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August 20, 2008

A Phelpsian Windfall

Tuesday morning, courtesy of the CBS Morning Show, Phelps-a-mania came to an amazing crescendo. The smart money would have wagered that the Phelpsian epic would have hit its high mark somewhere in NBC's maudlin coverage of the Games— most likely during the Today Show, which has insisted on bringing groggy, bleary eyed America every second of every breath currently happening in Beijing. But no! CBS decided to follow coverage of a potentially devastating hurricane currently brewing in Southern Florida with an interview of Phelps, offering the immediate and unfortunate segue: "And now to a man who's like a hurricane…in the pool, Michael Phelps!"

Mens 200m Butterfly Heats
To make clear: Michael Phelps is easily one of the greatest athletes of this, or any other generation. He has accomplished what no normal human being not involved in a freak radioactive spider bite or improbable meteor crash should. Surely, he's a more than decent guy, what with being the product of a single mother, last known survivor of Atlantis, etc., and most people could find little wrong with him, save for that weird thing he does with his mouth when he talks.

Before the hype succumbs to the inevitable backlash—oh wait, it's already starting—Corporate America has already started cashing in. If you think Phelps is the biggest winner here, you must have TIVO-ed right past the ads for Speedo and AT&T and missed Omega's touchpad controversy. Seconds after his final win, Visa cued up its congratulations ad featuring the velvety tones of Morgan Freeman. And now Phelps himself, left without any races to dominate or the dreams of lesser-known swimmers to drown, has begun randomly marketing for McDonald's, Facebook, and Apple among twenty or thirty other things. Most recently, and apparently now savvy to the power of his own image, Phelps said he would like to do for swimming what Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan did for golf and basketball (respectively, you would assume). That is, we think, make it so no one else ever wins as long as he's playing ever.

The basis for all this outsize attention and unquestioned adoration is, as with most things, timing. Phelps's success comes at a time in which this country is just about on its knees, incredibly beaten down by war, promise of more war, an economy in straight free fall, and nothing to look forward to except a new season of The Hills. Enter Michael Phelps: Champion of Democracy, Defender of Small Children. An American Hero. It isn't his fault really, that we've lionized him so, invested in him whatever paltry hope we had promised Barack Obama, and placed our very futures on his inordinately wide back.

The media sees in Michael Phelps their White Light in a black hole of cultural disinterest and barren ratings. And the viewing public, content with accepting Bob Costas's commentary at face value, sees him as a vehicle for redemption, despite most likely barely having heard of him before NBC put his face on constant loop. Of course, NBC owns the rights to sell Michael Phelps: Greatest Olympian Champion, which is already on DVD (no joke). "It's a great story for network television," said Jeff Zucker, NBC's chief executive. You might take that to mean a heartwarming tale that happened to unfurl on our TV sets. But Zucker means it quite literally. As in, the $100 million profit projected for NBC.

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