Medals and Marketing

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ABSTRACT: THE SPORTING SCENE about the first week of the Summer Olympics in London. What was marketed as the biggest showdown of the London Olympic Games almost never came to pass. During the third leg of the morning qualifying heat in the four-hundred-metre individual medley, swimming’s quadrathlon, Michael Phelps, the great American merman, appeared to be treading water. “You can’t get a gold medal from the morning,” he said afterward, shrugging off his performance as energy conservation. It was nearly the equivalent of Dan O’Brien failing to clear the bar in the pole vault at trials in 1992, and thereby missing out on Barcelona entirely, after months of Reebok’s ubiquitous Dan Dave campaign, promoting a rivalry between two American decathletes for the unofficial title of World’s Greatest Athlete. The Hungarian Laszlo Cseh had caught Phelps during the backstroke portion of the race and then built a lead during Phelps’s leisurely breaststroke. Phelps began swimming again in the final leg, the freestyle, and nearly beat Cseh with a push in the closing metres—or so it looked to the naked eye. Lucky for Phelps, there are now electronic sensors in the walls, and the scoreboard revealed that his Gumbylike wingspan had, in fact, provided him the first touch. He sneaked into the evening finals by seven hundredths of a second. The Dave Johnson to Phelps’s Dan O’Brien in our equation, of course, is Ryan Lochte, the free-spirited skateboarding enthusiast. After Beijing, in 2008, where Lochte won two golds and two bronzes but was nonetheless accorded the respect of a prominent skeet shooter, he dedicated himself to dethroning his teammate. The big race was set for Saturday night, Greenwich Mean Time, and promised to be the hottest ticket of the week. What we got instead of a duel was “damp squib,” as someone told the BBC. Lochte dominated from the start, and Phelps proved that his sluggish morning routine wasn’t a function of overconfidence. Writer goes to Lord’s Cricket Ground to observe the archery events. Tells about American archer Brady Ellison. The crass commercialization of the Games is a perennial topic of grousing. Good luck to anyone who brought a MasterCard or a Discover card with him to the Olympic Park. Visas only, please—and that goes for the A.T.M.s, too. Writer interviews Phelps’s agent, Peter Carlisle, and discusses the marketing of Olympic athletes. Tells about the American beach-volleyball players Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor. Also discusses the Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen and American swimmer Missy Franklin.



Ben McGrath, The Sporting Scene, “Medals and Marketing,” The New Yorker, August 13, 2012, p. 38

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