Changing China

Giant on the move

Can swimming ever be a mass spectator sport?

By Sean Maguire
August 17, 2008

phelps in the spotlight

The American swimming great was still wet from winning his unprecedented eighth gold when he dedicated his victory to — swimming.

At his press conference Michael Phelps did it again, telling awed journalists that the seven new world records, 14 career golds and all the sweat that went into attaining them, would serve “my goal of raising the sport of swimming in the U.S. as high as it can go.”

And with Phelps’s appealing modesty, you could believe that the success was not about the multi-million dollar wealth that will come his way, the appearances on television chat shows and being recognised in the streets of his hometown Baltimore.

But how realistic is it that swimming can ever be a mass audience sport? Can you entice spectators week in and week out to watch eight people trudging along a 50 metre rectangle of water, propelling themselves with a variety of strokes and travelling for various differences?

You can’t see the swimmers faces as they exert themselves and the competitors are barely aware of what their opponents are doing. When the race ends the swimmers peer at the scoreboard to see which of them has won. There are no dramatic penalty shoot-outs, extra-times or play-offs.

Nor are the magnificently-fit and sleekly-shaped swimmers given to grand displays of emotion in triumph. A shake of the fist in the air, a few tears on the podium and then it’s back to the relentless grind of training.

Phelps was more realistic than he knew when he declared, “I don’t want this sport to be an every four years sport.” For most of us that is what it is, a sport that comes alive at the Olympics. Despite Phelps’s noble drive it is likely to remain so. “We get the most attention every four years but in between there is really not the exposure for us that I would like,” the 23-year-old said.

We tune in to the Olympics for the human drama, the personal stories behind the swims, the attainment of speeds never before achieved and the national pride in our compatriots doing well. The technical trickery of underwater cameras and slow-motion close-ups captures more of the action than in yesteryear.

But we don’t feel like we are in the pool. Swimcap cameras are not really feasible for a streamlined sport.

Phelps’s success will encourage thousands to swim more. Some future world champions will be inspired. But as with Mark Spitz and his 1972 feat of winning seven golds, the Phelps phenomenon will fade. We will see more of him in advertisements than in action. His sport will return to the background until he once more swims into our consciousness in London in 2012.

PHOTO: Photographers surround Michael Phelps of the U.S. after he won his eighth gold medal of the Games at the National Aquatics Center, August 17, 2008. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn     


Sean, What a load of cynical codswallop. Obviously, you’re not a swimming fan.
The USA-Australia swimming rivalry has few parallels in world sport but dumb-arse idiots like you don’t know that.
Swimming isn’t football, it’s not a week-in week-out event — it’s a blast every couple of years as world championships and Olympic Games sort the wheat from the chaff.
This is a sport you work up to like football’s World Cup and, no, it’s not always photogenic but that doesn’t diminish the athletes’ performance.
The Beijing swim meet was one of the best ever and I’ve seen them all since Tokyo.
And the best you can do is dismiss it with your poorly informed cynicism and prejudice.

Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

Congrats to michael Phelps. Honestly though, NBC killed my enthusiasm as a fan of swimming.

Posted by Michael Khreuz | Report as abusive

Well, in a way he’s right. He isn’t talking about swimming in terms of world wide popularity. He’s talking about the U.S. And the fact is, Americans couldn’t care less about swimming. It’s not perceived as a butch sport (despite the incredible strength and physique of the swimmers) and therefore doesn’t have the popularity for American football and basketball. It’s not like you’ll see a bunch of guys in a bar in the U.S. argue over whose better…Phelps or Thorpe or whoever. Also, swimming existed long before the U.S. became a country. It wasn’t “invented” in the States like basketball, baseball, etc. It’s not followed in the U.S. like it is in Australia. So, the U.S. vs. Aussie thing is not really that interesting in the U.S. outside of the U.S. swimming community (athletes, fans, coaches) etc. Swimmers in the the U.S. like Phelps are not usually idolized and hounded by the press like film stars (Phelps’ coverage is highly unusual but given his caliber it is reasonable) like swimmers in Australia like Rice and Thorpe. I think the writer was just stating the attitude Americans have towards the sport and giving reasons why.

Posted by kayla | Report as abusive

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