I was in entryway for the media at the stadium following the Jaguars game when I came across about 20 people crowded around a small TV set. I knew what they were there for: Michael Phelps was going for his eighth gold medal, swimming in the IM relay with his American teammates.
The small crowd was pretty quite, intently watching the walkout and the introductions. When the camera panned to Phelps there were a couple of “there he is” comments but this was a group of people who cover sports for a living. A pretty jaded crowd, not much impressed by anything or anybody. Especially a swimmer.
But something different was going on here.
These folks weren’t just observing, they were, for the moment, fans.
It was really interesting to watch the race with these people. In the press box, since everybody started carrying computers, it’s a pretty quite place. The windows are closed and you only hear the silence interrupted by the dispassionate announcements of down and distance.
The stadium entryway is usually a busy place with people coming and going before and after the game. But for these couple of minutes, time stood still. Nobody moved.
The opening backstroke 100 had the Americans near the front. The breaststroke had the world record holder swimming for Japan so you knew the US would be behind when Phelps jumped in the water for the butterfly. And you figured, at least hoped, that he’d swim his normal leg: controlled for the first 50 meters then put on his big surge at the finish.
And that’s what happened.
A quick glance at the crowd showed a few heads bobbing with each stroke Phelps made and I caught the occasional “come on” murmured under somebody’s breath. When Jay Lezak jumped in the water with a half body length lead, somebody up front said, “Come on Jay, don’t blow it.”
Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t just some uninterested bystander. I was pretty intent and involved and even when Lezak turned for home I said something like, “Come on Jay, Swim!” By that point everybody was into it, exhorting Lezak to “hang on” and “finish strong.” And when he touched and that “carpet” rolled out on the water with the stars and stripes and “USA” behind the number one on the water something funny happened: Everybody clapped.
For a moment there were no naysayers, no critics. Nobody finding fault in the victory, nobody was trying to somehow downgrade the accomplishment. “We” won and Phelps got his eighth gold. It’s that kind of communal moment that we don’t often have in the States.
Since we don’t have a national team in any of the international sports the people follow, it’s not often that we all are in front of the television watching one thing and rooting for victory.
I was in Costa Rica once when their national soccer team had qualified for the World Cup and was playing in the first round. Sitting at a bar on the beach, the bartender didn’t acknowledge me when I sat down, instead keeping his gaze on the television. “Can I get a beer” I asked politely. “Come around and get it yourself,” the bartender said nicely, never taking his eyes off the TV.
We don’t get that much here.
The ’80 hockey club is about the closest to everybody being on the same page as we’ve ever been in the last 50 years. It’ one of the things I like about the Olympics. Not every four years, but occasionally, something or somebody will catch our attention and bring us all together.
Phelps was able to do that.
A kid from Baltimore who’s built like the perfect swimmer has also had the perfect temperament for dealing with the schedule, the media demands and the execution of his skill.
I saw him on the air on NBC in a split-screen between Beijing and Detroit with Mark Spitz. Spitz was tremendously gracious (apparently for the first time) and Phelps couldn’t have said more perfect stuff. Maybe it’s the times, maybe he’s just the right guy but for those two minutes everything seems just right.
And we won.