the Ravens' stadium. I can’t wait to see some of the games this year," he said. "It’s something I’ve been looking forward to ever since I found out I was moving back to Baltimore."

Curious to read more about Phelps and his relationship with Baltimore? Well, you’re in luck. Our good friend, Kevin, is working on a piece for this Sunday’s newspaper on that very topic. But that’s not all we got coming Sunday, so start saving your quarters now.

The Sun will be publishing a special commemorative section, looking back on Michael Phelps’ amazing Olympic performance. We’re talking several pages, revisiting all of the races, the moments, the magic -- everything that went into winning those eight gold medals. Plus, plenty of pictures for the kids!

Be sure to pick up a copy. Heck, get two.

Michael Phelps' girlfriend ain't none of yo business

Maese et al.,  

Subject: Private lives and private eyes

Fame is a strange beast, my friend. The world of gossip journalism is freaking out right now, trying to figure out whether or not Michael Phelps has a girlfriend. He is, in some ways, the David Beckham of the swimming world at the moment. The British tabloids are basically making things up about his private life (big surprise there!) saying that he's dating model Lily Donaldson or swimmer Amanda Beard, and has sent us a slew of emails, trying to confirm a rumor they heard that it's another swimmer. (Dear TMZ: Seriously, you could not be further off the mark.)

The suggestion that it's Amanda Beard is probably the most ridiculous rumor. Phelps and and Beard both shot it down in interviews the last few days (Beard: "Eww!"), and the Donaldson stuff is probably just as made up. Beard has a boyfriend, and it's not Phelps. I'd wager Mike has never even met Lily Donaldson. He just laughs when people make things up about him.

"You can't hide anything," he told me earlier this year. "Everyone finds out everything anyway. And if they don't, they just make something up, and no matter what you say, people believe it anyway. It's fine, I guess. It's part of what I do."  

Billy Bush, the journalistic equivalent of Beelzebub, caused a minor kerfluffle a few days ago when he showed Mike's mom a text message from Lindsay Lohan saying her son was, "(bleeping) amazing and I want to meet him!"

(Memo to Lindsay: If you really did send that message, you're about four years to late. And you're nasty. Enjoy your increasing irrelevancy.)  

Let me say this: There is a girl, and she's been a part of Phelps' life for awhile. She's not famous. I've seen them together at events, and she's striking. She makes Lohan look like Amy Winehouse. We've even got a picture of them together. (How do you like that, gossip sites?) But you know what? Some things in a guy's life deserve to be kept private. He's been successful in keeping things quiet thus far, declining to discuss their status, which is both understandable and admirable. (She was at the U.S. trials in Omaha, Neb. What their status is now, I don't care to speculate.) Whether or not he won eight gold medals, he deserves to have a part of his life he doesn't share with the world.

Australian swimmers deal with this kind of media frenzy all the time. When Stephanie Rice and Eamon Sullivan broke up shortly before the Olympics (reporters were tipped off when their status changed on Facebook), it was huge news Down Under. They live their lives in a fishbowl. Libby Trickett sold the exclusive rights to her wedding photos to the magazine New Idea. Grant Hackett had to answer a firestorm of questions from reporters after a poor performance at the 2007 world championships, and respond to speculation that he'd been too involved in his wedding planning to train properly.

Phelps has always said he wanted to make swimming as popular in the United States as it is in Australia. And so maybe dealing with this kind of speculation and rumor-mongering is a part of that process. The saddest thing is, if one Web site reports it, that somehow legitimizes it in the eyes of others. So they pick it up and the story -- completely untrue, remember -- snowballs. There is probably no stopping it.

This is fame, I guess.

You can't help but feel uncomfortable as you watch the sleazy adventure unfold. 

Photo: Speedo ad campaign 

August 19, 2008

Fun with captions (pssst... more Phelps photos!)

To Kevin, et al.,

Subject: Shamelessly emptying the camera 

From yesterday's Speedo gathering:


"Amanda Beard, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, wearing the most clothes you'll ever see on these three swimmers. Hey Amanda, look this way! I have a camera and as a vegetarian, I'm in favor of your Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur campaign."











"Hey Stephanie Rice, I don't think the Australian press has enough to write about. How about I take off my shirt and put my arm around you? Did I mention that I won eight more gold medals than your old boyfriend Eamon Sullivan?"












"Just like this. Awww yeah. Can I interest you in a Vegemite sandwich after this?"

















"Ryan, you should totally join us in Baltimore. Haven't you seen The Wire? You could be like our Herc. Katie is Kima, of course, and I'm either Avon or Stringer. I haven't decided. I guess that would make Bob Bowman like Prop Joe. He sees all the angles."













"My name is Abe Lincoln. And I have absolutely no idea why there's a statue of me in a Chinese park, not far from the Speedo party. But I do know this, if I had a Speedo LZR suit during my term, the world be a better place today."

Katie Hoff on beaches and boyfriends

Maese et al.,

Subject: Katie Hoff, meet Jimmy Buffett

One thing we've heard swimmers say the last few days is that the weeks and months following the Olympics is really their only offseason. You spend four years putting your body and your mind through hell and then, regardless of what happens, you need some time to decompress.

Katie Hoff is going to take full advantage of that.

These Olympics didn't turn out exactly the way she'd hoped -- a silver and two bronze medals -- but she'll be back. She mentioned that she's sort of figuring out some of the same things Natalie Coughlin figured out when she was 19, that even though you might be capable of swimming five individual events on paper, your body might think otherwise. You'll see her ready to go in London in 2012. She'll probably be swimming fewer events, but she'll be stronger for the experience in Beijing.

For now though, it's off to a tropical island somewhere, and the feel of sand between her toes. She did some dancing last night for the first time in months, and it sure felt good. But the beach is calling.

"I’m thinking about the Cayman Islands," she said when we spoke to her today at the Speedo photo shoot. "People speak English there, and (a friend) lives there, so I might have a connection of where to go or where are the best places."

And who will be joining you on this little adventure?

"Probably my boyfriend," she said.

Wait a minute, are we allowed to talk about that now? I thought that was a closely guarded state secret. I thought if I even brought that up, 20 representatives from Octagon would jump out of the bushes to electroshock me!

"I've always admitted that I have a boyfriend," Hoff said. "I just won't give you his name."

Hate to tell ya this, Katie, but I already know his name. I've got sources everywhere.

Your secret is safe with me, though.

Enjoy the waves.  

Phelps returns the favor to basketball team

To Kevin, et al.,

Subject: Does Phelps have Midas touch?

Team USA absolutely manhandled the Germans on Monday night. You wonder why? It's not hard to figure out. They had Michael Phelps in the crowd.

At the Water Cube last week, American swimmers made it clear that they took notice of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony & Co. in the stands. I went to basketball practice today and players confirmed they definitely took notice of Phelps and his friends in the stands.

I asked Carmelo to put Phelps' eight gold medals in perspective for the average sports fan. He just shook his head from side to side, and kept saying "Man ... eight golds ... oh, man..." He did finally come up with a gem of an answer, but I'll reveal that later.

As for Phelps, he cheered the so-called Redeem Team onto victory and then visited the locker room after the game.

"It's cool," he said. "When we're swimming and we look up and see these guys, it's awesome to see them in the stands. We were all so excited it was like we can't lose in front of these guys, we're not losing a single race in front of these guys. Just being able to sit in here and hang out with these guys, it's cool to sit in here. These are the guys I'm always watching on TV. It's cool to sit in here, hang out and be one of the guys."

And what did he think of the 49-point drubbing of the Germans?

"We destroyed them," he said. "It was a fun game to watch."

OK, OK. One Melo quote. But that's it. Don't get greedy.

"It's good to hopefully have a gold medal," Anthony said, apparently looking into the future for Team USA. "I mean he's got 14 of them. Hopefully, I can bring one back to the city. It's just real good to see somebody else from Baltimore participate in one of the biggest events in the world."

(Photos: Associated Press)

London Calling, and Beatlemania at the Speedo party

To Maese et al.,

Subject: Release the hounds!

BEIJING -- Dude, seriously, being a member of the swim media lately must be what it feels like to be a pack of caged wolves. (Nice photo, though!) We stand behind ropes for hours at a time, snarling and fighting with one another, and then eventually someone brings over a swimmer to talk to us (at least some of us) and we react (again, at least some of us) like a zoo keeper has thrown a piece of bloody meat in our direction. 

"You sir, you move," a foreign camera guy said to me today. "You are words man. You can go in back. I need pictures."

"Sorry, dude, not moving," I told him.

"You are real nice guy, yes?" he said, smug and condescending.

"I sure am. I'm the nicest guy. And after Michael comes through and talks, I'll move. If you wanted to stand here, you should have shown up earlier."

"You are real nice guy," he said again, right before storming off. "Thanks so much."


Anyway, Maese, eventually our red meat finally arrived and Mr. Phelps -- after posing shirtless for a few photos with Stephanie Rice, among other Speedo athletes -- came over to talk. I'm pretty sure he's getting sick of looking at my exhausted mug every day, but he's also created a beast than needs to be fed. I asked him briefly if he knew any more about what role he'll play in the handoff at the end of the week in London for the 2012 Olympics.

"I'm a part of the Visa handover party in London, and it's going to be cool to see where the Olympics are going to be in four years and sort of start getting your mind ready for it," Phelps said.

As for his comments to Bob Costas that he and Bob Bowman have plans to buy a pool and expand the facilities of North Baltimore Aquatic Club? It was clear Phelps might have let something slip he wasn't really supposed to.

"Um ... we're definitely going to start training back in Baltimore," he said, suddenly coy. "But I'm not really sure exactly. I never know what I'm really talking about, I just say things."

Phelps won't be back to Baltimore for, at the very least, a few weeks. You'll see him in New York and Los Angeles and Ann Arbor first. But he's coming. Don't worry folks, he's coming.  

Photo: Rick Maese 

The Sports Illustrated shot everyone has waited for

Maese et al.,

Subject: Iconic images 

So here it is, the photo that everyone has been waiting for, perhaps coming to a poster near you. As reported in today's Sun, Phelps posed for Sports Illustrated photographer Simon Bruty, replicating the famous shot of Mark Spitz after he won seven golds 36 years ago. The magazine should be on newsstands or in your mailbox by Thursday or Friday. Phelps was a little bit cryptic when New York Times reporter Karen Crouse asked him yesterday if this photo was in the works, saying he "had no idea" if there were plans for one, even though he'd already posed for the shoot that morning. I supposed that's technically correct -- he's not privy to the final decisions of Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonnell -- but it was kind of a politician's answer. Of course he knew. Octagon, his agency, would never let him pose for a shot like this if it wasn't going to be the cover. (By the way, here is a great Q&A SI's media writer, Richard Dietsch, did with SI photographer Heinz Kluetmeir, on how he got that amazing shot of Phelps and Milorad Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly that shows Phelps getting his fingers on the wall just before Cavic.) Do me a favor, and check out all of SI's Phelps covers. The magazine's photographers are amazing, and the site deserves the hits.

It's a cool shot, and something people in Baltimore will probably cherish. I imagine I'll tuck one away in a shoebox too. As a kid, the walls of my room were blanketed with Sports Illustrated covers. They were my wallpaper. One of my closest childhood friends and I would barter and trade them like baseball cards. I'd buy them from bins in the basements of used book stores and carefully fasten them to the wall with yellow sticky tack.

Phelps has said often the last few days that winning eight gold medals has only reminded him that it's OK to dream ridiculous dreams, even if no one thinks you're capable of accomplishing them. I used to fall asleep gazing at the covers of Sports Illustrated that lined my walls, and now I just spent two weeks in China writing about the guy on one of those covers. Brutal deadlines, little sleep, intense pressure, missing my wife, but also an amazing experience.

"Sometimes you sort of have to pinch yourself to see if it's real," Phelps said. 

I suppose that makes two of us, Mike.  

August 18, 2008

Updated medal standings; Towson in hunt!

To: Kevin, et al.

Subject: Free Republic of Towson = not so bad

Here's the updated medal standings. It's pretty tight race, as you can see. All things considered, it seems clear to me that the Greater Baltimore area -- or Towson, if you wanna be particular about it -- should secede from the union and fully flex its athletic muscle to show the world just how much the area rocks.

Nation   Gold   Silver   Bronze   Total

U.S.         21       24         26         71

China      39       14         14         67

Russia      8        13         15         36


Towson    8          1         2          11

Kevin, I'm not sure how to impress upon just how successful that is. And only two of the Free Republic of Towson's three entrants in this year's Summer Games have even completed their competition schedule. Carmelo Anthony is also a good candidate for gold, which would boost the Free Republic's tally even further.

For the sake of perspective, please consider:

-- Only five nations have accumulated more golds than Towson;

-- Only 11 nations have totaled more overall medals; 58 have totaled fewer;

-- Among those trailing Towson: Canada, Mexico, Spain, Poland, Cuba, Kenya, New Zealand, Brazil, Switzerland, Jamaica, Norway, Ethiopia, Sweden, Finland, Turkey, Greeze.

In one of my favorite Olympic feature, Chuck Culpepper is tracking the medal tally according to population for the Los Angeles Times, essentially determing the top country per capita. This drastically changes the standings. Chuck isn't factoring in the Free Republic of Towson, but if they did, rest assured, Towson would be in first place by a landslide.

Goodbye, Cube

To: Kevin, et al.

Subject: Melted?

This morning brought about a stunning realization. We woke up way too early -- as is the norm here -- and went downstairs to catch a shuttle bus, as we had every other morning. But then, nothing. There would be no visit to the Water Cube, our home and work station for nine straight days.

While we knew this moment was coming, it was still a bit of a shock to realize that swimming was over and -- gasp! -- there are actually other sports taking place. I'm serious, Kevin. Turns out, this entire time you've been hypnotized by the ripples in the pool water, there have been other athletes competing in other sports -- right here in Beijing! I'm determined to find them and appreciate their endeavors these next few days. But I will miss the Cube.

And I'm not the only one. Swimmers have been singing praises of the Water Cube since the Games began, most recently Michael Phelps. This morning, he said it was the best pool in which he'd ever swum. Not a bad compliment. I can't comment on the water, but I feel comfortable saying it is the freakiest-looking building in which I've ever worked.

I'm not sure what I'll miss most. Her sharp angles. Her supple bubbles. Or the sweltering thick air inside that made me sweat in areas I didn't even know I had sweat glands.

Let us pause now for a moment of remembrance. Cube, you'll be missed.


Making headlines

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Capsulizing history in three or four words

I generally need about 800 words to my point across. No way I could do it in just two or three words, which is part of the reason why I have such admiration for newspaper copy editors, who pen the headlines you see on our stories. In covering a huge event, there’s a lot of pressure to capture the enormity of it all. Below you'll find how some of the nation’s newspapers did it following Michael Phelps’ historic Olympics. Many had to do with "eight" or "gold." I tried to avoid repeats.

Arizona Republic: The 8th wonder

Fresno Bee: 8 is Enough!

Los Angeles Daily News: Grrrrrrrr8!

North County Times (Escondido, Calif.): New Gold Standard

La Opinion (Los Angeles): Phelps, el Inmortal

Oakland Tribune: Solid Gold

Sacramento Bee: Phelps’ perfection etched in 8 golds

San Jose Mercury News: Eight for eight

Stockton (Calif.) Record: Eighth world wonder

Washington Post: Phelps earns eighth gold

Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger: Mighty Michael

Nuevo Herald (Fla.): Gloria Olimpica para Phelps

Orlando Sentinel: He did it!

The Tampa Tribune: Worth his 8 in gold

Sioux City (Iowa) Journal: America’s Golden Boy

New Orleans Times-Picayune: Phelps makes history

Boston Globe: A shining feat, a golden future

Baltimore Sun: Solid Gold

Baltimore Examiner: The gold standard

Detroit Free Press: EIGHT!

Kansas City Star: What a gold rush

Omaha World-Leader: King Midas

Carson City (Nev.) Appeal: Phenomenal Phelps

Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger: Eight for the ages

Newsday (N.Y.): 8

New York Post: GR8EST!

N.Y. Daily News: Solid Gold!

New York Times: Phelps’ epic journey ends in perfection

Times Reporter (Dover-New Philadelphia, Ohio): Precious Mettle

Cleveland Plain-Dealer: Golden Rule

The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.): Phelps Does It!

The State (Columbia, S.C.): Great x 8

Dallas Morning News: Broken Record

Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City, Utah): Phantastic!

The Virginia-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.): Gold rush

Seattle Times: Perfect 8

August 17, 2008

Exclusive! Video! Phelps!

To: Kevin, et al.

Subject: Because the blog doesn't have enough screaming young women

Skip ahead to about 4:30 or so...


This would've been a very cool place to be....


This one kind of reminds me of you, Kevin.......


More bling than a jewelry store

To: Kevin, et al.

Subject: It's a photo collection!

Ever wonder what it looks like to have eight different gold medals in your possession? Kind of like this, I'd imagine:
















(Photo: Associated Press)

Phelps: 'I can't wait for football'

To: Kevin, et al.

Subject: You cannot be Michael's friend

Below is a transcript of a Michael Phelps' interview with Bob Costas, which aired on NBC shortly after Phelps won his 100th gold medal. Wait, I mean 8th. My bad.

Coolest part -- the revelation at the end that even though Phelps is here swimming for an entire nation, he's also found time to screw around on Facebook. He also comments on your wacky Ravens fans, sticking around the stadium until late into the night. At least something cool happened at M&T Bank Stadium this year. 

Bob Costas: In case you're not aware, Mr. and Mrs. America, I'd like to introduce you to Michael Phelps. He's a pretty good swimmer. He's had a pretty good Olympic Games. You don't even appear winded. You did exactly and fully what you came here to do. We got the immediate reaction with Andrea Kremer afterwards. A few more minutes for it to sink in, any perspective at all?

Michael Phelps: (Pause) No.

Costas: (Laughter) There it is.

Phelps: I'm still at a loss for words. This was everything that I wanted to do, and everything I dreamed of. And, it's an amazing feeling. I do want to say that it wouldn't have been possible without the help from my teammates. They were a huge help to my success.

Costas: Let's tick them off here. As in, not make them angry, we don't want to tick them off, we want to tick off their names here. In the 4x100 free, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and of course Jason Lezak with the epic last leg. In the 4x200 free, Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens and Peter Vanderkaay, and just now Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen and Lezak again, that's three of the eight.

Phelps: I guess starting off from the 400 free relay, you guys saw our reaction and how emotional and excited we were. And then the 800 free, we wanted to break seven minutes, and we went out and broke seven minutes. Tonight we wanted to end on a good note. Those relays are ours. The 400 medley relay is ours, and we wanted to keep it in our country, and we wanted to keep the world record. It was a good race.  We went out there, and we put four swims and broke the world record and had one of the best times we've had all week.

Costas: You're aware, I guess, because Andrea mentioned it to you and we showed it for a moment earlier, that in your hometown of Baltimore where the Ravens played a preseason game tonight against the Vikings, the fans stayed around after the game ended. They showed it on the big screen and they went nuts.

Phelps: I was actually talking about that with my teammates this morning, with Peirsol and Brendan and Lezak this morning. I was like, this is going to be live at Ravens Stadium after the game. Almost 70,000 people screaming. It's cool. I'm excited to go home. I can't wait to see a football game. That's one of the biggest things I'm looking forward to when I get home.

Costas: Ian Thorpe was in the house. You're a bit like Michael Jordan in this respect. Jordan would extract motivation from any situation. He would even somehow identify a perceived slight from an intended complement. So, whether it's Thorpe or it's Cavic or whether it was Alain Bernard earlier, if it's there, if it's something real or imaginary that can get under your skin, you'll use it.

Phelps: Oh yeah. I said yesterday I welcome any comments. All they do is fire me up, and all they do for America is fire us up. Before the relay we were fired up, and that made just made us more fired up and fueled us even more to get ready to swim. I always welcome it, and I love when people say that somebody can't do something because you want to go out there and prove it that much more.

Costas: It was actually reasonable what Thorpe said, because if I've got it right, he wasn't so much saying it's impossible. He was saying it's highly unlikely because there are so many variables including the three that are relay events.

Phelps: I guess everything had to go perfect. We had to have a great last leg in the 4x100 free. I had to win by 0.01 in the 100 fly. It's a little bit of everything. Everything had to fall perfectly into place, and I was able to have probably the best week of my life.

Costas: Somebody told me about an hour ago that this week on Facebook...

Phelps: Oh my gosh, it's crazy.

Costas: You've gone by Michael Jordan, Manchester United, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer. But it doesn't stop there. You've gone by the Jonas Brothers, you've gone by Miley Cirus you've gone by Justin Timberlake. You swept the board.

Phelps: I checked it one day and I checked it two days later, and I had like 2,800 in one day, and then I went back on two days later and had like 7,600 friend requests. I can't accept anymore, but I have those sitting in my box.

Costas: And of course, you consider them all close personal friends, and you'll respond to them all in due time.

Phelps: Of course, of course.

Costas: Also, you got Will Smith by the way. You moved past Will Smith, at least for the time being.

Phelps: It's cool. I'm having fun. That's all I've wanted to do.

Reflecting on eight

To: Kevin, et al.

Subject: Before we talk about 2012...

The rail at Churchill Downs... in the shade at Amen's Corner... ringside at a heavyweight title fight... the Wrigley bleachers... in front of the Crazies at Cameron Indoor Stadium...

I'm not sure what you think the coolest seat in sports is, Kevin, but I got to think being at the Water Cube these past nine days is pretty close to the top. And sitting in front of a television and soaking it all in from home is not a bad second place.

Put simply: I'd never seen anything quite like it, and I don't think I ever will again. Eight races, eight gold medals, seven world records. A couple of the races stood out, but there will be nothing like the moment that followed the final relay. You knew it was coming -- you knew he was about to win No. 8 -- yet there was still a sense of shock when it was over, when the realization slapped you in the face. Oh sweet, merciful ghost of Poseidon, Michael Phelps just won eight gold medals at the Olympics.

What stands out the most? Was it that initial win in the 400 IM, in which Phelps dominated the field and set the tone for the ensuing week of swimming?

Or the 200 fly, in which Phelps swam with water-filled goggles?

Or the 400 freestyle relay, in which Jason Lezak soared from behind to keep Phelps' streak alive?

For me, it's probably the 100 fly, in which Phelps himself soared from behind, and incredibly out-touched Milorad Cavic, even though Cavic's fingers were inches from the wall and Phelps' were still miles behind.

Phelps said it best, though. He wouldn't pinpoint a high-point. It's the entire experience that he'll carry with him, and I think that might apply for most of us. The collection of races is what's truly remarkable. And along the way, he found a way to exhibit a bit of everything.

A little behind-the-column for you: Once Lezak won the 400 free relay for the Americans, I was pretty sure Phelps was going to win all eight. I identified the four major attributes that make Phelps the champion he is, and plotted my ensuing columns around these themes. I just lucked out that he exhibited these attributes almost perfectly on schedule:

-- Amazing ability to compartmentalize and focus in Wednesday morning's double;

-- A showcase of genetic brilliance and a lifetime of preparation in even tackling such a program;

-- A competitive fire that we rarely see, evidenced by his topping Ryan Lochte yet again;

-- His incredible athleticism, which propelled him past Cavic over the final meters of the 100 fly, not to mention that one final stroke that pushed him to the wall.

The week of swimming is something that'll stick with me for a long, long time. I suspect this will be the case for many Americans. Just to be sure, as I walked out, I grabbed my press ticket -- required for entrance -- and slid it into my bag. I don't usually keep mementos from sporting events. But I also don't usually see something that years later, I'll still be talking about with family and friends.

(Photos: Associated Press)

August 16, 2008

Quote of the Olympics

To: Kevin, et al.

Subject: Can someone please give Lil' Wayne a gold medal for this?


"I was like, ‘For real?’ Mike Phelps is listening to Weezy? ...That’s what’s up ... Mike is doing his thing, and I’m doing my thing."

-- Lil’ Wayne, USA Today, August 15, 2008

The world watched; here's what they're saying

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Around the world in a single blog post 

The Daily Telegraph (Australia): Is Michael Phelps really the greatest Olympian in history?

Notable remark: Is Phelps eight times greater because swimming decides that getting from A to B in the fastest possible way needs to be subdivided into all manner of bizarre strokes?

L’Equipe: Entre dans l’histoire ("Making history")

Notable remark: Il faudra se souvenir de ce 16 août 2008 à Pékin. Car cette matinée-là restera dans l'histoire de la natation, du sport même. ("You must remember the 16th of August, 2008 in Beijing. Because this morning will stay in the history of swimming, even of sport.")

[Blogger note: I do not speak French. This translation is my best effort. If it's rough and inaccurate, I promise to learn French before the 2012 Games. Either that or I’ll teach them English.]

The Sun (UK): Lucky seven for ace Phelps

Notable remark: Michael Phelps struck gold for the seventh time in controversial fashion. The US star was made to sweat when an official protest was launched against the result of the men's 100m butterfly final. …TV replays suggested that his Serbian rival had touched first.

The Globe and Mail (Canada): Seventh Heaven

Notable remark: Of all his gold medal victories here, Michael Phelps' triumph in the 100-metre butterfly — by a margin of just 1/100ths of a second — will be forever remembered and debated.

Did he actually win? Did he out-touch Serbian Milorad Cavic at the last possible second? Was there some a grand conspiracy at work, fueled by television rights holder NBC, to ensure Phelps would be successful in his drive to win eight gold medals?

Those were the questions swirling in the after-math of Saturday morning's result, which saw Phelps win gold medal No. 7 in the most competitive of his individual races.

The Age (Australia): Phelps in seventh heaven

Notable remark: Barring accidents, false starts, or major boilovers, Phelps will win number eight for Beijing and number 13 for his career.

Bonus headline: Flame burns brightly for Rice and Phelps

Notable remark: Phelps has one of those bodies that looks like it could be folded up and transported in a case, lots of loosely connected parts capable of moving with startling unity when immersed in water.

The National Post (Canada): Phelps wins seventh gold by the absolute smallest of margins

Notable remark: It didn't look like he was going to get there; frankly, it didn't look like he made it.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia): The Wrap

Notable super-weird remarks: Michael Phelps and Stephanie Rice to hook up and produce golden children. … If you want to swim fast, eat like a starving pig stuck inside a starving whale.

The Guardian (UK): Phelps wins seventh gold of the Beijing Games… just

Notable remark: Only the 4x100 medley relay on Sunday now stands between Michael Phelps and Olympic history after a controversial victory in the 100m butterfly which kept alive his dream of eight gold medals at a single Games.

The New Zealand Herald: Phelps wins seventh gold despite protest

Notable remark: Cavic had no words. Clearly perturbed at getting beaten by a fingertip, he stormed past reporters in the mixed zone without stopping.

Spitz and Phelps speak

Kevin, et al.

Subject: The only human beings who've won 7 at one Olympics

By now, we all know your thoughts on Mark Spitz's words and actions over the previous week. He didn't make it to Beijing, but he did find his way onto NBC in the midst of what was surely a ratings bonanza. Below is a transcript (as provided by NBC), of Spitz and Michael Phelps, which followed the conclusion of the 100-meter butterfly.

Bob Costas: Alright, Michael, let's start with you. One one-hundredth of a second. It looked like Cavic was actually there first to the naked eye. But his final lunge left him a fingertip short, and you got there.

Phelps: Well, as soon as I took the last half stroke, to be honest, I thought that had lost the race. And that was the difference, cause if I would have glided then I would have come up short. I've been lucky enough over the last four years to have two pretty good finishes in Olympic finals. I guess I'm blessed.

Costas: In the same event in Athens you also had something close to a miracle finish. So not only are you getting it done, but the drama and the unlikely endings are there, including in the relay earlier, where (Jason) Lezak came through on the final leg.

Phelps: Yeah, you know, it's incredible. I think everything so far has gone as we wanted it to and gone as we planned. I've got one more race tomorrow. Tomorrow's going to be a tough one with the Aussies in that race. Hopefully we can do it again, put four guys together and go out there and try to swim as one.

Costas: Yeah, that's the medley relay tomorrow with the Aussies as the top competitors. And again, Lezak swimming in the free on the final leg. That should be interesting. We have Mark Spitz standing by. But one last thing before we get to him. Michael, Milorad Cavic of Serbia, who grew up in Anaheim, and is an American in a certain sense by background, but swims for Serbia. He was very, very respectful and had lots of praise for you, but also said 'if I can win this, it would be good for the sport, if Michael Phelps lost.' And Bob Bowman, your coach, made sure you were aware of that.

Phelps: He actually told me that this morning. And that fired me up more than anything. You know, it's the same kind of thing when one of the French guys was talking stuff about the 400 free relay. We use that as fuel. So, I always welcome comments and it fires me up even more when people do say things.

Costas: Well, I'm sure you will welcome these comments, because they ought to be filled with admiration. Here is Mark Spitz, by satellite, from Detroit. You've watched it with more interest and insight than the rest of us. What's your immediate reaction Mark?

Spitz: You know, Bob and Michael, I wondered what I was going to say at this monumental time, when it would happen and who I would say it to, and of course I thought I was going to say it to you for some time now. The word that comes to mind: epic. What you did tonight was epic. And it was epic for the whole world to see how great you really are. I never thought for one moment that you were out of that race, in contention, because I watched you in Athens win the race by a similar margin and 18 months ago at the Worlds by similar margins. And, you know that is a tribute to your greatness. And now the whole world knows. We're so proud of you here Michael, in America, and we're so proud of you in the way you've handled yourself and you represent such an inspiration to youngsters around the world. You weren't born when I did what I did but I'm sure I was part of your inspiration and I take that as a full compliment. They say that you judge one's character by the company that you keep, and I'm happy to keep company with you. You have a tremendous responsibility for all those people you're going to inspire over the next number of years and I know you're going to wear the crown well. Congratulations, Michael.

Phelps: Thank you, Mark.

Costas: What do those words mean to you Michael? Heartfelt words from Mark Spitz.

Phelps: You know, for so many years, everyone dreams about becoming an Olympian. You know from the past people who competed in the Olympic Games, and you're an Olympian for life, just like they are. There have been so many greats that have come before me, and what Mark did is still amazing. It's incredible, and it's a very, very hard thing to accomplish. I think it shows, whatever you put your mind to, you really can accomplish. When Mark won seven, he put his mind to something, and he did everything he could to get there. And it's the same thing for me. I've tried to stay as positive as I could and stay rested and recover. And there's so much that goes into it. I've tried to stay positive and dream big. And it's gotten me here. So, I'm very, very thankful.

Costas: Mark, I know by definition these comparisons are tricky. Era to era, and even discipline to discipline. How do you compare a swimmer to a skater like Eric Heiden or a track star like Carl Lewis or Jesse Owens? And the list is long. But having established that as a preface, A, is Michael the greatest swimmer of all times and B, can he be called the greatest Olympian of all time?

Spitz: I'm interested to hear what Michael has to say actually. I would say, you know, it's hard to compare somebody from one era to the next and one sport to the next. But one thing we definitely all have is this common thread of knowing how to win against our competitors and always maintaining ourself in top form, and Michael has been very successful in doing that. In one way, I think that what Michael did was more difficult than what I had done, because the swim teams now are a lot more diversified, and its harder for the Americans to win the relays. And, so, when Michael inspired, and he definitely inspired the four by one hundred freestyle relay, his other teammates, to do something for themselves as well, and that last leg by Jason Lezak was just remarkable, but it was all because of Michael as a team leader. And I think that he can be called, Michael, the best Olympian of all time. More so, not because of the fact that he's got more gold medals than anybody, but in the way he's handled himself and the way he's actually won, under a tremendous amount of pressure and tremendous amount of things that we would have no idea, except for perhaps myself, just a little iota of knowing what he has gone through. I was going to be trite and say to him and ask him this question: what was the most difficult race and when did you know you had a chance to win seven gold medals?" I don't have to. It was tonight, and it was epic.

Costas: Michael?

Phelps: After the race, I think the biggest thing was, I was at a loss for words. And I'm still at a loss for words. Being able to follow so many great athletes, who have come though the Olympic games, and so many of those great athletes were Americans, I'm just honored and proud to be wearing the stars and strips and having the opportunity that I've had. I've been very, very lucky to be able to watch so many great Olympians growing up and seeing everything. So, I'm just happy to be in the same sentence as those athletes: Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton, Jesse Owens and Mark Spitz. All those guys are great Olympians and they will always be great Olympians. Once you're an Olympian, you're always an Olympian no matter what. And that's something no one can ever take away from you.

Costas: Continuing our live conversation with Mark Spitz, who's in the states and Michael Phelps. It's a fun game to play even if there is no real resolution, Mark what happens if Nicklaus and Woods tee it up in equal conditions and they're both at their respective peaks? What happens if Koufax pitches to A-Rod when they're both at their best? Do you ever allow yourself to think, same pool, same peak, same training methods, and I'm lining up with Michael Phelps?

Spitz: I think we all have, as people that are great at their sport, and opportunity against competitors, and that common thread exists through everybody that has achieved greatness. So I think if Michael and I were to have that chance, hypothetically, I certainly would know what made him tick and how to beat him, and he would know the same about me. So I would have to say now, we'd probably tie. But after tomorrow when he wins his eighth gold medal, I will take my hat off and be happy and glad to take second to Michael any day.

Costas: Michael, we were just watching some footage of Mark as he won a gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympic games. He did it without the cap, he did it with the moustache in place, he did it with a swimsuit a regular guy could buy. He did it in a whole different world.

Phelps: I've seen a few of Mark's races and a lot has changed in that time, and really over the last four years. It's been cool to be a part of, and to see the change in the sport. This sport is starting to take off more and more, and it's been even more fun to be a part of. I'm glad to see everything, change for the better for American swimming anyway.

Costas: You know Mark, the cool part about this is that one of the many, just as what happens in other sports, when someone reaches a milestone, it brings back the person who established the previous standard. Those who recall it, are reminded, and those who didn't see it, get a new appreciation and understanding of what the earlier figure did. So this has kind of been a resurgence for you. They are more aware of what you did 36 years ago because of Michael Phelps.

Spitz: Well that has certainly happened, it's really because of Michael and his greatness. Four years ago I was there in Athens and had the honor and the privilege of watching Michael. And with just a little bit of an unfortunate result by one of the American relay teams, he would have been sitting there with seven medals four years ago. And I know what Michael must have been going through. For the next four years, he had the vision of winning seven gold medals, and go even higher with eight gold medals. And I personally thought that one of the most courageous medals that Michael did in the Athens games was to challenge himself against Ian Thorpe in the 200-meter freestyle. And I realized right then, that he was never afraid to take a challenge, regardless of what the consequence was. And he made a gallant effort, improving his time by two seconds. And I said to myself right there, that that's why this boy is going to win eight gold medals or seven gold medals, no matter what he wants to do four years from now. And when he broke the world record a year and a half ago in Melbourne, Australia in the 200-meter freestyle, I knew right away that it was sealed, and he was going to do it. One of the interesting things that I talked all over the world about why I did what I did, and I think that I'd like to share that with Michael is that the mystery, the magic, the wonder, the innocence of never having done it before, those are the seeds of creativity that came into my personal story. Michael chose his own path, and I'm so happy I was here with the rest of the world to see it.

Costas: Michael, the last word is yours. Those of us in the broadcast and print media can evaluate it and offer our own praise, but there you have it from the number one source Mark Spitz.

Phelps: I'm at a loss for words now, like I was after the race. It's something that you always want to do, and dream of doing and you think that you can do. But it's never really real until you do it. The biggest thing that I've been thankful for is that I have been able to use my imagination. When some people said it's not possible and it can't be done, I think that's when my imagination came into play. And I thought I had a chance to do it, Bob (Bowman) and I talked about it, and we were able to get here through a lot of hard work, it's been fun. And this is something that will always be a part of me, being able to equal Mark Spitz's record is an amazing accomplishment for me. And I'm thankful for him, and all the help and support he's given me. I definitely want to thank him for that.

Costas: Michael, thank you, we'll see you as you go for number eight at the pool tomorrow. Mark, thank you from the States.

(Photos: Associated Press)

Best photo of last night's finish

Kevin, et al.

Subject: Definitive proof?

We've referenced this in other posts, but the best photo of the 100-meter butterfly finish appeared on It was taken by Sports Illustrated's Heinz Kluetmeier. You can find their frame-by frame photo sequence of the finish here.

Silver medalist speaks

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Gold-medal presser with runner-up

Below is a transcript from the post-race news conference of Milorad Cavic, who everyone calls Mike. You’ll recall that one day earlier, after the semifinal, Cavic was the guy who said swimming would be better off if Michael Phelps lost a race.

This is posted without judgment or opinion from me, except to say that it was probably the best news conference we saw all week. He dropped a small bomb at the end and then left the dais smiling.

Have you seen the replays? Can you believe you lost that race? Can you believe it at this point?

Losing by one one-hundredth of a second is the most difficult loss, especially at the Olympics. And I did see the replays, but if you are asking that I’m disappointed? It’s a complete miracle to me that I am here, and I retired a year and a half ago and I came back to swimming thinking I wasn’t good enough to compete at this level and at this competition. I’m enjoying this. From my heart, I am really enjoying this moment. I wish I was a gold medalist, but you know I’ll take a silver medal. I’m very comfortable with this.

Is your coach filing a protest, do you know, and what did you think when you saw the replay?

Yeah, I saw the replay a few minutes ago, after my race of course. I overheard something about there being a protest filed, but again I’m not thinking about this. For me it’s just an incredible feat to have come this far and to win this medal. I can’t even take it off myself, don’t know when I can take it off. You know, if you ask me, I’m not about fighting it. If eventually they do decide in my favor, that's great, but I did see the tape – it was kind of hard to see. I know I had a long finish and Michael Phelps had a short finish. That’s all I’m gonna say about that. I’m not angry. I’m not angry at all.

In your experience, is there any way they could have messed this up? Could you have won the race and some how it didn’t record it?

As we all know, technology is also imperfect. It’s possible. It’s not something I’m focused on right now. Sorry I can’t elaborate more on that. It’s possible. Everything’s possible. You know, the hand is quicker than the eye, I suppose. But in super-slow motion and I overheard Michael Phelps talk about how Mark Schubert went into the video room and they were filming it to the thousandth of a second, and he said it was crazy. It was just a crazy finish. It’s too bad that we both couldn’t have finished at 50.58. I would have loved to share that gold medal, but I’m taking what I got and I’m happy.

Can you with your hands or fingers can you maybe show us what a finish of one one-hundredth of a second would be? Can you give us a rough idea if it was one one-hundredth in favor of Michael Phelps, what would it be?

It could be anything, maybe perhaps shaving your fingers. I got a funny story right before I walked over to, or right after my warm up actually, my coach Mike Bottom walked over with some clippers and he cleaned up the back of my neck. He just shaved the hairs that, you know, were below my cap, just behind my neck. Who knows, if he didn’t do that it might have been 50.60. These sort of differences, everything counts. Again, with one-hundredth of a second, something you can’t show is just that fast. If it was a Formula 1 race, perhaps they could show this since they count thousandths of a second.

Could you just go through the last 15 meters and kind of what was going through your mind? Did you have an eye on him? Just take us through those details.

I knew I was leading the race, I usually do, and I’ve been training all year. I know I’m fast the first 50. I knew I was gonna lead the first 50 and I know that Michael’s a back-half swimmer and that he was gonna be chasing me down in the end. So, the last 15 meters, there was just no point to look over. I knew he was there. Just from my recollection, I don’t actually remember looking, I just saw a shadow out of the side of my goggles, and I knew he was coming. It’s a good thing for myself because I like to be chased. When I know someone is chasing me I always seem to give a little bit extra. The last 15 meters, especially the last eight, I just put my head down and I did not breathe the last eight meters. I was just hoping for the best.  

How do you feel [so close to beating] Phelps?

Perhaps I was the only guy at this competition who had a real shot at beating Phelps one-on-one. This is completely new to me, I’ve never been in such a position with so much pressure, and I am very proud of how I handled that whole race and how I was able to keep myself under control emotionally and the stress level. It is a frightening thing to know that you’re racing Michael Phelps. But I think that it’s even more frightening to know that it’s going to be a very, very close race and that nobody knows the outcome.

I knew a lot of people -- I read a lot of articles online, I like to read it, it encourages me -- and I knew a lot of people had their money against me. That was totally understandable. Michael has been breaking world records here by seconds. This is something that no other swimmer in swimming really does, so what do you expect from a man who break world records by seconds in the 100 fly? You know, I expected that he’d go a world-record time – maybe something close, like 50.2. But it was a real honor for me to be able to race with Michael Phelps and be in this situation where all eyes were on me as the one man that would possibly be able to do it. It was just great.

Pieter van den Hoogenband talked to me yesterday and I told him "Pieter, this is pretty stressful, I’m scared, I don’t know what to expect," and he just said, "Just enjoy the experience, just have fun, and don’t get too nervous. This is a beautiful thing." Just hearing this from a legend, such as Pieter, it really kind of calmed me down, and I was like, "He’s right, the best races I’ve swum, I’ve swum when I was relaxed." I believe I just did that here.

At the beginning of the race, can you take us through your head? You and Mike were facing each other at the blocks. Was there, on your part, any sort of stare down going on or what was going on in your mind? What were your mindsets, your preparation as you were preparing to race?

I definitely wasn’t staring him down. I was just trying to control my energy. The energy that goes through your body, especially your mind right before a race is pretty tremendous. But, if you’re asking me this directly, both of us have metallic goggles, so I couldn’t see his eyes and he couldn’t see mine. Maybe he was able to see the reflection of himself and he’s like "Hey, I look pretty good." I saw myself in his reflection and was keeping things under control.

I know you are very happy with what you did -- your best performance, your personal best is always what you rank yourself with -- but could you tell me what you would tell me if Serbian Olympic officials came to you and discussed this issue of possibly appealing? What would your suggestions to them be? What would you say to them?

If it was up to me right now, I would just drop the protest. I’m stoked with what happened. I’m very, very happy. I don’t want to fight this. It is a gold medal at stake. It is a difficult thing to lose, but you have to understand that I came into this competition with a goal to win a bronze medal. I went my best time, and I did better than bronze – I got silver, and I almost got gold. For me to end my career right now, if this is what I decide to do, I will be completely happy.

You know, people will be asking me this for years, and I am sure people will be bringing this up for years saying that, "You won that race." Well, you know, this is just what the results showed. This is what the electronic board showed. I guess I kind of have mixed emotions about it. You know, this could be the kind of thing where, if I had lost by a tenth of a second or two-tenths of a second, I could probably be a lot cooler about this. But with a hundredth of a second I’ll have a lot more people really saying, you know, "You won that race." That kind of makes me feel good, but I’m gonna be happy with where I am.

In your mind, was Michael Phelps the gold medal winner?

Uh, is Michael Phelps the gold medal winner? He… I think if we got to do this again, I’d win.

(Photos: Associated Press)

The photo finish

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Enough with the soft focus!

Below you'll find the sequence of photos -- from the Associated Press -- that shows the final nanoseconds of the race. You can also check out the video at NBC's Web site. Again, that photo offered probably the best single-frame view.





Photos: AP

The Speedo bonus: $1 million

Rick et al.,

Subject: Straight cash, homies! 

No, Dr. Evil doesn't run Speedo, but the company did just send out a press release confirming that Phelps had earned the long-discussed $1 million bonus for matching Spitz's record of seven gold medals. Can you imagine what it's like to earn a $1 million in a single moment by a margin so small, you might not have earned it had you forgotten to shave your neck? Sure, it's a cumulative award, but if Phelps was going to earn all that coin, he couldn't have done it in a more dramatic way. 

Side note: When Phelps and I had lunch in Ann Arbor several months ago at Maze N Blue deli, one of his favorite eateries, I picked up the check, which is custom for journalists to do with interview subjects.

If we end up doing it again when Phelps moves back to Baltimore, I might let him get it this time.

(Dr Evil/Handout photo)  

Phelps says someone pinch him: 'I feel like I'm in a dream world'

Maese, et al.,

SUBJECT: Phelps news conference transcript


I actually did. I knew I wasn't as far behind as I was in prelims. I saw Crocker and figured they were at about the same speed. When I did chop the last stoke, I really thought that cost me the race, but it happened to be the direct opposite. If I would have glided, I would have ended up being way too long. I ended up making the right decision, and I was trying to take a short fast stroke, trying to get my hand on the wall first. It turned out to be in my favor.


I saw the race actually afterward. I saw the finish on big screen after race. I saw it slowed down frame by frame back in the massage area, looking at the computer. It's almost too close to see. It’s sort of like last time (in Athens) I felt four one-hundredths was close, I was completely shocked. It’s possible I’m even more shocked now than I was then. One-one hundredth is the smallest margin in our sport. It was pretty cool. I guess that’s all I can say. (Laughing)


I think it really shows that no matter what you set your imagination to, anything can happen. If you dream as big as you can dream, anything is possible. I saw so many quotes saying it's impossible to duplicate it, it won't happen. It just shows you that anything can happen. I never really -- I guess before I got to Bob – he’s the one who really helped me really dream about anything. Yes I wanted to become an Olympic gold medalist, yes I wanted to become a world record holder, a professional athletes. Until I really got with him, he was the one who really said, ‘Dream big. Dream as big as you can.’ It finally happened. I’ve been able to have a lot of hard work and Bob and I have gone through a lot together. It's all paid off.


Tomorrow is definitely not going to be an easy race. Australia has a very good relay. We’re going to do like we did the last two relays. It’s all about being a team. We’re going to go out there as a team and swim as a team. We’ll be able to swim as a team. That’s not a problem. Hopefully we’re able to put four amazing splits together and see what happens.


The timing system says it all. There hasn’t really been an error in the timing system that I remember. I have no idea. The only thing I can say is I raced as hard as I could and I swam my best. The scoreboard said I got my hand on the wall first.


When people say things like that, it fires me up more than anything. Just like 400 free relay going into that we were excited because the French swimmers had said a few remarks that got us a little excited. We use things like that and comments like that to fuel us. To get us more excited. I think that's what American swimmers do. We rise to the occasion.

When Bob told me that, actually this morning, I said, OK. We'll let our swimming do the talking. That’s how I’ve always done it. I always welcome comments. If anyone wants to say anything, I like it. It definitely motivates me even more.


I knew I had to be within half a body length. Racing against Crocker, racing against someone who has front-half speed, I race against him all the time, I’m sort of able to judge where I'm able to be at the 50 (meter mark) to make up. I figured if I was about a half a body length behind, I would be fine. When I turned I saw Crocker how far ahead he was of me, I kind of figured him and Cavic were out at the same speed. I could kind of see him out of the side of my eye, but that’s about it. I had no idea where he was.


I had no idea there was a protest. Beats me. Nothing to say to that. That’s the first word that I've heard of it.


I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: My big goal is to change the sport of swimming in a way. For the kids coming up in the sport and also for of the sport in America. I actually just got a picture my friend sent me, SportsCenter live, they aired the race. Somebody else told me they had it on jumbotron live in the middle of a baseball game. So my goal is starting to happen, but there is still a long way to go with that. I'm sure Bob and I can think of something in the next four years.


I'm not doing it for the money. I'm doing it because I love what I do. This is something I dreamed of as soon as I started swimming -- winning an Olympic gold medal. In Athens I was able to do that. I was able to surpass my goals.

If Bob and I were in it for the money, I think we' be in different sports. It’s definitely not about money. I'm having fun at what I do and I do this because I love it. That’s really the only thing I can say. I enjoy it, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Every day it seems like I'm in sort of a dream world. Sometimes you sort of have to pinch yourself to see if it's really real. I'm just happy I'm in the real world, I guess.

(Getty Images)  

Revisiting the wild finish

Kevin Van Valkenburg: Let's cut right to the chase, my friend. Watching Michael Phelps out-touched Milorad Cavic at the wall in the 100-meter butterfly was maybe the most amazing thing I think I'll ever witness. I don't care what people think about swimming, it goes down as one of the most clutch moments in sports history. Think about how much was on the line, and how far behind Phelps was at the 50-meter mark (7th). Standing in the arena, my heart was racing. I still can't believe what I saw, or how in the the world I was able to write about it. It was one of the moments I'll tell my kids about someday, without a doubt.

Rick Maese: Can’t argue with any of that. In fact, the first dozen words out of my mouth aren’t printable in this space. The words "unbelievable" did quickly come to mind, because, well, I couldn’t believe what I'd seen. He was finished. With 25-30 meters to go, he wasn't even headed to the podium. The initial replay angles didn’t seem to show Phelps as the winner. For me, the win underscored Phelps' status amongst Olympic gods. A part of me does wonder if everyone was convinced.

KVV: This was like Michael Jordan rising up over Craig Ehlo and nailing that final jump shot, except it's like doing it from half court with an NBA championship on the line. Do you realize they slowed down the video and watched the finish to the 10,000th of a second? FINA officials said that, when you broke it down like that, it was obvious that Phelps won, but I'm not sure anyone in Serbia will walk away convinced. Cavic was underwater, Phelps out of the water, so it looked in every sense like there was no way that Phelps got there first, but that's what great athletes do. They seem to defy space and time.

RM: While the difference was clearly the final 50 meters – Phelps 26.54; Cavic 27.17 – it was really that final push. And that’s also what seemed to cause the confusion. Above water, we could see Phelps was still stroking his way toward the wall. But it appeared Cavic was underwater, successfully lunging for the wall. I was next to Scott Goldblatt, who right away noted the 1988 final where Matt Biondi was beat by a 0.01 seconds. Twenty years later, while Cavic kicked and glided, Phelps stroked and won. And that final stroke will prove to be the difference between eight gold medals and seven.

KVV: Cavic was sort of in shock in the moments after the finish, and it looked like he wasn't going to talk to anyone at first as he stormed through the mixed zone. You could tell he initially thought the fix was in. Phelps is sponsored by Omega, and Omega Timing is in charge of recording the electronic finish. The front page of has a great photo from the bottom of the pool which shows Phelps clearly getting his hand on the wall first. The ensuing news conference was a madhouse. Cavic handled it about the best he possibly could, saying that people will probably come up to him years from now and tell him he won that race, which isn't a bad thing, in his opinion. I have to say though, this is just one more reminder of why gymnastics and figure skating are entertainment, not sports. Sports are something we can measure definitively. The clock doesn't lie, or take bribes, or take away points based on artistic interpretation. Had Phelps gotten his hand on the wall second, we would have seen it. The results are so instantaneous that it would be impossible to fix. Ian Crocker, who finished fourth, said it's possible to graze the touch pad and not have it register right away, but not when you're swimming that fast. Crocker, by the way, still holds the world record in the 100 fly, which is remarkable when you consider all the world records set this week. That might be the one world record Phelps never owns.

RM: He did set the Olympic record in the race, though. You know he’d love to own the world record, too, but it will have zero effect on Phelps’ legacy. The truth is, even if he walked away from the pool today and never let another droplet of water touch him in his life, Phelps will go down as the best Olympian ever (Carl Lewis is the only other name I’d put in the conversation). Dude has more gold than Mr. T. Already more career gold than anyone before him. And after this final race, he’ll have officially passed Mark Spitz. Remember these Olympics weren’t about equaling Spitz’s mark. The oft-heard quote goes something like this: I don’t want to be the next Mark Spitz. I want to be the first Michael Phelps. He’s done a pretty good job of that.

KVV: This was never about Spitz for Phelps, although both swimmers were gracious in their brief exchange after the race. This was about Phelps for Phelps. He hates losing so much, and loves to prove to people that they can't tell him something is impossible. I think you're going to see him change his program completely in the next four years as he tries to prove he can accomplish anything he wants to. People are going to say there is no way he can win the 100-meter freestyle in London. I bet he can. And I think he'll win both backstroke events. How can you bet against him at this point? I love team sports. I grew up playing football, and Magic Johnson was my childhood hero. But Phelps is the most amazing athlete I've ever seen. I really believe that. He might not resonate with people in Baltimore like Johnny Unitas, Cal Ripken or Brooks Robinson simply because swimming isn't as popular, but he deserves to be mentioned right there with them. The greatest athletes have iconic moments like this. They do things that give us chills and make us curse in amazement. When Phelps touched the wall this morning and the scoreboard said he'd won, it was so loud inside the Water Cube, I could barely hear myself think. I could feel my heart pounding though, and that's what I'll always remember. The place was shaking, people were screaming, Phelps was pumping his fist and screaming with emotion. As I sprinted down the stairs -- shoving stunned foreign journalists out of the way to try and make deadline -- I had chills on my arm.

(Photos: Associated Press)

August 15, 2008

Couple of words with Debbie Phelps

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Shopping day

After Michael Phelps breezed to a new world record in the 200 IM and qualified in the 100 butterfly earlier this morning, it turned into a pretty relaxing day. He didn't have any races scheduled for the evening session and could catch his breath before his big duel with Ian Crocker in the 100 fly (which airs live tonight in the U.S.)

It also meant a relaxing afternoon for Phelps' family. When I chatted with Debbie Phelps earlier today, she was in a car, headed back to her hotel. "Today was shopping day," she said. "We have a lot of souvenirs that we need to take home."

At the Olympics, families spend relatively little time around the athletes. They have access to different areas and between training and competition, there’s just not much leftover time to hang out. In fact, on television, when you see Phelps point, smile and shout at his mom and sisters in the stands, that makes up much of their interaction. There are cell phone calls, of course – and text messages.

Anyhow, we chatted about a couple of things. Here’s a few leftovers from the notebook:

On the week:

"This has absolutely been quite an amazing week for my son. He’s taking it one race at a time and he’s been putting on just a phenomenal performance."

On whether she can also compartmentalize the races, as her son does:

"We have to do it like he does. We have no choice. You just have to take it one thing at a time and try to focus on the very next race. It’s the only way we can get through this."

On what she’s seen from her son this week:

"He’s very moved. You can see it when he’s on the medal stand. He’s very emotional over the whole thing. He knows – he appreciates – what’s happening."

Q&A with Phelps biographer

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: From the man who knows best ...

One of the first folks I met from The Baltimore Sun was Paul McMullen. It was the Athens Olympics and McMullen was covering the most important story of those Games.

McMullen – P-Mac as I’ve taken to calling him, without his permission -- covered Phelps since the swimmer was 15 years old, from the 2000 Olympic trials in Indianapolis to the 2004 Games in Greece. Following the ’04 Olympics, McMullen took that expertise and penned what still stands as the definitive biography on Phelps, Amazing Pace.

1. Has anything surprised you this week? When you left Athens and thought ahead to Beijing, what did you anticipate might take place at the 2008 Games?

After last year’s world championships in Melbourne, it was apparent that Athens had just been a test run for Beijing. The only thing that has come as a shock is Jason Lezak’s anchor leg in the 400 freestyle relay. Gary Hall Jr. derided Jason for not being a clutch performer four years ago, a criticism that wasn’t unjustified. Lezak has forever transformed his image.

In Amazing Pace, I mention Michael modeling himself after the other Michael, Jordan. A la MJ, Michael elevated the performance of his teammates. Lezak is to Michael as Scottie Pippen was to Jordan.

2. Over the course of the past several days, what single thing has impressed you most?

Swimming lacks a meaningful stopwatch milestone, like Roger Bannister’s sub-4-minute mile in 1954. On the 60th anniversary of Bannister, in 2004, I speculated about Michael one day breaking 4 minutes in the 400 IM. If this year’s first gold was indeed his final 400 IM, we’ll never see that, but his times are astounding, considering that no one had broken 4:11 until he went there in 2002.

At the [North Baltimore Aquatic Club] Gala in May, I told Mark Schubert that [Phelps] would win the 100 freestyle in London in 2012. He nodded as if he had heard that a hundred times, I’m sure that’s been part of Bob Bowman’s master plan for a while. Michael’s leadoff leg in the 400 freestyle relay was a precursor to what we’ll see in London.

3. You were around Michael for so long; do you think he's able to reflect and appreciate what's taking place right now?

Gosh no. Why do you think he is capable of doing what he has? Introspection is not part of his gig. The young man lives in the moment – unless he’s reacting to some bulletin board material.

4. Whether it was from a meaningless meet or at the pool in Athens, is there a single definitive "Michael moment" that's etched in your brain, something that fully represents him to you?

At the 2000 U.S. trials in Indianapolis, a month after turning 15, he came from well off the pace to make history for the first time, earning a Sydney berth and becoming the youngest American male at the Games in any sport since 1952. His start was a joke, his turns were wretched, but even then, the kid could close a race. You knew you were blessed, to witness the start of something big. Did you see that his record 10th gold came in the 200 butterfly, the event that provided his international debut?

5. How difficult is it for folks who don't follow swimming except for one week every four years to appreciate just how incredible it is to win eight gold medals -- and set multiple world records? Does it compare to anything? And if he does win eight gold medals, where might it fall on the list of great athletic achievements?

Pools, suits and technique keep improving, so it’s an upset when a gold medal doesn’t require a world record. Times aren’t as impressive as the medal count. Remove the relays from the equation. If Michael runs the table, his individual gold total will match [Paavo] Nurmi, [Mark] Spitz, [Carl] Lewis, etc. Spitz and Phelps remain the only men who have ever won four individual events in a single Games, and now Michael can get five? Babe Ruth retired with 714 home runs, at a time when only one other man had 400. Now another Baltimorean is setting a mark that folks will be talking about a century from now.

'They love dem go gettas, only in America'

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: More on Michael's illegal music doping   

Recognize the title of this post? Sure you do. But we'll get to that in a second.

We opened quite a can of worms a couple of days ago, when an Israeli doctor posited the theory that Michael Phelps unfairly benefits from listening to music immediately before hitting the water.

I thought we tested this theory fairly well this morning, Kevin. We synced our iPod's to Jay-Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and made the walk to the Water Cube, the bass providing the pace and steady head bob. It was like a scene from Reservoir Dogs. Or maybe just Office Space. Anyhow, as our bosses will attest, hip-hop did not aid our deadline performance.

Phelps on the other hand, again had the iPod playing as he walked on the pool deck today. And again, it worked like a charm. For his preliminary race in the 100 fly, Phelps couldn't even remember what he was listening to. "I just tried my headphones on and tried to listen to something," he said, "but I'm not really sure what it was."

The 200 IM -- another world record -- is another story altogether, though. Phelps best meet prior to this week came at last year's world championships in Australia. He took a little bit of that meet with him to the blocks earlier today, playing "Go Getta," that infectious anthem by Young Jeezy, whom I've always known to be both a prince and a scholar.

"I listened to that song every single swim of the meet last year," Phelps said. "I just decided to pop it on for old time’s sake."

The title of this blog post, as you no doubt figured out, was the more printable -- and perhaps apropos? -- lines that I was able to cut-and-paste from the insightful, poetic lyrics of "Go Getta."

Phelps: I'm clean

To Kevin, at al.

Subject: Not another Marion

Did you catch the question that silenced the room midway through Michael Phelps' post-race news conference this morning? It came from Bill Plaschke, of the Los Angeles Times:

"You follow sports in the United States. you know recent heroes who've done superhuman sports like this have always seemed to end up -- Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, blah blah. What do you say to people who say in America, 'You know, this is so good, it's too good to be true?'"

The doping question. It's not easy to ask. But we have to ask it these days. Plaschke posed it respectfully and Phelps handled it just as well.

"Anybody is able to say whatever they want," Phelps said. "I know for me, I am clean."

That's what Phelps said out loud. In his head, I'm pretty sure he was thinking, "I sure hope Woody Paige DESTROYS this Plaschke guy on Around the Horn next week."

Phelps continued: "I did Project Believe with USADA where I purposely wanted to do more tests to prove it. People can question it all they want, but the facts are the facts. And I have the results to prove it." 

Plaschke's ensuing column can be found here. Here's a brief excerpt.

This is not an indictment. This is not an accusation. This is a wish.

Please, let this be clean. Please, let this be real.

Please, if Phelps can win his races on Saturday and Sunday to win eight gold medals and complete the greatest single Olympics performance in history, let that be the end of it.

No flunked drug tests. No flunked swimsuit tests. No tell-all books about clandestine doctors and cheating coaches.

America won't be able to stomach it. Swimming won't be able to survive it.

For once, please, let one of our heroes really be a hero.

If you're curious, Project Believe is an interesting test program. It covers 12 athletes, including Phelps, Dara Torres and Tyson Gay. Essentially, these dozen participants are volunteering for extra testing. It does not, however, mean anyone is clean.

The best story I've seen on the subject was by Yahoo Sports, in which even the CEO of USADA stated bluntly: "I want to be absolutely clear, whether it’s Dara or any other athlete in this program, we can’t guarantee their cleanliness. ... It’s sad and it’s unfortunate.”

One man's opinion: Phelps not the best ever

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Why does Phil Hersh hate Michael Phelps sooo much?* 

Could everyone please stop hyperventilating about Michael Phelps?
Yes, he now has won more gold medals than anyone in Olympic history.
No, that does not make him the greatest Olympic athlete in history.
In fact, he doesn't even make my top five.

So begins an opinion piece that appears in this morning's Chicago Tribune, written by the venerable and knowledgeable Phil Hersh, who knows his way around the Olympic rings as well as anyone.

Before we go down the rabbit hole, full disclosure: Hersh is a colleague and we work for the same parent company. In addition, we're working out of the same office in Beijing, and he's sitting five feet away from me as I type this. Also, I happen to like Hersh (and he actually worked at the Baltimore Evening Sun from 1972-77).

Even more full disclosure: I think Hersh might be suffering from sleep deprivation. Here's the five Olympians he says are better than Phelps:

1. Carl Lewis, United States, track and field

2. Paavo Nurmi, Finland, track and field

3. Larisa Latynina, Soviet Union, gymnastics

4. Birgit Fischer-Schmidt, Germany, kayak

5. Steven Redgrave, United Kingdom, rowing

Just so you know, I'm not making any of this up. Here's the link again so you can see for yourself. (The New York Times has devoted space to the debate, as well.)

Phelps is on the verge of winning eight gold medals at a single Olympics. In addition, he's set world records in all six events in which he's competed thus far. And he's already won more career golds than any Olympian ever. Ever ever.

But he's ranked below a rower? And a kayaker? I'd have to go buy a stopwatch, but I'd give Phelps a pair of goggles and drop him in the water next to a motorboat and still pick him to coast to victory.

Here's part of Hersh's rationale:

It is easy to win multiple medals in swimming. The sport is far more forgiving on the body than track or gymnastics. And Phelps does not yet have the long-term record of the others.

That sounds fair. And I'd be willing to entertain the argument that Lewis might be as accomplished as Phelps. I don't think so, but I can understand the argument. The other four? A stretch. 

This morning I asked Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, if Phelps wins all eight gold medals here in Beijing, should he be considered the greatest Olympian ever?

"I think if it was over today, he's the greatest Olympian who ever lived," said Bowman, not needing to pause and think about it.

"I do think it's difficult to compare [the different sports], but in terms of just sheer dominance in his events and the times he's putting up and what he's doing now in two Olympics -- really three, but two where we won medals -- I think it's hard to argue."

Not for Hersh, it isn't.

And if that wasn't enough for you, Hersh also penned a supplemental piece, in which he stated that Phelps winning eight gold medals here wouldn't even qualify as the best performance at a single Olympics. He prefers Jesse Owens (four golds in 1936), Emil Zatopek (the Czech long-distance runner who three races in Olympic times over an eight-day period in 1952) and Eric Heiden (the speedskater who set records at five distances in 1980).

So there you have it. The floor is now open...


* - For the record, Hersh insists he does not hate Phelps. Nor does he hate Baltimore. He's been asked to present evidence to support these claims. I'll keep you posted.

Brief update: Jacques Rogge, the IOC's top boss, yesterday said Phelps' name belongs aside Olympic legends, but he did not rank his favorites. "The Olympic Games live around superheroes," he said. "You had Jesse Owens, you had Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis and now you have Phelps. And that's what we need to have."

August 14, 2008

Hoff reflects on Olympics

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Katie speaks

As mentioned in a previous entry, it was a bit disconcerting to see Katie Hoff breeze through the interview area after failing to qualify for the 800 free finals. Not for our sake necessarily. But for the sake of family and friends back in Maryland who were probably worried and concerned. Anyhow, that was last night's news. Today Hoff wasted no time addressing that race and her entire Olympic experience here in Beijing. Her comments, I thought, were especially reflective and insightful, and she seemed to be in good spirits this morning.

On the emotions from her bronze in the relay and then a tough 800 free in the same day:

"A little roller coaster-y. Obviously I was really happy to kind of bring home the relay. Obviously we would have wanted to win gold. We all put our hearts into it. I was happy to go a best time in the relay split. Last night I just maybe took it out a little too fast. I was trying to stay with the girl and kind of ran out of gas at the end completely. There was nothing more I could do. I feel like the schedule was definitely a lot tougher than I thought it would be, doing it twice. I handled it at trials, but it was the Olympic Games, very challenging. I’m just proud of winning three medals. Would have hoped for it to go a little bit better, but you really can’t stick your nose up at three Olympic medals."

On what she’d do differently or remove:

"I think in the middle there, I was fine through 400-400, and it was just really tough going from right after those four 400s into the 200s. It was kind of like, ugh. I felt so good for the relay because I actually had some time off and stuff. I think the double really took it out of me."

On a greater appreciation for Michael Phelps:

"Definitely. I keep saying that. The mental energy and emotional energy and physical energy that it takes to go out there and get up every time, even for a prelim, you have to put in some kind of effort, even Michael, Just it’s incredible, he’s swimming even more than I swam. He’s doing [it] in world record time, gold medals. It definitely gives me a lot more respect, even more than I already had for him."

On the lingering effects from her heartbreaking loss in 400 free:

"I think it would have been a little bit easier mentally on me, just losing by seven-hundredths is an awesome thing on your mind. But I don't think as far as anything would go, I'd still put in the same effort.

"I'm going to be in the sport for awhile and I want it to be fun. This schedule, you look at it and you don't go into it as excited as I feel like I would if I was swimming in just two or three, [and a relay]. So I think I will evaluate and maybe focus in on three or four, two or three, instead of five events."

On whether coach Paul Yetter pushed her into too many races:

"Not really. It was my decision to do that. It just kind of fell into place by itself. I decided, OK these are the events I'll swim at trials. I ended up doing really well at trials and winning them all. I felt like, why would I just drop this event? I think it was just a learning experience. I think you just take that learning out of this and use that in the next four years."

On Natalie Coughlin, who swims fewer races than she probably could:

"I think she kind of learned that around the same time I did. I think she started dropping events when she was 18, 19. We were talking the other day, she had the American record in the 200 back for a long time before it was broken. People were always criticizing, why didn't she swim it? It's just because she flat-out hated the event. There are events that I can't stand also, but I do them anyway.

"For the longevity in the sport, you have to make sure that you're picking events that you're really excited to do and not just because they have chosen you. I feel like because I have a lot of events, that gives me a lot of options. I don't have to be stuck with one event. I can choose from certain events and not race all of them."

On which race she hates most:

"The 400 IM."

On America's gold-or-nothing mentality:

"I don't think it's really fair. I think Michael is doing what he's doing and it's incredible, but it kind of makes the rest of us look like, if you don't win a gold medal, it's not... [LAUGHS]... you know. I even got a best time in the 200 free and I didn't medal. It's tough, but obviously Michael gets our sport out there and that's great. I just have to always put in perspective as far as me personally and think, OK, silver medal, two bronze. I'm moving up in the world. It's better than last time and I'm not close to being done."

On the next few weeks:

"Last time I only took about a week or so. This time I'm definitely gonna take a break. It's been four years, just kind of working really hard. Take a month of just relaxing, a tropical island or something."

On what was the most fun part of the Games:

"I think it was really cool the relay, even though we didn't win. But I love that whole team thing. You hold hands, lift them up to the crowd. I was really looking forward to that. I think that's what helped me swim so fast on the end of it."

Visiting with Phelps' first coach

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Our earliest teachers

I enjoy checking my inbox some days. I like seeing how Baltimore experiences different events, whether people see something I don't, say things that I won't or what they decide is deserving of praise and criticism. Some of my favorite letters are from teachers. You know how I know they're from teachers? They conclude their e-mails with a line like this one, from an e-mail today: "... you should appreciate all the teachers over the years that helped."

So let's do that. Not my teachers, but Michael Phelps'.

Before there was Bob Bowman, there was Tom Himes, Phelps' first teacher around the pool deck. Himes coached Phelps -- and both Phelps sisters -- until the swimmer was almost 12 years old. Himes was with North Baltimore Aquatic Club from 1985-2002 and currently coaches at Loyola Blakefield and assists at Towson.

On the Phelps' family's drive:

"Obviously there has to be some natural ability there. Having witnessed it and seen it, that’s obviously a part of everything. I mean, Michael’s flexibility is unbelievable. But they work their butts off. They just really work hard. You can be the most talented person in the world, but you’re not going to be that good without working hard."

On what life was like for Phelps during that period: 

"They had to work with what they got. I had him when they all had a lot going on. He was 9, his sisters were in their teens. There was the divorce and with Debbie and her job, the girls took on a lot of the responsibility for Michael. The girls in some degree had to sacrifice a bit of their lives to help bring him up."

On what he's seen this week:

"It’s unbelievable. I guess you never say never, but I just can't see how we’re ever going to see anything like this again. Might as well soak it all up as best you can. Swimming is getting so much faster – look at all of the people blowing records away; it’s not like you’re swimming against slower people. And he’s just incredible. All the swimming is great, but he's clearly the best. You sort of feel bad for everybody else."

On Phelps' direction since leaving Himes: 

"They have done – Bob, his agents, family, everybody – they’ve done just an unbelievable job with that young man. Twenty-three years old and he’s amazing, such a good kid. And he’s still very level-headed. He has no right to be level-headed – he could do whatever he wants – but he is. Still such a nice, level kid. If you didn’t know who he was, you wouldn’t know what he is. He doesn’t talk about himself like that. You can see, he’s almost uncomfortable at times talking about how great he is."

Staying fresh

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Hitting the not-so-great wall

I was observing something at the pool earlier today. While the Olympic swimmers seem to be fresh and full of energy, the sportswriters charged with covering the Olympics seem to be completely zapped of whatever life force was keeping them going. Really, how could anyone be more tired than Michael Phelps, who's already swam in five races medals -- not to mention prelims, semifinals, warm-up swims, warm-down swims and daily showers?

Kevin, we all remember the other day when you were busted following me around with a camera. Well, to exact revenge, I did the same. It was more documentary than sensational; I wanted to share with people what a swim writer is like in the wild, and how he copes with watching finely-tuned, healthy young athletes perform at their peak performance every day. You can see the sad result for yourself below.

Actually Kevin, you might be interested to learn that you and Phelps share the same preparation strategy. He has three more races -- 200 IM, 100 fly and 400 medley relay. In looking forward, here's what he said after today's session: "More time to rest. That's the biggest thing over the next two days. Trying to get as much rest and recovery in my system as possible. Tomorrow the 200 IM is going to be a hard race and so is the 100 fly against [Ian] Crocker. Crock's been waiting around for this event, so you know he's going to be ready to do something good."

I should assure Sun readers, that I will be here to wake Kevin, so that he too will be prepared to do something good.

Hoff's fortunes determined by hundreds of a second

To Kevin, et al.,

Subject: What just happened?

I wish I could describe the look on Katie Hoff's face. But I can't. I wish I could understand what happened. But I don't.

After failing to advance to the finals, Hoff was the last one out of the pool following her finish in the 800-meter freestyle preliminaries today. As she walked through the "mixed zone" -- the area in which reporters interview athletes -- she was dazed. She was exhausted. And she was flushed. This is the way the Olympics ended -- not with a gold, but an early out.

Questions abound. And there are few answers because Hoff wasn't able to talk, and her coach Paul Yetter ducked out of the Water Cube and didn't answer questions or his telephone. I suspect Hoff fully appreciates bringing home a silver medal and a pair of bronze medals, but expectations were much higher, based largely on the impressive times she'd posted in the months leading up to the Games.

I don't buy the idea that Hoff couldn't handle five individual races and a relay, which will no doubt be the popular theory from here on out. She's been swimming this type of program for a long time now, and she's had success with it.

Hoff's Olympic woes didn't come down to six events, a hurried schedule or that final 800-meter race that sent her home early. In fact, it came down to just a few meters and just a couple of seconds. In her second race of these Games -- the 400-meter freestyle -- Hoff looked to have gold wrapped up. You could almost see it around her neck, beautifully complimenting her earrings. But from out of nowhere came Great Britain's Rebecca Adlington, passing Hoff over the course of just a couple of strokes and winning by 0.07 seconds.

That's what Hoff's Olympics came down to: 0.07 seconds.

Hoff was shocked, and she never recovered. Two fourth-place finishes followed. Then a bronze on a relay team. And then the disastrous 800 free. A race in which she could have challenged for gold, she failed to even get past preliminaries.

Hoff can be a victim of nerves as easily as she can a beneficiary of confidence. We'll never know for certain, but if she wasn't nipped to the wall by Adlington, we probably would have seen a different Hoff enter the pool for those final four races.

She could swim six races as well as almost anyone, but she has to believe she can. That's the sign of a champion, as much as anything else.

(Photo: Associated Press)

Where's Phelps' dad?

To Kevin, et al.,

Subject: Watching from afar

Great list, Kevin. If I can add an item: Fair or not, nosy or simply curious, I think people back in the United States are watching Michael Phelps nightly on NBC and making note of the many shots they see of Debbie Phelps cheering from the stands. The omission is probably striking to some: We see Michael's mom, but what about dad?

Brief background: Fred and Debbie separated for good in 1993 and the divorce was finalized the following year, when Michael was 9. By all accounts, Fred Phelps wasn't an everyday figure in his children's lives for much of Phelps' adolescence. In my column today, I mentioned that Phelps' older sisters, Hilary and Whitney, both played pivotal roles in his development, not just as a swimmer but as a young man.

They did reconcile with their father several years ago but have since drifted again apart. Fred Phelps was in Greece. He is not in Beijing. When I asked his daughters in the weeks leading up to these Olympics whether their father would be attending, they each said, "I don't know."

Our Sun colleague, Childs Walker, spoke with Fred Phelps earlier this week to request an interview. Fred thought about it, and I think he probably handled the request as well as he could. He declined, saying he didn't want to take away from his son's accomplishments by delving into the family story.

"This is just about Michael," he said. "This is his glory, his time to shine, and I want him to get everything he wants."

Rest assured, while Phelps is in the Beijing pool, his father is paying close attention, cheering from back in Maryland.

"I'm just on pins and needles every time he hits the water," Fred Phelps said.

(Photo: 2004, Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Eight things you might not know about Michael Phelps

When the whole world is writing about someone like Michael Phelps, you tend to get a lot of overlap. If you've been following the Olympics by now, you probably know the basics. Phelps grew up just outside of Baltimore, and battled ADHD as a kid. He was raised, mostly, by his mother, Debbie, a middle school principal. He adored and idolized his two older sisters, Whitney and Hilary, and they're the main reason he became a swimmer. Michael's father, Fred, wasn't around enough (in Michael's opinion) after Fred and Debbie got divorced when he was 9 years old. Father and son have a chilly relationship, and do not speak often, if at all.

You might feel like you've heard those details hundreds of times by now. I decided to rack my brain and try to come up with eight things you might not know. Eight, as you've probably heard, has special significance this week in China, so that's the number we're shooting for. Some are about his personality, some about his equipment, and some are just answers to silly questions I get all the time. But as you watch what could go down as one of the greatest sporting achievements in history, at the very least, you'll be able to explain to your friends why he wears two swim caps in the pool (which is the most frequent question I'm asked about Phelps).

1. HE WEARS TWO SWIM CAPS TO SMOOTH OUT THE WRINKLES FROM THE FIRST: This is actually something a lot of swimmers do, and it's probably more psychological than anything. The goal is to make your head as smooth as possible and thus able to move through the water faster.  When races are decided by hundredths of a second, swimmers will try to get any advantage. Mostly, it simply feels more secure. It's a way to keep your goggles tighter to your head as well, but it can also cause problems. In the 200-meter butterfly, Phelps goggles filled up with water. Normally a swimmer can try to rip them off their face if that happens, but not when you're wearing two swim caps.

2. ERIK VENDT, NOT RYAN LOCHTE, IS PROBABLY HIS CLOSEST FRIEND IN SWIMMING: Phelps and Lochte are pals -- they have a shared interest in music, women, life -- but they never talk about swimming. They're too competitive. Vendt, who trained with Phelps the last two years in Michigan, was one of his closest confidants during this difficult year that included uneven training and a broken wrist. They're also roommates during most swim meets. "He's helped me through a lot of tough times (at Michigan)," Phelps said. Other than relay finishes in Athens and Beijing, the most intense yelling I've ever seen Phelps do was one day poolside at the Missouri Grand Prix in Columbia, Mo. Vendt was threatening the American record in the 1,500, and Phelps was bellowing at the top of his lungs, trying to urge Vendt on throughout the race.

Phelps, who considers himself completely non-political, often finds himself in the middle of political discussions because Vendt, a ardent Ron Paul supporter, is a political junkie and he and fellow Club Wolverine swimmer Davis Tarwater, who trends liberal, love to argue politics before practice with coach Bob Bowman, (who trends conservative and is a McCain supporter). "They go at is right from the start of practice," Phelps says. "They're always like 'Did you see Hillary (Clinton's) speech last night?' and I'm like 'What do you think?' "

3. HE WEARS DIFFERENT SUITS FOR DIFFERENT EVENTS BECAUSE SOME SUITS ARE DESIGNED FOR CERTAIN STROKES: When you watch Phelps swim the freestyle events, he usually wears the kind of Speedo LZR Racer that has straps over his shoulders and goes all the way down to his ankles. But when he swims an event where he needs to perform the butterfly stroke, he only wears the LZR Racer pants. There is so much shoulder motion required for the fly, he feels more comfortable without something over his shoulders. You'll also see him in the relays immediately unzip his suit and pull it off his shoulders and down around his waist. It's not a vanity thing; he's not trying to show off his abs for the cameras. It's because the suits are ridiculously tight (they're designed to compress your body) and most swimmers want to unzip as soon as possible.

4. HE ALMOST NEVER READS ANYTHING WRITTEN ABOUT HIM:  Some swimmers obsess over their own press. Write a harsh word about them and they'll let you know it. Phelps stopped reading stuff written about him long ago. Bowman, on the other hand, reads everything. "I'm a big Google guy," Bowman says. He'll print things out and show them to Phelps for motivational purposes, like comments by Ian Thorpe earlier this year that Phelps couldn't win eight gold medals. It was immediately hung in his locker in Ann Arbor. "That kind of stuff literally makes me insane," Phelps says. "It fires me up so much." He does, however, occasionally go on the Internet when he wants to find a picture of himself that he can e-mail to his mom. He can usually remember what he was thinking that exact moment it was taken. "I just like how intense I look," he says.  

5. IT'S MOSTLY HIP HOP ON HIS IPOD BEFORE RACES, BUT NOT ALWAYS: Phelps has been listening to 'Lil Wayne this week, an American rapper from New Orleans. He's also a big fan of  artists like Rick Ross, Young Jeezy and, of course, Jay-Z. But occasionally he'll mix things up and listen to some techno. Though it was often written that Phelps listened to Eminem's "Till I Collapse" before every race in Athens, Phelps says that's not true. "It's a different song for every meet," he says.

6. HE SPENDS A LOT OF HIS FREE TIME AT HOME PLAYING VIDEO GAMES: He plays a lot of Madden, but he also plays Halo pretty frequently as well. One week, he played so much Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf on his Nintendo Wii, he came to practice with a sore shoulder, and Bowman said if that ever happened again he was taking the video game console away. Video games are one of his favorite escapes, and if he wants to play them, no one is going to stop him. This is especially true of girlfriends or potential girlfriends. "If I want to play video games, I'm playing video games," he says. "If I want to sit around and watch TV, I'm watching TV. No one is changing my mind. I'm pretty easy to get along with, just don't tell me I can't do something."

7. HE KNOWS EXACTLY HOW MANY STROKES IT TAKES FOR HIM TO GET FROM ONE END OF THE POOL TO THE OTHER: When Phelps' goggles filled with water in the 200-meter butterfly Wednesday morning, he didn't freak out like most swimmers would have, even though he couldn't see more than a few meters in front of him. He simply knew how many strokes it would take to get to the wall, and was counting in his head. You can look at that two ways. Either he's an android who drills so often that he can break world records when he's on autopilot, or he's like Ludwig van Beethoven, a virtuoso so in tune with his art, he and was able to compose and perform music even after he went completely deaf.

8. HE LIKES TO FALL ASLEEP WITH THE TELEVISION ON: When you spend half your life in hotel rooms all around the world, the familiar sounds of ESPN or The Discovery Channel can provide some small measure of comfort. When he dreams, it's not of gold medals. It's often of numbers. Before the U.S. Olympic trials, the number 3:07 kept popping into his dreams. After he thought about it, he knew what it meant: He wanted to go 3:07 through the first 300 meters of the 400-meter individual medley. Split it like that, and he could close strong. It would be the perfect race. At trials, he was 3:08 through 300 meters. He set a world record, barely holding off Ryan Lochte. He was pleased, but he knew he could have gone faster.

His first race of the Beijing Olympics, he told Bowman he wanted it to be the last 400 IM he ever swam. Bowman agreed, reluctantly, but only if he set another world record.

Phelps did, blowing away the old mark, finishing in 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds. It looked, in every sense, like the perfect race. He didn't see the point in swimming it again.

He didn't mention it at the time, so it was easy to overlook, especially with all the buzz surrounding his first gold medal. But it's almost eerie looking back at his splits.

At the 300 meter mark, he was 3:07.05.  

August 13, 2008

KVV responds to allegation that Phelps is audio doping by listening to his iPod

To Rick et al.,

Subject: Morons

I wanted to make sure I responded to the post where Dr. Alexei Koudinov essentially accuses Michael Phelps of using performance enhancing drugs because he listens to his iPod before races. (Found out yesterday he's been listening to Lil Wayne this week, by the way.)

Mr. Kourdinov, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.


P.S. Stop looking at me, swan!  

Hoff's load too heavy?

To Kevin, et al.,

Subject: Biting off only what you can chew

Let's get this straight: Hoff's times here are not bad. Let's get this straight, too: They aren't as good as many anticipated. I have a hard time blaming Hoff.  Take today's first race, for example. She set the American record in the 200 free, swam the fastest she'd ever swam in the race -- and finished fourth. Is that failure?

Probably not. But it wasn't until later in the night that many around the Water Cube began shaking their heads and really wondering. In the 200 IM, about 70 minutes later, Hoff swam well below her time at the Olympic trials and well below her time at most recent meets. Was it because doubles are too hard? Because two races in one night was too much? Because five individual events and one relay were simply more than she was ready for?

Kevin, I'm going to wait a couple of more days to pass judgment. Frankly, she should be competitive in this relay (tonight in the U.S., tomorrow morning in China) and is among the favorites in the 800 free. But the questions after today's double were fair, I think.

We were on deadline, but Phil Hersh, Mr. Olympics for the Chicago Tribune, valiantly pinch-hit for The Sun this morning and shared his tape recorder. Here's what Hoff's coach, Paul Yetter, had to say:

"I think right now she's capable of doing anything she wants. Right now, she's having a good meet, She's won two medals and set an American record. I remember when Matt Biondi was supposed to win seven golds and he got a bronze in his first race and everyone asked, 'Are you disappointed?' He said, 'Nah, I just want to win a gold medal.' You kind of have to look at it like that."

He was asked whether he's disappointed.

"Two medals is a good showing for anybody," Yetter said. "There's a lot of people walking around this pool deck with no medals. And Katie's got two medals. She's got a relay tomorrow and an 800 free coming up, which could be awesome. Part of the thing with Katie is she has a lot of chances to do well and that's one of the reasons she entered such a big program."

About the possibility of peaking too soon...

"Well, certainly if you're just trying to peak in one event, it's one thing. But she did hit her peak today in the 200 freestyle. It's the fastest she's ever gone and she did set an American record."

Upon being told that Hoff has failed to post personal highs in three of four events thus far:

"In the 200 IM, she had to take a chance and get out there. Otherwise, you risk getting drowned in waves. Sometimes when you take a chance, that's what happens. She's less than a second off her time, but she's out way faster, she's out six-tenths faster than when she set her American record. At some point, you have to take a chance to win or to medal. If that's going to be really difficult to do -- it's gonna take a tall order -- you've got to serve it up."

(Photo: Associated Press)

Does music give Phelps an unfair advantage?

To Kevin, et al.:

Subject: You probably won’t believe this

I’m going to present our guest post today without comment, and Kevin, if you feel like opining, feel free.

Dr. Alexei Koudinov is the editor of the Israel-based Doping Journal Web site. When he sees Michael Phelps race, he sees a cheater. I asked him to explain why and he shared the essay you'll find below. He titled it, "Doping by the pool invalidates Phelps Beijing 2008 Olympic swimming gold, world records."


Did you notice that Michael Phelps wears earphones and is listening music just before his every Olympic start, at Beijing’s Olympiad Water Cube pool deck, be it finals or semifinals? I first noticed that before his first gold swim on August 10: Phelps removed earphones 2 minutes before the start, and he was the only swimmer who worn earphones at the pool deck. Intriguing scientific evidence testifies: Listening to music improves blood oxygen capacity and is a performance enhancement.

There could be several mechanisms, says Stefan Koelsch of Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, in Leipzig, Germany, who has published 40 articles on the subject of how the body reacts to music. Dr. Koelsch says that "music can have influences on the breathing rate (e.g. via emotional effects such an increased arousal) which will alter oxygen levels in the blood, or relaxing effects (so that fewer muscles consume oxygen, which also increases oxygen levels)." He says that his group "has reported clear changes in breathing rate on a conference last year, with breathing rate being higher during pleasant music." In line with Koelsch conclusion are the data of the research article by Luciano Bernardi group of the University of Pavia, Italy, implying that the withdrawal of music shortly before the swim race induces relaxing effects noted by Koelsch.

Evidence comes from the research done with human infants. It showed that music causes better saturation of hemoglobin with oxygen (a so-called SPO(2) parameter, compared with control subjects receiving no music, indicating an "enhancement of oxygen transfer") and that increased by music, oxygen saturation returns to the baseline faster compared with control, making it hard to detect the transient oxygen saturation shortly thereafter. While Koelsch preferred his own explanation on how music can improve body oxygen capacity, Dr. Alexander Cherniak, a researcher at the Chuchalin Pulmonology Institute of Moscow, Russia agrees that medical experimentation with infants allows good standardization of the research protocol, appropriate statistics and could be projected onto the adults.

So what? Can one call listening to music shortly before entering the swimming pool for competition a performance enhancement? Yes, say both Koelsch and Cherniak. If so, how long could this enhancement last? "Duration [of the effect is] not certain, from seconds to minutes," adds Koelsch. Beijing Olympic and world records by Phelps fall into the expert’s projected time frame. Yes, testifies Dr. Vance Bergeron, of Ecole Normale Superieure de Lyon, Laboratoire de Physique in Lyon, France: "[M]usic next to the swimming pool, less than 2 minutes before the start could indicate performance enhancement because of transient increase of blood oxygen capacity."
Bergeron adds that such a performance enhancement is "a bio-chemical feedback mechanism from an external source. The external source in the present case, music, is available to everyone, not harmful to the athlete or his peers, and carried out under full disclosure, hence I do not see how this conflicts with fair play and honesty," but says that "I am not an expert on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)."

Well, one doesn’t have to be an expert on WADA policies, as the scientific evidence provided herein enforces all to take WADA code as is. The Prohibited List 2008 of The World Anti-Doping Code reads:

The following are prohibited:
2. Artificially enhancing the uptake, transport or delivery of oxygen…
Straightforward ruling results in a straightforward conclusion: Listening to music through earphones before the start is in line with other measures prohibited. Therefore, Phelps’ Beijing swimming golds is faked and should go to others who battle for it fairly.

Doping Journal is an independent free online publication on every aspect of doping science and antidoping policies. The journal serves an unbiased research and development of the science on doping, fair and science based transparent anti-doping laws, transparency of policies and the translation of the research into routine lab practice. Special objective is to protect athletes from the misconduct by WADA, IOC, CAS and Sports Federations. The journal aims to become a leader and worldwide forum on doping science and practices by all interested parties, scientists, medical professionals, athletes and lawyers. Alexei Koudinov and The Doping Journal have no competing financial interests.

(Photo: Associated Press)

"Two Jews and a black man help Phelps win gold"

Maese et al.,

Subject: Craziest Olympic headline ever?

You see the headline on this blog post, dude? I swear to god it's not a story from The Onion. It's the actual headline on a story about the 400-meter freestyle relay that ran in an Israeli newspaper. (Hurry up and click the link before they change it.)

My friend Scott Goldblatt -- an Olympic gold medalist turned journalist who runs (which for my money is the best swimming Web site out there) and someone who actually carried the American flag in the opening ceremony at the Maccabiah Games in 2005 -- laughed for a solid minute when I shared this with him.

It reminds me of the long-running joke that if Neil Armstrong had been from Boston, the headline the next day would have been "HUB MAN WALKS ON THE MOON."

Dear Mark Spitz: Get over it. Move on with your life

Maese et al.,

I'll get back to you in a second, because I want to take a second and address someone else who needs a few words of advice right now:

Mark Spitz.

Dear Mark: For 36 years, you've been the greatest Olympian of all time. I really believe that. It's hard to believe anyone would have ever come along with the ability to top what you did in Munich in 1972, but it's about to happen. And instead of whining about how no one has shown you enough respect, or grumbling that it would be demeaning for you to fly to Beijing on your own dime and watch Michael Phelps break your record for most gold medals in a single Olympic Games, I have a better idea what you could do with your time.

You could get over yourself.

I sort of wonder if you might be a little bit bipolar. Seriously. I sat in a news conference less than two months ago at the U.S. trials and listened to you say all the right things. You were graceful. You were respectful. You said that, after all these years, it was time. That if Phelps did break your mark, it wouldn't take away from what you accomplished.

"It's about time someone else takes on this responsibility and I am happy to pass the baton onto somebody that I'm sure I have inspired. There is nothing bad about that. It is only positive. ... He's shown a different kind of courage than I did. I was not chasing seven gold medals."

Those are your words. I scribbled them down in a notebook because I thought it was a a classy thing for you to say. It's hard for a lot of athletes to deal with it when someone better and faster comes along to wipe them from the record books, but you seemed to be at peace with it.

Now you're pouting. You want to be here in Beijing if and when Phelps blows past you like Jason Lezak blew past Alain Bernard in the 400 free relay. But you only want to do it if you can share a little bit of the spotlight.

"I never got invited," you told the Agence France-Presse. "You don't go to the Olympics just to say, I am going to go. Especially because of who I am. ... I am going to sit there and watch Michael Phelps break my record anonymously? That's almost demeaning to me. It is not almost -- it is."

You also wanted to remind people that you probably could have won more events. That you could have won eight medals if they had the 50-meter freestyle back then. (Never mind that Phelps could probably win both backstroke events if he trained for them, which he likely will in preparation for London in 2012, but whatever.) But the most ridiculous thing you said was that you weren't happy how little air time you got when Phelps had a chance to break your record the first time, four years ago in Athens.

"They did not once put my face on television," you recalled. "But as soon as the swimming was over, and Michael Phelps didn't break my record, every time I went to beach volley, they put my face on the volleyballs."

Here is the harsh truth, Mark: A lot of people in the world of swimming really want to see Phelps do this because they've grown tired of your ego over the years. Earlier this year, you took an unnecessary shot at Ian Crocker, saying he needed to stop feeling sorry for himself. You know what's funny about that? Ian Crocker can swim the 100 butterfly (50.40) faster than you swam the 100 free (51.22) in Munich. And he did that in 2005, without wearing a LZR Racer. When the USA coaches heard about your comments, they were incensed. Eddie Reese and Mark Schubert rolled their eyes and Reese looked like he wanted to bite the microphone in half. I'm pretty sure they'd like to see you fade away too.

"His time is gone," said Jon Urbanchek, an assistant coach for Team USA and one of the most respected voices in swimming. "I'm sure he can afford a ticket if he wants to be here. It would have been have nice for him to be here and witness it. I really feel he contributed a lot to swimming. But it's time to turn the reins over to somebody else. You've got to move on with life. Get a life after swimming."

Phelps tells everyone he doesn't want to be the second Mark Spitz, he wants to be the first Michael Phelps. Does that bug you? It sure seems like it. It drives you crazy that it isn't about you.

"He's almost identical to me. He's a world-record holder in all these events, so he is dominating the events just like I did. He reminds me of myself."

You had a great run. You were an inspiration, and you'll always be a legend.

But it's about to end. Handle it with grace. Everyone seems to agree that, even though it's a different era, Phelps is the better swimmer. He's more diverse, he's handling more events, and even though he has a healthy ego, he knows it's not all about him.

Phelps showed up in Beijing with a Fu Manchu that was, in some ways, an homage to you.

That's all the Mark Spitz these Olympic Games really needed.

August 12, 2008

Phelps: Thug life?

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: What does everyone’s favorite Olympian and Omar Little have in common?

I have a good question for you, Kevin. I read an interesting story in this morning’s China Daily. Guess which local Olympian this quote refers to:

The former kid from the mean streets of Baltimore was about to have a dream shattered again...

Hmm… Basketball star Carmelo Anthony, right?


It refers to Michael Phelps, of course!!!! Technically, I think he grew up on the mean streets of Rodgers Forge, which isn't technically even in Baltimore. Because the China Daily only has so much space, I thought we should figure out just how tough those mean streets are, so I consulted an expert -- your wife.

I'm not sure if you realized this Kevin, but while you're out here goofing off at the pool each day, your poor wife is back in Maryland packing up all of your belongings and moving into a new home. You might recall that you closed on this home hours before you boarded a plane for Beijing. (OK, everyone's wondering about it, so I'll just ask: What kind of man leaves his wife home to pack everything??!? Have you no shame, man?) Anyhow, your new home happens to be near where Phelps grew up. Here's the scouting report on the "mean streets" from the lovely and talented Jennifer McMenamin, who is a Baltimore County native and now covers that area for The Sun. She totally used the word 'persnickety' in her explanation:

Nicknamed the Forge, the venerable neighborhood near Towson was carefully laid out in 1928 by a Baltimore developer intent on building a better rowhouse. The 1,777 two- and three-story red brick row houses follow the gentle curve of the streets, many of which are tree-lined. It's known as a place at Halloween where trick-or-treaters are guaranteed a big haul -- and where residents need to load up on candy for kids that flock there even from outside the neighborhood each October. The neighborhood is full of families and there are almost always parents pushing children in strollers along the narrow sidewalks and kids running through front yards.

Sooo, not so mean.

In fact, the only time I think people even become mean in Rodgers Forge is when they can't find a parking space (it can be pretty tight, especially on the few occasions when Baltimore gets more than a quarter inch of snow) or when someone violates the strictly enforced architectural standards of the community. Neighborhood residents can get quite persnickety about those standards. They dictate everything from the community association's view on front yard fences (they are not allowed) and exterior paint colors (any hue other than white must be submitted for approval for a home's trim and shutters) to patios (they must be brick or masonry, even with the ground and in the rear yard only) and lawn ornaments (don't even think about it). And the community association doesn't hesitate to take a wayward homeowner to court over a violation.

No reason for Hoff to feel disappointment

To Kevin, et al.:

Subject: A world of expectations

When you’re eating, drinking and sleeping the Olympics for three weeks straight, it’s easy to get caught up in this Olympics bubble. Sometimes you lose track of what the outside world might be thinking. So I wonder what fans – the casual and the serious – make of Katie Hoff thus far. More to the point, I wonder if two medals – neither gold – is enough for people.

Yesterday an Australian reporter asked Jack Bauerle, the women’s coach, whether Hoff has taken on too much at these Games? The implication was clear: A silver and a bronze equal failure on some level. Here’s how Bauerle responded:

"No, I don’t think so at all. I really don’t. She’s a terrifically conditioned athlete. There might be, on the outside, she might look disappointed, but she has her head up high right now and she’s a tough, tough kid. The Olympic format, it’s not easy obviously. Every time she’s been beaten, it’s been by a great swim."

I understand the idea that second place might be considered the first loser, and obviously everybody aims for gold. But I’m not certain I’d shed tears over silver. Michael Phelps was expected to dominate his competition; based on her times, Hoff was merely expected to among the top finishers in several events. Which is exactly what she’s doing.

The whole thing reminds of something DJ Gallo wrote for ESPN’s Page 2 last week. In noting that Phelps’ final race – the 400 medley relay -- is this weekend, Gallo joked:

Will this be Phelps' chance for his eighth gold medal of the 2008 Games? Or just an anticlimactic finish to a four- or five-gold haul? If it's the latter, I think we can agree that loser better never dare set foot on American soil again.

Anyway, we’re just a few hours away from Hoff’s biggest morning of swimming (or night for our friends back home). She has the 200 free (at 10:13) and the 200 IM (at 11:12). It's an absolutely grueling schedule. She could medal in both.

But she shouldn't be blamed if neither happens to be gold.

(Photo: Getty)

Phelps by the numbers

To Kevin, et al.:

Subject: In case you forgot ...

Who needs Wikipedia when you have this handy-dandy blog. Kevin, feel free to use the following information in your articles these next few days. Be sure to credit me as the source. (OK, technically, I got this from the USOC. So maybe credit us both.)

Olympic Performances
8  Medals (6-0-2)
100-meter Butterfly, Gold
200-meter Butterfly, Gold
200-meter Freestyle, Bronze
200-meter Individual Medley, Gold
400-meter Individual Medley, Gold
4x100-meter Freestyle Relay, Bronze
4x200-meter Freestyle Relay, Gold
4x100-meter Medley Relay, Gold

2008 (through 3 Events)
3 Medals (3-0-0)
400-meter Individual Medley, Gold
4 x 100-meter Freestyle Relay, Gold
200-meter Freestyle, Gold


12 Jenny Thompson 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 Swimming 8-3-1
11, Mark Spitz, 1968, 1972, Swimming, 9-1-1
11, Matt Biondi, 1984, 1988, 1992, Swimming, 8-2-1
11 Carl Osburn 1912, 1920, 1924 Shooting 5-4-2
11, Michael Phelps, 2004, 2008, Swimming, 9-0-2
10 Gary Hall, Jr. 1996, 2000, 2004 Swimming 5-3-2
10 Carl Lewis 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 Track & Field 9-1-0
10 Dara Torres 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 Swimming 4-2-4

No. Name Year(s) Sport G-S-B
9 Mark Spitz 1968, 1972 Swimming 9-1-1
9 Carl Lewis 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 Track & Field 9-1-0
9 Michael Phelps 2004 Swimming 9-0-2
8 Ray Ewry 1900, 1904, 1908 Track & Field 8-0-0
8 Jenny Thompson 1992, 1996, 2000 Swimming 8-3-16
8 Matt Biondi 1984, 1988, 1992 Swimming 8-2-1
6 Amy Van Dyken 1996, 2000 Swimming 6-0-0

No. Name, Country Year(s) Sport G-S-B
15 Nikolai Andrianov, USSR 1972, 1976, 1980 Gymnastics 7-5-3
13 Boris Shakhlin, USSR 1956, 1960, 1964 Gymnastics 7-4-2
13 Edoardo Mangiarotti, ITA 1936, 1948, 1952, 1956, Fencing 7-4-2
1960, 1964
13 Takashi Ono, JPN 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964 Gymnastics 5-4-4
12 Paavo Nurmi, FIN 1920, 1924, 1928 Track & Field 9-3-0
12 Sawao Kato, JPN 1968, 1972, 1976 Gymnastics 8-3-1
12 Alexei Nemov, RUS 1996, 2000 Gymnastics 4-2-6
11 Mark Spitz, USA 1968, 1972 Swimming 9-1-1
11 Matt Biondi, USA 1984, 1988, 1992 Swimming 8-2-1
11 Viktor Chukarin, USSR 1952, 1956 Gymnastics 7-3-1
11, Michael Phelps, USA, 2004, 2008, Swimming, 9-0-2

No. Name Year(s) Sport G-S-B
9 Paavo Nurmi, FIN 1920, 1924, 1928 Track & Field 9-3-0
9 Mark Spitz, USA 1968, 1972 Swimming 9-1-1
9 Carl Lewis, USA 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 Track & Field 9-1-0
9 Michael Phelps, USA, 2004, 2008, Swimming, 9-0-2
8 Sawao Kato, JPN 1968, 1972, 1976 Gymnastics 8-3-1
8 Matt Biondi 1984, 1988, 1992 Swimming 8-2-1
7 Nikolai Andrianov, USSR 1972, 1976, 1980 Gymnastics 7-5-3
7 Boris Shakhlin, USSR 1956, 1960, 1964 Gymnastics 7-4-2
7 Viktor Chukarin, USSR 1952, 1956 Gymnastics 7-3-1
7 Aladar Gerevich, HUN 1932, 1936, 1948, 1952, Fencing 7-1-2
1956, 1960

No. Name, Country Year Sport G-S-B
8 Michael Phelps, USA 2004 Swimming 6-0-2
8 Aleksandr Dityatin, USSR 1980 Gymnastics 3-4-1
7 Mark Spitz, USA 1972 Swimming 7-0-0
7 Willis Lee, USA 1920 Shooting 5-1-1
7 Matt Biondi, USA 1988 Swimming 5-1-1
7 Boris Shakhlin, USSR 1960 Gymnastics 4-2-1
7 Lloyd Spooner, USA 1920 Shooting 4-1-2
7 Maria Gorokhovskaya, USSR 1952 Gymnastics 2-5-0
7 Mikhail Voronin, USSR 1968 Gymnastics 2-4-1

What about Bob?

To Kevin, et al.:

Subject: First mention of the word 'shuttlecock' on the blog

Let me begin by pointing out how awesome the headline atop this post is. You probably don't know it's awesome yet, because you don't know what this post is about, but trust me. Or just keep reading.

I'm glad that I'm here to remind you, Kevin, that there are Maryland athletes competing in these Olympics not named Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff. You're very fortunate you have me as a lifeline to the outside world. Well, it's time for me to tell you about Bob.

The US badminton team spanked South Africa and advanced for the first time to the Olympic quarterfinals. The team consists of Howard Bach and Bob Malaythong, of Rockville. Technically, Malaythong is not a Bob. He was born Khankham, but I think Bob suits him. Born in Laos, he moved to Maryland when he was a child.

Anyhow, this afternoon (or for those in the States, in the wee hours of night), Bob and Bach will face off against China in the quarters. The sport is huge here and playing the host country should create an electric environment, better even than the China-U.S. basketball game from earlier in the week. And you just know that Bob will feed off that energy.

"Bob plays better when people are going against him," Bach told reporters after the win over South Africa.

Kevin, I suspect you've seen Bob before, even if you don't recall. He's featured in a commercial for Vitaminwater. You know the one: David Ortiz and Brian Urlacher are playing badminton against a couple of Chinese players, when Ortiz smacks the shuttlecock so hard, it gets lodged in Bob's leg. I laugh every time! Here, check it out.

Phelps, the Ravens and a special gift

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: You think Michael can play QB?

It feels like years, but a couple of weeks ago I wrote a column about Michael Phelps moving back to Baltimore after these Olympics. I had a small line toward the end of the column, mentioning how Phelps hopes to nab Ravens tickets when he returns home.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti took note of the line, and I was asked how he could get in touch with Phelps. I happened to see his mother, Debbie, that evening at an Olympics rally in Towson and asked if she wouldn't mind if I passed along her phone number. She didn't, so I did. And the Ravens got in touch with her before she left for Beijing. They also gave her a pretty cool gift for Phelps.

According to the Ravens' top spokesman, Kevin Byrne, Bisciotti asked Debbie if they could do anything for Phelps. She said he'd love to have something from the team with him in Beijing. The Ravens wasted no time, sewing "PHELPS" on the back of a No. 08 Ravens jersey and getting the entire team to sign it. Before you know it, the jersey was on a plane bound for China.

As if Phelps wasn’t excited enough after the huge relay win here in Beijing, his sister tossed him a bag from her seat in the stands. Inside was the jersey.

Phelps didn't appear at the post-race news conference, but he told told NBC that he was "pumped."

"I just remember after I got my medal, I walked back to the ready room where we were sitting, and everyone said, 'Let me see, let me see,' and I held up the jersey," Phelps said. "They're like, 'No, no, the medal.' I was like, 'Well, I'm excited about the jersey.’"

Pretty cool little story, no? It will be interesting if come next fall, we see Phelps every Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. He could be the team's most visible and famous fan.

I wouldn't harbor any fantasies about him playing quarterback, though. His long limbs and oversized hands and feet make him a great swimmer, but he's not so smooth on land. Then again, how many Ravens QBs are?

(Photo: 2004, Elizabeth Malby / Baltimore Sun)

Do the Chinese love Phelps?

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Our mad video skillz

As promised, here's the video we shot the other day at the Great Wall of China. All in all, I was pretty impressed that so many were familiar with Michael Phelps. If you drive around town, you see plenty of billboards featuring NBA stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. And I think it's been pretty well established that Kobe could run for political office here and win in a landslide (I've spent three hours searching online but can't quite figure out their next election date here... weird).

They're aware of Phelps existence. He is known and respected, but perhaps not fully understood. I guess you could say he's a bit like string theory -- you know it, but you don't really know it.

August 11, 2008

Updated fantasy standings

To Kevin, et al

Subject: Swimming odds and ends

Seriously, my friend, we must have a chat. Sitting next to each other at the Water Cube each day seems to have given you a false sense of closeness. I'm going to have to kindly ask you, Kevin, to stop following me around with a camera. At the very least, in the future, please wait until I put my shirt on.

I want to update you on the standings for the Official Baltimore Sun and 2008 Beijing Olympics Swimming Pool Pool. (Complete rosters found at the link.) I don't think you're going to happy.

A quick reminder, Kevin, I have Michael Phelps on my squad. I've given this a lot of thought, and I'm pretty sure that choosing Phelps was simply move of a genius. Frankly, I'm not sure you've been giving me my full due for selecting Phelps. (Incidentally, not sure if this hit the wires or not, but Phelps was named team captain for Maese's Magical Merpeople; it's a great honor and he's very deserving.)

At any rate, led by Phelps and his two gold medals, Maese's Magical Merpeople are kicking some serious tail, Kevin. Phelps has provided me 10 points already. In the dramatic 400 free relay, we each picked up 10 points. And with her bronze and silver medals, Katie Hoff, has brought you four points through two races. She has four remaining.

After two days of competition, here's how the standings look:

Maese's Magical Merpeople: 18

KVV's Chlorine Junkies: 17

When you consider that we're watching races that are decided by a just a few hundredths of a second, I gotta think that leading you by a full point is GIGANTIC. I can't speak for our readers, Kevin, but even though you're getting owned in the the Official Baltimore Sun and 2008 Beijing Olympics Swimming Pool Pool thus far, I will not question your swimming expertise.

We still need to figure what's at stake here.

(Photo: Associated Press)

Has anyone seen Melo's shot?

To Kevin, et al

Subject: How does one get out of a funk?

Swimming, a team sport? I can buy that. Oddly, though, do we still regard basketball as a team sport or individual competition?

This is going to come as a complete surprise to you since you're camped out at the Water Cube 24-7 (seriously, are the Chinese volunteers there just regarding you as a piece of furniture at the Cube or what?), but there are actually other sports taking place here. Last night, in men's basketball, it was USA vs. China. Just to witness that game and soak in the atmosphere... I wasn't gonna miss it, Kevin.

By now you know that Team USA won the game, 101-70, and they still look poised for gold here. But what's up with Carmelo Anthony? He finished with 3 points and was 0-for-3 from the field. If you think back to the U.S. team's final exhibition game, Melo is now just 4-for-16 in the past two games. And he's missed all six 3-point attempts in those two contests.

Kevin, you're never going to guess the problem? After the game, he confided: "Maybe I've never been this open before.''

Huh? He can't make shots because he's too open. Do you follow that? That's like saying you can't get a girlfriend because there are too many girls who want you. (I've never said this, for the record.) 

His plan to snap out of it: Just keep on shooting, he says.

There's a lot of basketball to played, but Team USA coaches would probably like their chances better if Melo could find his shooting stroke. For his sake, I hope the remaining opponents start guarding him and stop making him shoot those open shots.

Team USA is back on the court tomorrow (or today, depending on which country you're in) against Angola.

Photo: Associated Press

Why it's more fun to watch Michael Phelps in team events than individual ones

To Rick et al.

Subject: Watching Phelps play well with others 

My head is still spinning from what we've just watched. I'll admit, I thought when Alain Bernard and Jason Lezak turned for home today that the Americans were toast. A lot of people were joking that France choked, because it's always funny to make jokes about the French choking, but what Lezak did was one of the most impressive things I've ever seen in my career. And no one was more excited than Michael Phelps, not because he wants to win eight gold medals, but because he loves being a member of a TEAM. And that's what makes the Olympic 400-meter freestyle relay one of my favorite events in all of sports. 

I love watching Phelps compete in team events because he knows it's not about him. It's about his country. He's just one of four guys trying to work together, and I don't care what anyone says, that's more satisfying than dominating the 400-meter individual medley or winning the 100-meter butterfly. You would never see Michael go nuts the way he did today after an individual event. It would be completely inappropriate, and he knows it. But when he gets to be a part of something larger than himself -- and keep in mind, that doesn't happen often -- he loves it more than anything in the world.

Because Phelps' quest is such a compelling story, Maese, I think a lot of members of the media (and I'm not letting myself off the hook here either) seem to think every American swimmer should be as invested in his story as we are. And it doesn't work that way. In the news conference tonight, a lot of questions were thrown at Lezak, Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones that suggested a similar theme: Did you feel motivated to do this for Michael?

I find that a little ridiculous, frankly. Weber-Gale, Jones and Lezak all have dreams, just like you and I, and they've probably been imagining a moment like this for their entire lives. Phelps wasn't some larger driving force motivating the United States to swim fast because eight gold medals would be a historic feat. What was motivating those four guys to go fast was pride. Pride of country and team.

Did Michael Phelps thank you guys? asked one journalist in the post-race news conference.

"We did that together," Weber-Gale said. "I don't think that's needed. We wanted one of these too."

Should he give you a piece of his $1 million bonus if he wins eight? asked another. 

"Michael knows we didn't do that for him," Lezak said. "He was a part of it, and we were a part of it. Whether he wins eight gold medals or not, it wasn't going to be our responsibility for that to happen. We all gave it our best effort. So if we did come up short, he's not going be looked upon as the guy who was on a relay that lost. Or that he could have been the guy who won eight gold medals. He's an amazing athlete, probably the best ever in this sport. Regardless of what happened here, he's still going to go down like that."

I loved those answers, and I wish more people would understand that the beauty of the relays is that Phelps is just one part of the equation. For three minutes, it's not about him. It's about, if you can pardon the pun -- "US." It's about the United States winning the gold medal in an event the country wants to win above all others. Jason Lezak was swimming for Michael Phelps over that final 100 meters, and Phelps was swimming for Lezak over the first 100 meters. They were all swimming for one another. That's why they were so emotional.

It will be a cool moment if, like you said, Phelps gets it done this week. I don't think there is another swimmer in the world that can match him stroke for stroke, wall for wall, right now. But if he does do it, I'll always remember today's relay, in the 30 seconds after Lezak touched the wall, when he was just an American swimmer in awe of how much fun it is to work together, kick butt and take names.


PHOTOS: Phelps/AP; Group hug/Getty Images 

He's going to do it

To: Kevin, et al.

Subject: How Phelps will make history

I'm changing the language. It's no longer Michael Phelps' quest. It's not a chase. It's not a dream, and it's not simply a goal either. Eight gold medals at the Olympics? Let's just start calling it what it is: Phelps' destiny.

I'd have to think long and hard to come up with another sporting event that I watched live that matched this relay performance. It was incredible. And while so much of the praise and accolades are deservingly showered on Jason Lezak, who swam an incredible anchor leg, we should probably step back and try to understand what it means in the bigger picture. Well, I tell you what it means: Phelps is going to do it; he's going to leave here with eight gold medals. In fact, it's almost entirely in Phelps' hands now.

I was hesitant to make such a declaration until the 400-meter freestyle relay. You'll recall that four years ago, the same relay is precisely where his 2004 bid for eight golds died. In fact, midway through today's race, I couldn't help but notice the similarities to Athens: Phelps begins the Olympics by breaking a world record in the 400 IM and then, in just the second day of competition, the air gets let out of the sail when the relay team falters.

It looked like deja vu through 300 meters of the relay. And through 350 meters. And through 375 meters. (Phelps' swam the first leg of the race and had the Americans in second place through 100.) Fortunately for Phelps, he had incredible teammates on his side. And fortunately for the Americans, the French are choking dogs. And fortunately for Lezak, he was prepared for the race of his life. Lezak smelled blood in the water and hunted down world record-holder Alain Bernard, giving the Americans a remarkable and unforgettable win. (It also produced some of the coolest post-race photos that Phelps has ever taken; in fact, Kevin, if you look closely at the pic above, it might look familiar. This is the exact face I make whenever I make deadline.)

After Phelps' record-setting win in the 400 IM one night earlier, it was clear that his chances at eight golds likely hinged on the 400 free relay. Don't expect him to find any challenger that pushes him in the individual events quite like this French relay team, a smack-talking, funny-pants-wearing 398-good-meters-swimming bunch.

You don't want to take for granted swimmers like Ian Crocker (100 fly) or Ryan Lochte (200 IM), but consider those races Phelps' to lose. (Crocker hasn't beat Phelps in a big meet since 2005 and Lochte seems doomed to always finish a fingernail behind Phelps; it doesn't help that Lochte has a second race on Friday to worry about.) And though the Americans were slight underdogs in this first relay, the two remaining relays shouldn't be nearly as difficult.

At the news conference following the race (which Phelps did not attend), reporters asked Cullen Jones, Garrett Weber-Gale and Lezak in a variety of ways how grateful Phelps must be that they came through for him, that their performance preserved his '08 chase for eight.

"We didn't do this for him," Lezak said. "He was just a part of it. And we're a part of it. It's just, whether he wins eight gold medals or not, it wasn't going to be our responsibility for that to happen."

Asked if Phelps gave his teammates plenty of thanks, Weber-Gale said, "There's none needed."

While Phelps himself didn't blow anyone out of the water in either of his races today (he finished fourth in the prelims for the 200 free, though he was likely conserving energy for the relay), there's just a certain energy around him at the pool right now. An undeniable sense of destiny and fate.

In fact, it feels like Phelps has already won eight gold medals, and if some other swimmer at these Games wants one, they're going to have to take it from him.

(Photo: Waly Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

August 10, 2008

League of gentlemen

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Well, it's not a 'fantasy' exactly 

While friends back home are studying grocery store magazines, analyzing Internet tip sheets and stocking up on cheap beer for their fantasy football drafts, I can't help but feel a little left out. So I'm glad that earlier today, prior to Michael Phelps setting the Olympic pool on fire and Katie Hoff winning her first Olympic medal, we were able to conduct the official draft for the Official Baltimore Sun and 2008 Beijing Olympics Swimming Pool Pool.

The rules are simple. We each draft a team of American swimmers competing at the Olympics. A gold medal earns 5 points, a silver 3 and a bronze 1. Because there's one guy in the field who frankly belongs in his own swimming pool, the draftee who earns the second pick will then sit out the second round. So, one of us gets Phelps and the other gets two consecutive picks. Also, as an added bonus, we have a special Foreigner Round. There was much discussion about this, and as true Americans and patriots, we couldn't justify awarding full points to the international swimmers. So we can each select three swimmers from other countries. For these swimmers, a gold is good for 2 points and a silver 1.

We'll still have to work out what exactly is at stake here, but we'll come up with something good. (Of course, this is all in clean fun.)

We didn't have a coin -- apparently they do not exist in China -- but I won the draw. (Which likely means I've already won the fantasy league.)

For your records, Kevin, here are the results of our draft. I'll post updated standings later. I'd wish you luck, but it doesn't really matter. I'm riding Phelps all the way to the top of the Official Baltimore Sun and 2008 Beijing Olympics Swimming Pool Pool.

Maese’s Magical Sea of Merpeople

1. Michael Phelps, 200 IM, 400 IM, 200 free, 100 fly, 200 fly, 4x100 free relay, 4x100 medley relay 4x200 free relay

4. Peter Vanderkaay, 200 free, 400 free, 1,500 free, 4x200 free relay

6. Elizabeth Beisel, 200 back, 400 IM

8. Dara Torres, 4x100 free relay, 100 free

10. Garrett Weber-Gale, 50 free, 100 free, 4x100 free

12. Kate Ziegler, 400 free, 800 free

15. Margaret Hoelzer, 100 back, 200 back


Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe

Alain Bernard, France

Earmon Sullivan, Australia

KVV’s Chlorine Junkies

2. Katie Hoff, 200 IM, 400 IM, 200 free, 400 free, 800 free, 4x200 free relay

3. Natalie Coughlin, 100 back, 200 IM, 100 free, 4x100 free relay

5. Ryan Lochte, 200 IM, 400 IM, 200 back, 4x200 free relay

7. Aaron Peirsol, 100 back, 200 back

9. Jason Lezak, 100 free, 4x100 free relay

11. Ian Crocker, 100 butterfly

13. Brendan Hansen, 100 breast

15. Ben Wildman-Tobriner, 50 free, 4x100 free relay


Libby Trickett, Australia

Leisel Jones, Australia

Grant Hackett, Australia

It's a shame George W. Bush isn't the president of Awesome instead


Maese et al.,

Subject: Michael Phelps is kicking Speedos and taking names, son!

Sorry dude, but I am going to talk about politics a little. And you're going to listen. Is it just me, or does President Bush become 10 times more lovable when he's clowning around with athletes? These Olympic might turn out to be one of the best parts of his legacy. First, he shows up at the pool today waving an American flag, giving Michael Phelps the thumbs up, and acting, in general, like everyone's lovable uncle. Then he heads down to the beach volleyball venue and contemplates, if only for a moment, taking up Misty May-Treanor on an offer to slap her on the butt. As Will Ferrell might say if this were a Saturday Night Live skit, "Presidenting is cool!"

I wish, after his second term ends, we could name Bush the President of All Sports, and it could be his job to travel the world and goof around with various athletes of all nations. It could be like Jock Diplomacy. He could play cricket in Pakistan and snooker in England, and no one could possibly be upset. Bush, the politician, I'd probably give mixed reviews. But Bush the Wacky Sports Fan? I can't get enough of that guy. I want to see him courtside at the basketball games this week, doing flying chest bumps with Kobe Bryant after long 3-pointers. I want him doing the wave at water polo, and nudging the guy sitting next to him as cracking jokes like, "Where are all the horses, dude? I thought this was polo!" and "You know who would be hard to waterboard? That Michael Phelps! He's like a fish, ain't he?"

Seeing Bush at the pool today also reminded me of the funny item in the New York Post a few years ago, when Phelps allegedly tried to score Jenna Bush's phone number and got shot down by her publicist. If Jenna had seen Phelps swim yesterday -- and if she hadn't already gotten married, I suppose -- maybe she would have reconsidered. (Her sister, Barbara, was in the house, however, and I've always thought she was the cuter twin anyway. What do you say, Mike?)

Anyway, holy cow, did Phelps look good. I'm not a big fan of sportswriters making predictions, but after seeing him smash the world record in the 400 IM today, I'd say eight gold medals isn't just a possibility, it's a probability. The biggest roadblock is likely going to be the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay, where the French have already declared themselves the team to beat.

"The Americans? We're going to smash them," Alan Bernard said earlier this week.

It's always so cute when the French try to talk trash, since they're so often sitting around and musing about life instead of actually living it. It reminds me a lot of the Sydney Olympics, when Gary Hall Jr., said in his opinion, the Americans were going to smash the Aussies like guitars in the 4 x 100 free relay, and when the Aussies won, they played air guitar on the medal podium. If Phelps and Co., made Bernard and his boys flake apart like cheap pastry, it's going to be an interesting celebration to say the least.

Phelps made an interesting admission in his press conference: This might have been his last 400 IM. Ever. He told Bowman he wanted to be done with the race, and Bowman said if that was the case, he had to set a world record. Phelps broke his old mark by nearly two seconds.

"He said (after the race) 'We'll have to talk,' " Phelps said. "I was like 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, you said if I break the record, that was the last one.' Hopefully that's the case. I would like to not swim that anymore. I'd like to try some new races in the coming years and be able to have a different approach. We'll see. But in my opinion, that was my last one."

I'm going to make a bold statement based on little more than my own intuition, Maese: I think Phelps is going to try and win the 100-meter freestyle in London in 2012. And possibly the backstroke events. Maybe even the 400-meter freestyle. If he could put together a completely different program, and win six or seven gold medals, wouldn't that pretty much cement him as one of the greatest athletes of all time? In swimming, being one of the best in the world at varying distances is akin to being the best pitcher and best hitter in baseball, something only Babe Ruth could really say. (What a minute! They're both from Baltimore! I smell a chart in our future!)

Whatever happens, that 400 IM was amazing. Supposedly Ryan Lochte has been suffering from some kind of illness the last few days, according to the Dayton Beach News-Journal. But I think Phelps beats a healthy Lochte anyway today. He just had that look in his eye that he was going to destroy anyone in his path. It was fun to watch.

By the way, I know we're supposed to hate her an all because she beat Katie Hoff and took her world record, but Australia's Stephanie Rice is like the Megan Fox of swimmers. Obviously, Fox is much hotter, but Rice just has that swagger the some good-looking women like Fox have and you can't help but love it. It's like she knows she's hot, she knows that the world thinks she's hot and she's not shy about admitting she loves the attention. She even got in a little hot water in Australia recently for partying hard (posing with a stripper pole!) and posting pictures of it on Facebook.

On second thought, forget the Bush twins.

Rice is who Phelps should be chasing, especially since she recently broke up with her boyfriend, Australian swimmer Eamon Sullivan. It was such a big deal Down Under that newspapers treated it like Brad and Jen  when they got divorced. Shows you how seriously they take their swimming in land of wallabies and koala bears.

Gotta run. The smell of chlorine is making my woozy, but it's back to the pool for another session.   


Photos -- Phelps and Bush: Getty Images; Stephanie Rice: Facebook. 



Presidential privilege

To Kevin, et al:

Subject: What happens in Beijing, stays in Beijing

I am fully aware of how riled up some readers get when we allow talk of politics to seep into our sports coverage, so in sharing this photo with you, I am not going to get into a political discussion. No matter how hard you try, Kevin.

In addition, I am not going to tell you how ridiculous this photo is. And I am not going to note that this is the leader of the free world. And that of all the Americans in China right now, we shouldn't have to worry about how this particular one is representing us. And I also will try not to wonder aloud what Matt Treanor must be thinking. Nor will I ask if this is how Cabinet meetings begin. And I'll try not to suggest that a Bush-Edwards ticket could've set our country back a full century.

I won't get into it, Kevin. So don't even ask me.

(AP photo)

August 9, 2008

Out of control?

To Kevin, et al.,

There's a man who stands outside the restroom here at the Media Center.  I know you've seen him. It's the same guy every day, and he stands there without fail. He says hello when you go in, and wishes you a good day when you go out. (I keep thinking that this poor guy applied to be a volunteer because he wanted to be a part of the Olympics... how could he know that his part would be to monitor the bathroom activities of the press?) I'm not trying to drag this blog into a bout of potty humor, Kevin. But I don't think that man is stationed outside the bathroom as a simple courtesy. It's about control. It's about having someone stationed within 12 inches of every human being at these Olympics.

As the Chinese learned today, it doesn't matter how much planning you do, it doesn't matter how many billions of dollars you throw at the Games and it doesn't matter how many people call China home. You cannot control everything.

Certainly, what happened earlier today at the Drum Tower was a travesty. It's unfortunate, it's heart-breaking and you can take whatever message from it that you'd like. But here's what I take away: Things are going to happen that are beyond anyone's control. An earthquake is going to strike. A madman is going to strike. Something is going to happen, no matter how hard you plan. I alluded to this in my previous post, but I was bothered -- or perhaps I should say I was offended -- that in Dujiangyan, a city official would try to usher me to a bright, shiny tourist destination and even suggest that many people were better off after the earthquake than before. The message was clear: If it's said aloud, it must be true. But it's not.

Shame was not brought on China today by a man with a knife. We should not think less of a nation because of a single act by a single person. He's one man among a billion. You can't plan for everyone's actions. The unfortunate stabbing does not reflect on China as a nation, just as the victims do not reflect on the United States. It's random. The world, at times, is random. Sometimes that's beautiful. Sometimes it causes great pain.

But you can't control it. No matter how hard you try.

I mentioned in my last post that I was excited that we could finally focus on actual competition at these Games. Today, Kevin, we watched the first bit of swimming from the Water Cube and it felt good. For a couple of hours, we were talking about swim times and records and wondering whether Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff were just one night of sleep away from gold medals. Why aren't we doing this more often? The Olympics have grown into a shape-shifting symbol -- whatever message needs a carrier, it seems.

But sometimes, it's fruitless to assign meaning. Todd Bachman's death was as sad as it was senseless. But it was something that I'm not sure anyone could have controlled.

Is Beijing as safe as we thought it was?

Maese et al.,

It might be unfair to judge a city of 18 million people based on one random, horrific incident, but I think everyone is a little freaked out right now after learning that Todd Bachman, the father-in-law of men's indoor volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, was stabbed to death in what appears to be a random attack while visiting the Drum Tower. I don't feel any safer knowing that the assailant jumped to his death either. I just feel angry. Supposedly, the Bachman's weren't wearing any apparel that would have identified them as members of the United States delegation, but that's going to be of little comfort to the families of American athletes.

"We're worried more about the families than the athletes," said Eddie Reese, the men's head coach for USA Swimming. "The athletes are not going out of the village anyway. I've talked to three or four families already. They did not voice any concerns to me, but that doesn't mean they don't have them."

I suppose it's naive to feel this way, but it's easy to feel safe in Beijing. Maybe it's because there is some kind of military presence everywhere you look, and maybe it helps that gun ownership is illegal for Chinese citizens, but you definitely feel safe walking around the streets. I wonder if the families of U.S. athletes are going to feel afraid when they're out in the city, and unable to enjoy these Olympics.

Can you even imagine going to the Olympics as a tourist and getting stabbed in some random act by a crazy person? It's just insane. You just hope they weren't targeted by someone hoping to make a political statement.

It sort of makes everything that happened at the pool tonight seem irrelevant. Michael Phelps broke an Olympic record in the preliminary heat of the 400-meter individual medley, and Katie Hoff swam well, hopefully putting to rest the ghosts of 2004 in that event. But my mind just kept drifting back to the volleyball team. How do they compete knowing their coach and his wife are going through hell?

You know the Chinese government has to be extremely embarrassed after this. Are we going to see a major security crackdown over the next few weeks? Is there a chance this incident could affect the rest of the Games?  

Celebration and distraction

To: Kevin, et al.

Subject: Changing datelines

Wait, the opening ceremony was last night? Geez, Kevin, I leave Beijing for 24 hours and I miss everything. Thanks for the recap. The best part of the weekend is that actual competition will actually take place, so we can dig into some of the events and finally discuss reasonable expectations. But first…

I know there’s generally more interesting topics than reading about how the sausage gets made, but here’s a brief recap of what went into today’s story on watching the opening ceremony from the Sichuan province, the area ravaged by an earthquake in May.

The story involved a 2 ½ hour flight from Beijing to Chengdu (which involved an intense pat-down search at the airport… seriously, I probably should’ve brought one dollar bills for tips). We were picked up at the Chengdu airport – "we" includes Steve Politi and Chris Faytok of the Newark Star-Ledger – by our hired driver and translator. Our first stop was addressing my biggest fear.

Media are not free to roam China, and we were concerned we would not be permitted access to areas most affected by the earthquake. We were thankfully credentialed, though, by the region’s foreign press office and hit the road for an hour-long drive west to Dujiangyan. You can find description in the article or peep the photos in this post, but the best comparison I can make is this: The city reminded me very much of what New Orleans looked like immediately following Hurricane Katrina. Which is not a good thing.

One of our first stops in town was a refugee camp, which wouldn’t let us in, despite our credentials. We were told we must be granted permission specifically in each town, so it was off to another foreign press office. We eventually got the OK but were assigned a special helper who’d follow us. She discouraged us from visiting areas affected by the earthquake and wouldn’t tell us the exact location of a school that collapsed (too "sensitive," she said.) She did, however, suggest we visit Dujiangyan’s ancient irrigation system. When she did speak about the earthquake, she had more spin than a Roger Federer backhand. "Actually many people are better off now than they were before," she told me at one point, as we toured a makeshift camp that housed 7,000 people and was amazingly constructed in only five days.

With her breathing down my neck, I was worried local residents wouldn’t freely talk about the Olympics and the earthquake. A premise I took into the assignment: Would people in the region be upset that China has shoveled $40 billion into these Olympics while cities and towns in Sichuan lie in ruins?

Politi, my fellow scribe, and I devised a plan: We would split up. One of us would take the city official and suffer through sugar-coated interviews, and the other would take our hired translator and dig up the truth. Turns out, we came away with similar reports. Not a single person expressed disgust or frustration with the Games. In fact, I’m not sure I’d ever felt so much excitement surrounding a sporting event – and we were hundreds of miles away from Beijing. More than one person openly praised the Communist Party for all they’ve done for the area since the Olympics, and more than one expressed great gratitude in the Games. "This will bring China much good luck," one refugee told me.

One odd moment: One refugee asked me to make sure I passed along his thanks to George W. Bush. The refugees know that donations and relief has come from all over the world, including the U.S. I’m not sure Bush coordinated all of the efforts -- and I'm not sure he's a regular reader of this blog -- but I do feel it’s my duty: Hey Dubya, Liang Zheng Zhong says thanks for the cash.

One other interesting thing: I have much fun smiling and shouting "Ni hao" to everyone I pass. (Ni hao means hello, Kevin. You should probably memorize that.) Every child I pass, though, smiles and quickly responds, "Hello!" with a smile bigger than mine. School children are taught English and it occurred to me in this region, I might have represented the first chance many had to practice their English. This was confirmed when on two different occasions, I was greeted with: "Good morning, school teacher."

All in all, the visit was depressing, eye-opening and inspiring. I do have one guilty admission: After spending all day visiting locals who’d lost their homes and who had so little, we left the area and retired to our five-star hotel in Chengdu to compose our articles (don’t worry, Boss, got a great deal on Expedia). I wrote the piece wearing a fluffy robe, cozy slippers and sipping hot tea. Before you judge me, rest assured I did my part. There was a donation box in the lobby. I’m not sure how much I put in there, though. Money here is colored similar to what you’d find in Monopoly game set. So I might have donated $1,000 to the relief efforts or merely given the people of Sichuan a handful of Community Chest cards.

To read more, or see photos much better than what I’ve shared here, pay a visit to the Star-Ledger’s Web site

OK, Kevin, we’re both in Beijing, and there’s actual competition going on. I’m suffering from sleep deprivation so maybe you can make this simple: What should I expect these next couple of weeks?

Opening ceremony, open borders, and open containers

Maese et al.,

Subject: 8/8/08 baby!

Since you're still a little groggy from your trip to Dujianyan to write about Sichuan earthquake victims, I'll go ahead and blog again, much to the chagrin of commenter Jon G, who thinks I'm boring. (I break wind in your general direction, sir!) The opening ceremony last night was wild, maybe one of the most impressive in Olympic history, although I'd be remiss if I didn't admit it was somewhat scary too. It's always weird to see cute singing children contrasted with a country subtly showing off its military might. China had lots of both to kick things off. Lot of drum pounding, young Chinese men marching in unison looking menacing, and stuff blowing up in the background. My friend Scott Goldblatt of Swimnetwork actually though the city was under siege, getting bombarded with artillery fire back at his hotel. It was an opening ceremony that felt like Darth Vadar had been asked to collaborate with the producers from Yo Gabba Gabba. Crazy.

I watched most of it with beer in hand, which, I must add, is surprisingly good here, and it's nice to be able to walk around drinking beer without fear of getting a ticket. I was kind of glad that I didn't have to hear the NBC commentators mumble through the delicate juggling act that is celebrating the glory of a billion dollar spectacle and peppering in a few comments about human rights just to seem objective. I think putting these next few weeks into context is going to be almost impossible for journalists.  I'm not naive. I know China tends to lock up journalists for writing the truth when it makes the Party look bad, and as someone who believes that freedom of speech is the foundation all countries should be built upon, China's long record of silencing dissenters disgusts me. On the other hand, I feel like these Olympics are ultimately going to be a good thing in the long run. Our translator and guide, Stephen, made the point the other day that Americans can't expect China to change overnight from a communist country that limits people's freedoms to one that says it's OK for Brittney Spears to parade around in a diamond bikini with a snake around her neck. It's going to happen eventually, but it's going to be a 50-year process. In Russia, they tried to change things overnight and the only "winner" was chaos. (And the mob.) We're learning more about China, and the Chinese are learning more about us. They're being exposed to the freedoms we sometimes take for granted. China may be using these Olympics to showcase its way of life, but you can't open your entire country to two million people without the seeds of free speech being planted. 

"Remember, it's easy to change your shirt," Stephen said the other day as we drove to the Great Wall. "But it takes time to change what's underneath."  

I know it's cheesy, but I always enjoy watching the parade of nations. It's always fun to watch NBA players walk shoulder to shoulder with athletes who earn less than you could find in the cushions of Kobe Bryant's couch. (Not to mention his wife's jewelry box.) But what was up with those hats the U.S. athletes were wearing? It's like they raided the late Payne Stewart's closet. Carmelo Anthony looked like he'd misplaced his yacht.

I wish Michael Phelps could have walked last night. He's now missed three OC's because he's always supposed to swim the next day, and doesn't want to stand around for three hours. Maybe if he's only swimming two or three events, he'll get a chance to walk in London in 2012. Dirk Novitzki looked pretty cool with the Olympic rings shaved into his head. Rafael Nadal walking with his fellow Spaniards was awesome as well. Also, this just in: Brazilian women are still gorgeous.

For a brief moment, the group of journalists I was hanging with wondered if Chinese television was going to avoid showing a close-up of Lopez Lomong, the U.S. flag bearer. Lomong, as you may have heard, was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and as a member of Team Darfur, he was seen as a less-than-subtle message to China that it needs to back away from its support of the Sudanese government, which has sponsored militias that have murdered more than 200,000 people.

In many ways, Lomong represents everything I love about America. As he told reporters a few days ago, he'd never even heard of the Olympics until 2000. He was living in a refugee camp in Kenya when "his friends talked him into running 5 miles and paying 5 shillings to watch Michael Johnson on a black-and-white TV set with a fuzzy screen" according to the Associated Press. Having escaped violence in the place of his birth, he not only now calls America home, he's helping send the world a message: As a nation we may not be perfect, but we still open our arms to meek and embrace them as our own.

We're all immigrants like Lomong, on some level. And if our jumbled, messy, beautiful melting pot of culture and race can live together in relative peace, we can still serve as an example for the rest of the world to follow. Maudlin as that sounds, it's something I believe in.

One last point, then I'll kick it back to you: I have to confess, it's hard to avoid eating McDonald's at the Olympics. It's just a fact all journalists face. You're always in a hurry, running from one event to the next, you don't have time for a real meal, and in the press center, there is always a McDonald's there, taunting you. I don't eat it when I'm home -- like you, I'm a Taco Bell guy when I'm bitten by the fast food bug -- but there is something disgustingly comfortable about Mickey D's when you're 6,000 miles away from home. My friend, Barry, told me that he is trying to go the entire Olympics without eating McDonalds, but he's already had a few weak moments when he almost faltered. His quest might be tougher than the one Phelps is undertaking.

(Photos: Getty Images)  

August 8, 2008

Boxer Gary Russell Jr. out of the Olympics

Maese et al.,

Subject:  I sure am glad there is not weight limit for writers

Since you're off writing about world affairs in earthquake ravaged Chengdu today, I'll update you as to what's going on here in Beijing. It seems that Gary Russell Jr., a boxer from Capitol Heights, Maryland, failed to make weight and had to withdraw from the Olympics after the USA coaching staff found him unconscious last night in his room, suffering from dehydration. Wow, if that isn't strange turn of events. You wait all your life to fight for an Olympic medal, and then you can't make weight and nearly kill yourself in the process? That is a like something from a F.X. Toole short story. (He wrote "Rope Burns" which was the inspiration for the movie Million Dollar Baby.) Russell was a real medal contender too, and said winning gold at the Olympics was more important to him than winning a world championship or being rich. What a shame.

Damn, I sure am glad there is not weight limit for writers, or you'd see me struggling these last few days after some of the meals we've had. We had a blog commenter (I believe our first who I don't suspect is my wife or your girlfriend) and he/she pointed out that we seemed to be focusing on all the negative aspects of Beijing. Is he right? Are we turning into those whiny Americans who come to a foreign country and complain about everything because we're a pair of ignorant dupes? Beijing is incredibly organized. I have to give them that. The volunteers this week are like an army of charm, ready to help you with a door, hand you a napkin or nod and smile while you struggle to ask for directions.

I don't think we've crossed over and become bad Americans; at least not yet. (I'm willing to overlook some questionable jokes about the Triads. For now.) But I think I should point out how much we've enjoyed the food thus far. You know me, I can usually survive on a steady diet of turkey sandwiches and chicken quesadillas, but I must say the food we've had in Beijing has been excellent. We haven't been so bold as to eat animal penis like our Tribune colleague Bill Plaschke (Story coming soon to a blog near you!), but we have had some excellent noodles, yak, fish and lamb. Supposedly, the government asked restaurants not to serve dog during the Olympics, but I've heard stories about how you can still get it if you want and know where to look. I'm not interested, but I'm not going to judge either. It sort of goes back to the Pulp Fiction debate: Is it really OK to eat pigs and not dogs simply because dogs have more personality? Pigs, according to scientists, are actually smarter than dogs. But there are rarely howls of protests when someone eats a ham sandwich.

I guess this is probably the wrong debate to be having with a vegetarian.

In other news, I popped in on the gymnastics press conference yesterday just to familiarize myself with Shawn Johnson, who a lot of people think could be the next Mary Lou Retton. That whole "Next Mary Lou" tag sure is slung around the neck of American gymnasts like a noose, isn't it? Johnson seems like the sweetest 16-year-old kid imaginable, better than anything the soulless marketing sharks on Madison Avenue could have culled together in their evil dreams. She's cute, she's from Iowa, she gets straight A's, her parents are supportive but don't push her or slam her head into telephones like some people are accused of doing and she even has a weepy back story: Her gym in West Des Moines was wrecked during the massive floods in Iowa back in June.

Does gymnast worship weird you out at all? I mean, I know they're freakishly strong and flexible, and most of them are cute in a little sister kind of way, but they're so tiny and have such high-pitched voices. The whole thing is a little too Vladimir Nabakov for me. It's confusing. They're little kids who have, in many cases, not even gone through puberty, but they're also essentially professional athletes. 

We bump into this debate with figure skating all the time. If you run a picture in The Sun of Kimmie Meissner falling, readers get outraged. They're out for blood, even if that was the most important news of the event. Years ago, during the Salt Lake City Olympics, a woman left me an angry voice mail message when I mentioned that Michelle Kwan frowned when she saw the scores from the judges. But at the same time, those are news events. It seems like the people who follow figure skating and gymnastics want it both ways. They want the sports to be taken seriously despite the fact that you wear make-up when you compete, but they also want to quash reality when it doesn't fit in with their Pixie Princess fantasies. A news event is a news event. If Brian Roberts strikes out with runners on second and third in a tie ball game, no one says: "How dare you criticize Brian Roberts! He's so cute! And he tries hard!"

I don't really understand it. Either it's a sport, or it's not a sport. If you can't handle anything but a happy ending, pop in The Little Mermaid DVD. (Spoiler alert!: Ariel and Eric get married and make mer-people babies who all grow up to break all Michael Phelps records.)

Anyway, what are your predictions for the games? It's time to get our Great Kreskin hat on. Will Phelps win eight gold medals? Will Hoff win six? Will the USA Basketball team start an international incident when LeBron James dunks over Yao Ming in front of his home fans? Or will Coach K start an international incident when he can't handle not getting all the calls like he usually does at Duke? What do you want to see at these games?

If nothing else, I'm ready for the Games to begin. As Carl Spackler told the gophers in Caddyshack, I guess we're playing for keeps now, huh? I guess the kidding around is pretty much over.  

(Photos: AP)  

August 7, 2008

Treasuring a trip to the Great Wall

To: Kevin, et al.,

Subject: National treasures (and NOT the ones starring Nicolas Cage)

Similar to the air outside, you can cut the tension here with a knife. Perhaps even a butter knife. At any rate, you can sense actual competition is near.

This can't possibly be true, but on some level, I feel we're anticipating the start of these Games as much as the competitors (I will concede that most athletes have spent more time preparing, with the possible exception of the French badminton team, which is famously chock full of known slackers, malcontents and troublemakers ... they'll never learn, will they, Kevin?)

It sure felt good to escape for a few hours today. I like the idea of doing another list. Makes me feel like I'm an editor at Redbook or something.

So, five things I learned at the Great Wall:

1. I concur about the relative awesomeness of tour guide Steven. (Though I did feel a bit cheap and used when I later learned that he was also the guide for a buddy, Steve Politi or the Newark Star-Ledger. Check out this hilarious video, which similarly captures our dilemma today.

Steven was certainly a fountain of knowledge. But nothing prepared me for this:

We were discussing famous Chinese figures, past and present. Interestingly, Steven explained that Bruce Lee was probably more popular in America than China. And perhaps not as surprising, Jackie Chan is huge here in China. I asked Steven whether the Chinese were familiar with "Rush Hour," the 1998 buddy-cop comedy. (I did not inquire about "Rush Hour 2" or "Rush Hour 3.")

Steven said they LOVE that movie. He said they also love co-star Chris Tucker. Some even prefer him to Jackie Chan.

"Interesting," I said. "Similarly, Chris Tucker is considered a national treasure in our country, too."

"Ohhhhh," said Steven. "He is like your panda."

Yes, Steven. Chris Tucker is EXACTLY like our panda.

3. Wow, I'm barely mentioning the Great Wall here, but what really freaked me out today: Steve didn't know about David Bowie. Bowie, as I explained to Steven, is also somewhat of a national treasure. A global treasure actually. Anyhow, he'd never heard Bowie's "China Girl," which was a crime that I needed to correct at once.

I dug the iPod from my bag and immediately ordered Steven to take four minutes out of his life and appreciate some Bowie. After soaking in the music, Steven thanked me and noted how "mysterious" Bowie's voice sounded. Oh, Steven, just shut your mouth.

4. The opening ceremony is tomorrow night (still no idea who will light the flame, though there are whispers it might be a non-athlete) and athletic competition finally begins in force Saturday. So we should probably at least acknowledge that, yes?

Unfortunately, when you take on a competition schedule as busy as Michael Phelps', you don't exactly have a lot of spare time to visit places like the Great Wall. Poor Michael Phelps.

Kevin, I thought we did our best to rectify that problem, printing out photographs of Phelps and taking them with us to the wall. It was like he was there in spirit.

As an added bonus, we brought along the video camera and asked locals what they thought of Phelps. The answers were surprising – from medal predictions to one young woman who bluntly stated that she preferred Kobe. We'll get that edited and posted here on the blog before long.

And Michael, it was good to have you along.

5. Actually, the subject of free time at the Olympics came up in a recent conversation I had with Carmelo Anthony. A profile of Anthony appeared in today's Sun , but among the many things I didn't have space to include: Learning from his 2004 Olympic experience, Anthony is determined to take in more of these Summer Games. He says he'll visit boxing, track and field and – surprise! -- swimming.

Anthony has turned into quite the Phelps fan, in fact. I'll be on the lookout for him at the pool this weekend, but fans should be sure to check out this diary entry on The New York Times' Web site , in which Melo writes:

This is my first time to really get a chance to mingle and interact with (Phelps). We talked about spots back home, but we were talking about getting out to each other's events. He's going to bring some golds back to Baltimore and I'm going to bring a gold back. They can have our parade together in Baltimore.

Special bonus item: The portion of the Great Wall we visited today is called Mutianyu. It was the same section I visited last year when I covered Cal Ripken's visit to China. If you're curious what it looks like, check out the video below:

Wait, you mean you can't really see The Great Wall from space?

Rick, et al.,  

So it turns out that you can't see The Great Wall from space. Who started that urban legend? Jayson Blair? It turns out you can't even see The Great Wall from like 500 feet away if the smog is bad enough, but when you do see it, man is it impressive. Going to Mutianyu today was the best $50 dollars of company money I've ever spent. Did you know that the wall, even though much of it is in disrepair, is nearly 4,000 miles long? Our guide today said that a few people a year actually try and walk the entire length of it, and most of the time, they're eaten by wolves about halfway through. (Something may have been lost in translation, but I prefer to keep that urban legend alive.)

Michael Phelps supposedly swims 55 miles a week during his training, which means it would take him 72 weeks to swim from one end of the wall to the other. I bet his coach, Bob Bowman, would be really interested in that kind of program, but I imagine Michael might balk.

Anyway, here are five other things I learned on our trip to The Great Wall today, which was made possible thanks to our awesome Chinese translator, Stephen. I wish I could remember his Chinese name, but he said we could call him Stephen, which just proves how cool he was.

1. We don't have to worry about China overtaking America as the world's greatest superpower because, according to Stephen, we have the three most powerful weapons in the world: Chicken McNuggets, Hollywood movies and Disneyland. Stephen said his 4-year-old daughter already loves McDonalds McNuggets, even if he thinks they taste like glue, and that she wants him to take her to visit Snow White's home as soon as possible. "American has nothing to worry about," he said, with a hearty chuckle. I'm not sure you can overstate the incredible lure our bad fast food and cheesy animation has over the children of the world. We may resemble Rome in the autumn of its empire, but by god, we still know how to fry up a piece of disgusting meat that is irresistible.

2. Our friend Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports looked like he was going to commit a homicide about halfway through our 45-minute walk up the steps to The Great Wall. And the person he wanted to bludgeon to death with his digital camera was me. Ok, so maybe it was a bit mean for me to demand that we all walk up the steep incline instead of taking the cable car, and maybe we should have bought water at the bottom of the hill instead of the top, but didn't you have a greater sense of accomplishment when we finally reached the summit? Chinese historians speculate that between 2 and 3 million people died building The Great Wall, and even though I worried C-Rob was going to include me among them, I figured the least we could do was avoid the country club route. What kind of Americans would we be if we had instead taken the cable car and ate chicken McNuggets the entire trek? Ugly Americans, that's what. I may be a chubby American, but I refuse to enforce those stereotypes abroad.

3. Stephen wanted to know how the journalism industry was doing in the United States, and I gave him the best answer I could. (Do you think it was too much when I curled up in the fetal position and started silently weeping?) He said that journalists have it good in China, and that they are very well respected, because they always tell the truth. He also said that the Chinese government always tells the truth, which seemed like a rosy outlook on the situation to me. On our way down from the wall, I bought two communist party shirts for like $10, in part because I wanted to rock out like Zac de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, and in part because if I have to interview any Chinese people this week, I can always slip one on and they'll know my propaganda comes from a person they can trust.

4. Can you believe there is a city in China with almost 33 million people? It's true. Chongqing. I felt kind of stupid admitting to Stephen that I'd never even heard of Chongqing before when it's clearly one of the biggest cities in the world, but according to the Internet (so you know you can trust it), it's true. In the municipality, there are really that many people living together. There are places like that in China that would make downtown Manhattan look like ranch-style housing. How do you even sneeze without toppling 20 of your friends like dominos? My head hurts just thinking about the tryouts for their high school handball teams. I bet it's easy to meet girls though. If you don't like the gals in your neighborhood, you can always take a walk and meet one of the other 17 million available women out there.

5. When you order fish in China, and they say it's fresh, they really mean it, because they actually have the fish swimming around in a tank like 20 feet from your table. And I don't mean a tank like a fish tank. I mean like a cement pond filled with everything from trout to what I swear looked like sharks. That may have been the most enlightening aspect of the day. We sat down for a nice meal after coming down from the wall, ordered some local trout, and a few minutes later, a cute little Chinese girl is wrestling with a live fish and handing it to the cook. I know you're a vegetarian and all, Maese, but I think you've got to appreciate how manly and rugged that is to watch your food caught and killed just feet from you. The PETA people would probably freak out about this, but they're too busy posing Amanda Beard naked in front of the Swim Cube to concern themselves with less sexy projects like rural fish restaurants. Beard is willing to get naked for pretty much anyone with a camera at this point, and frankly I'm so over whatever it is she's selling. Wake me up if Natalie Coughlin decides she'd rather go naked than wear fur or eat fish that was clubbed to death in the back of a restaurant.

(Great Wall/AP; Coughlin/Getty Images)  

August 6, 2008

My pick for U.S. flag bearer

To Kevin, et al.

Subject: Joey Cheek will not be the flag bearer either!

How far we've come: Four years ago, we came to the Olympics outfitted with gas masks to protect us from terrorist attacks; today we need only be protected from the byproducts of the modern world. Sorry to get all Al Gore on you there ...

Truth is, I have been surprised by how few cars I've seen on the road these past couple of days (and surprised that it's had little visible effect on the pollution ... seriously, Kevin, if we have time tomorrow, can we find time to build a smogman? Or maybe make smog angels?). When I was here in November, the traffic was worse than any city I've ever visited. Forcing Beijing's residents to drive on alternating days has drastically cut down on traffic. The plan calls for drivers to check their license plates and drive accordingly: Even numbers drive one day, odd numbers the next.

I thought about this today during the introductory swimming news conference, when I noticed every seat in the auditorium was even numbered. Made me wonder about where we're supposed to sit tomorrow. Or does that mean we have the day off?

Side note: Not sure what you thought of today's interviews -- which included Michael Phelps, Katie Hoff, Dara Torres & Co. -- but once actual competition begins, let's make sure we debate and discuss Phelps chances of winning eight medals, Torres' carrying the torch for 40-plus-year-olds and how many times Katie Hoff is going to be asked to talk about puking at the 2004 Games. Oh, and can someone donate some clothes to Amanda Beard?

The most interesting speaker at today's news conferences was Eric Shanteau, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer one week before qualifying for the Olympics in the 200-meter breaststroke. "What I show the general public is my positive side," he said. "I am human. This has been a roller coaster ride. This isn't just the flu; this is cancer. ... It's on my mind constantly. I can't help it. That's just how it's going to be."

How can anyone -- American or otherwise -- root against Shanteau?

If I made important decisions, I would have selected Shanteau as the American flag bearer for Friday's Opening Ceremony.

Anyone who had Michael Phelps in the flag bearer office pool was a giant loser -- primarily for having such an office pool but also because Phelps will be bearing no flags Friday night. In fact, Phelps confirmed today that for the third Olympics in a row, he won't even attend the Opening Ceremony.

So who is carrying the U.S. flag? Lopez Lomong , of course. Lomong, who's racing the 1,500-meter here, has an interesting backstory. A Sudan refugee, his tale is as inspiring as anyone. My question for you, Kevin: Is it a bit weird to have someone carrying the flag who wasn't born in the United States? Or does he simply exemplify the so-called American dream?

In closing, I'm sorry you bailed on the penis dinner. Work comes first. If you can make it with me to the Great Wall tomorrow, I promise to buy you a cricket-on-a-stick.

Why can't Ryan Lochte skateboard on the Great Wall?

To: Maese, et al.,

You know what’s weird? The fact that I’m staying on the 13th floor of our dorm-slash-hotel-slash-state sponsored living quarters. Most hotels in the United States don’t even have a 13th floor, since it’s allegedly bad luck and what not, but it seems the Chinese don’t believe in that mumbo jumbo. I have to respect that. Sure, it’s possible that the 13th floor is where designated “people of interest” are placed so that the state can keep and eye on them, but other than a handful of Michael Phelps anecdotes and some Scrubs DVDs, I’m not sure what I have that would interest anyone in the Chinese government. I think I’m probably in the clear.

I can report, however, that the air quality was pretty poor yet again outside my window. I had to put on some glum Ryan Adams songs to match my mood. Remember how in Empire Strikes Back, Han, Luke and the Gang ended up visiting Lando Calrissian and Co. at the Cloud City? I predict that someday, many years from now, New Beijing will be built on top of its pollution, and will be known as Smog City. And Yao Ming’s son will be the mayor.

You know what’s the best line in Empire? When Darth Vadar says, “I’m altering the deal, Calrissian. Pray I don’t alter it further.” I can almost picture someone high up in Chinese government saying this to IOC president Jacques Rogge when the Chinese not only decided to limit what could be viewed on the Internet, but also decided to deny visas to people like Joey Cheek. I hate to bring up such a painful memory, but do you recall when we were in Omaha for the U.S. Olympic swim trials and we went and saw Hancock? Well, I only bring this up because I think China needs to hire Jason Bateman’s character from that movie to improve its PR instincts. Because they’re not very good. Had Cheek been allowed in the country, it would have been a one-day story. Deny him a visa, and suddenly it turns into a two-week story.

China had better be thankful that Angelina Jolie is busy giving birth to twins these days, because if she wanted to come to the Olympics and speak up about the country’s ties to Darfur, no one could stop her. She’s the most powerful person in the world, I think. I saw Billy Bush of Access Hollywood interviewing Ryan Lochte about his hair today (really, this actually happened), and I had this thought: If Jolie wanted Billy Bush to “disappear” she could totally make it happen. That makes her more powerful than the Chinese, I think. I bet she could win eight gold medals, even if she was only allowed to do the breaststroke. I bet she would be awesome at the breaststroke.

How’s this for an unfair turn of events: The U.S. cycling team shows up at the airport earlier this week wearing masks that were issued by the United States Olympic Committee, then is forced to apologize for wearing them. By the USOC. I know we want China to continue to manufacture everything we buy from Wal-Mart, but at what point does common sense officially outweigh potentially offending a host country for its awful air quality?

As for which “The Goonies” character I represent, I have to say Mikey, simply because I’m a dreamer and a do-gooder, and as a young man growing up on the hard streets of Missoula, Mont., I often rocked a denim jean jacket with blue jeans. I’d like to think Ryan Lochte has a lot of Data’s care-free spirit and rebellious streak in him. I asked him today if he’d be interested in riding his skateboard on the Great Wall, and his eyes lit up like it was the coolest thing he’d ever heard. Sadly, the U.S. coaches wouldn’t allow him to bring it to China. We should see if we can buy him one that would otherwise just get shipped off to Wal-Mart.


Here is a scary question: Do you think prolonged exposure to the smog will make us look like Sloth?

God, I hope not.  

(Pitt and Jolie/AP photo; Goonies/handout photo; Lochte, AP)

Cheek absent, but message resounds

To Kevin, et al.,

Subject: The good news, Joey, is that NBC will be providing 2 million hours of non-stop coverage

Not sure if it's the position of the sun or what, but my shadow looks different here. I wish I could report that it appeared more muscular, better postured and with perhaps more rhythm while dancing.

Unfortunately, my shadow here is shaped like a smiling Chinese volunteer, one of whom seems to be about two feet away from me at any given moment.

When I awoke this morning, there was no need to open my door and seek out my shadow for the day's forecast. Not sure what it looked like from the 13th floor, Kevin, but way down here on the 12th, the sky was awfully gray. It's the kind of smog you could scoop in your hand, fashion into a snowball and hurl toward toward the head of the nearest foreign journalist (probably time for a warning: xenophobia might appear from time to time in this space, masked usually as a poor attempt at humor). At any rate, there's something about a gray sky that steals the hop from my step.

What these Olympics clearly need is Joey Cheek. You remember him, right? You might recall that he won gold and silver medals in speedskating at the 2006 Winter Games. Or perhaps you'll remember that he founded Team Darfur and has been actively speaking out against China's human rights record and continued involvement in Darfur. (For the record, I remember him as the guy partying at the Holland House during the Torino Games, lacing up bright orange skates and dazzling everyone in the tiny rink constructed in the middle of a techno dance party. He's the only Olympian I saw in Italy who wore jeans tighter than The Washington Post's Mike Wise. But I'm afraid, Kevin, that's all we have left of Joey Cheek -- the memories.

Joey will not be joining us at the Beijing Games. The Chinese embassy revoked his visa, apparently not too happy that he's been so outspoken about China's track record as a global neighbor. It's a ridiculous PR move. Cheek generates bigger headlines by being kept out of China than if he was let in. (Interesting sidenote: China's governmental public information arm is actually called the propaganda department. It's an innocent -- but revealing -- 'misnomer in which quite a bit gets lost in translation. Or maybe it doesn't.)

At any rate, Cheek's message is worth hearing (again and again and again), and just because the Chinese have kept him in the U.S. doesn't mean that his mission has been grounded.

An unrelated note: "The Goonies" is playing right now on China TV. I'd have to work on this theory, but I suspect that every character archetype is represented by one of "The Goonies" characters. Which are you? (And don't say Omar Little. He's not in "The Goonies.").

August 5, 2008

10 more things you didn't know about Beijing

Maese (et al., etc.),

I like this back-and-forth blogging format you've chosen. Do you think anyone knows we're blatantly ripping off the style that the cool kids over at came up with years ago? Do you think anyone cares? Maybe we can become a discussion topic on Poynter. I can't tell you how much I love watching people argue over the trees while the forest that is our industry burns to the ground.

Anyway, it's been an interesting few days in Beijing. Here are 10 things I bet you didn't know about Beijing, since you've only been here 12 hours and I'm working on hour 36 at the moment. 

1. There was actual smog inside the Water Cube yesterday. I'm not making this up. When your pollution is so bad, it seeps through the super-thin walls of your swim complex, suddenly what was hailed as a breakthrough in architecture just seems gross. Seriously, indoor smog? Phelps should keep that mustache, but he'd probably have to get Johnson and Johnson (an official Olympic sponsor!) to help wash the film out of his beard every night, and that could cause a problem. Seriously, the sky looks like Amy Winehouse's skin after a three-week bender. Disgusting.

2. People here actually watch you pee. It's true. Since there needs to be volunteers for everything -- in order to promote how polite and how organized China is -- there are actually people who wait at the door of bathrooms at Olympic venues and make certain you don't have any issues. I'm not even sure there is a joke necessary here.

3. I didn't have any celebrities on my flight like Dikembe Mutombo, which is a shame. How in the world does he have enough leg room for a 13-hour flight? Personally, it would have been hard for me to resist going up to him and trying to get him to say his favorite (alleged) pick-up line when he was in college at Georgetown: Who wants to sex Mutombo? I don't even care if that's just an urban legend at this point, it's one of the greatest pick-up lines ever. I wish he were competing for Nigeria in this Olympics, simply so we could ask him about that alleged story.

4. I spent the better part of Tuesday morning barfing up half an energy bar and two bottles of water. I'm not sure what the heck happened upon my arrival, although the three hours of sleep on the plane might have contributed to a killer migraine I woke up with. It's never fun to hug porcelain, but it's even less fun when you're doing it in a foreign country and editors are sending you e-mails asking when you're going to file a story. I envisioned myself spending the next three weeks like that, passing off my duties as Michael Phelps' biographer to you, but luckily for the both of us, all I needed was three more hours of sleep and I felt a lot better.

5. People in China are ridiculously polite. (Except for the five cab drivers that refused to accept our fare this evening. But you knew that.) Twice here, I've almost stumbled while walking into a building and both times Olympic volunteers (dressed in snappy blue and white shirts) practically dove in my direction to keep me from falling. I'm not sure whether this comforts me or frightens me.

6. Cold beer is actually more expensive than warm beer in the media press center. I figured this out yesterday, prior to your arrival, when I was drinking with Dan Steinberg and Barry Svrluga from the Washington Post to unwind after my flight. I think this is obviously unfair to American journalists, since European journalists are usually cool with drinking warm beer. To me, warm beer tastes like motor oil. I'll gladly pay the 10 extra yuan, thank you. But IOC President Jacques Rogge may get a prickly e-mail from me. 

7. My wife, Jen, is pretty much the sweetest person on the planet. Prior to my departure, I got four mixes for my iPod to get me through the week, plus a sweet backpack filled with outlet adapters, energy bars, band aids, a water bottle and just about anything else you can think of. I was buzzing through her playlists (Beijing or Bust Vols. 1-4) wondering what is the perfect song for all the long bus rides we'll be taking this week as we migrate between venues. Right now I'm leaning toward Ben Lee's "What Would Jay-Z Do?" which pumps me up and makes me laugh at the same time, the perfect attitude for event coverage when you've had four hours of sleep. I think I should see if Michael Phelps wants to borrow it before the 400-meter individual medley against Ryan Lochte.

8. Outside of the Olympic volunteers, not very many Chinese people speak a lick of English, but they do like to groove to American music. Svrluga and I were walking back from watching swimming practice today, through the lobby of the hotel connected to the press center, when we were nearly floored to hear a man singing The Carpenters "Close To You" while playing the piano. Why do birds suddenly appear? I don't know. If the smog clears, I guess I'll ask them.

9. Your line about Katie Hoff and Stringer Bell reminded me of a post I've always wanted to do over at The Life of Kings, but haven't gotten around to it yet: What athletes remind you of characters on The Wire? Now I can't stop thinking about this. No way is Katie like Stringer. She's more like Carver. Thrown into the mix early, before she was really ready, she had a few public missteps, but now she's wiser and stronger for it. I'll have to nominate Bob Bowman for my Proposition Joe. He knows the game, knows all the angles, but prefers to remain behind the scenes. I guess that makes Michael Phelps kind of like Marlo. He wants nothing more than to wear the crown. He doesn't care about money, he just wants to hear his name ring out. We need to ask Carmelo Anthony what he thinks.

10. Australian swimmers are far bigger celebrities in their own country than Phelps or Hoff will ever be in ours. At the Aussie press conference today, Eamon Sullivan and Stephanie Rice made it a point to sit next to one another, even though they recently broke up after carrying on a pretty public relationship, and the Aussie media was still a twitter about it. They even had to confirm their breakup, which was awesome. Libby Trickett actually sold the exclusive rights to her wedding photos to an Australian magazine. If Amanda Beard tried that, I think US Weekly would roll their eyes.

Off to bed. Hopefully more swimming and less smog tomorrow.


10 things you might not have known about Beijing

To: Kevin, et al.

Subject: 10 things you might not have known about Beijing

1. Michael Phelps is here and at Tuesday's practice session, he was still sporting a really smooth-looking Fu Manchu mustache that he'd been growing since the Olympic Trials. Some might be jealous of Phelps because he glides effortlessly through the water faster than any other human being on the planet. I'm jealous, however, of his ability to grow the smooth Fu Manchu so fully.

Kevin, I'd bet your next paycheck the mustache is gone by Friday, but a small part of me really wishes he'd keep it. Isn't this the way it should be? If he's going to break Mark Spitz's mark of eight gold medals in a single Games, shouldn't it be an even competition? Last I checked, Spitz was rocking a mean 'stache of his own in 1972. If Phelps wants to quiet the doubters -- and have any shot at next year's Beard and Moustache Championships -- he has no choice. The 'stache must stay.


2. Our accommodations aren't too bad. We're staying at mega media village, which will surely be turned into an apartment complex the second we leave town. Seriously, these high-rise apartment buildings are all over Beijing. They might as well come shipped from Ikea, ready to assemble.
3. Our place is called the North Star. While part of me thinks it sounds like Darth Vader's rough draft, another part hopes tomorrow's wake-up call comes from three wise men.

4. Driving around town tonight, lost for two hours en route to a dinner we'd never make, I couldn't help but notice all of the Chinese characters adorning various buildings and structures here in Beijing (shocking, right?). Funny, because I thought it was only young American men and women in tattoo parlors who were so cavalier in their use of Chinese characters.
Which brought me to a great business idea. I've met many a young athlete who's tattooed the Chinese symbol for "Love" or "Hope" or some other lame cliché somewhere on their body. Perhaps if the newspaper industry doesn't turn the ship around, Kevin, we can come to China and tattoo the fine Chinese people with the English versions of these great words and ideas.

Of course, would they even know the difference? We could tattoo "Sizzler" or "Super Mario Bros." and who's to say that isn't "Faith" or "Strength."

Which reminds me ...

5. I speak more Chinese than the Beijing cab drivers speak English. It's an especially sad realization when you consider the fact that I only speak about four Chinese words. And three of them happen to be the name of various beers.

6. Kevin, it occurs to me that we might not have missed our dinner appointment had you not stopped in the park area surrounding Ho Hai Lake and cheerfully given a television interview to the friendly Chinese reporter. Also, I hope you heard my stomach growl when you stopped to play hackey sack with those kids. Seriously, hackey sack = not an Olympic sport. Especially when I'm hungry.

7. On my flight from Newark, N.J. to Beijing: Dikembe Mutombo.
8. Checking into our media village was quite the hassle. Even though there seems to be 20 young Chinese women assigned to every reporter here, it still took a half-hour to find my room key. There were so many bewildered and confused faces staring at the computer screen, I'd swear they were watching "2 Olympians, 1 Cup."

9. How does one pass 13 hours on a plane? Simple -- by rewatching seven hours of Season 3 of "The Wire." The Avon Barksdale-Stringer Bell story line is the most compelling TV I've seen in perhaps my entire life. I'm somewhat worried it will seep into my copy this week. Hopefully, I don't overdramatize Phelps-Lochte or Hoff-Ziegler. Though now that I think of it, Katie Hoff does have a bit of Stringer Bell in her, huh?

10. Last bit before bedtime, Kevin. You may have heard there are restaurants here that serve various dishes featuring various penises of various animals. I'm not making this up. Seals, horses, whatever suits your taste buds.
Anyhow, I know a couple of our colleagues are trying to partake in this rare cuisine Wednesday night. I'd love to go, but sadly, I have a prior engagement. I'm encouraging you to follow up, though. In fact, if you pass up on this opportunity to sample China's various penis offerings, you'd leave me with no choice but to question your manhood.

Michael Phelps photo: Getty Images; Mark Spitz: AP

About this blog
Sun reporters Kevin Van Valkenburg and Rick Maese will blog from Beijing throughout the Summer Olympics. Kevin and Rick will blog back and forth with each other as a way of letting readers in on the sights, sounds and the action in Beijing.

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