August 26, 2008

Olympic Swimmers Draw More Attention to Sport

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It’s a much-discussed phenomenon: every four years the United States suddenly develops an interest in swimming, gymnastics, equestrian and the other sports that are traditionally ignored by major television networks and sports media outlets.
Swimmer Michael Phelps’s well documented road to an Olympic record eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympics could capture the imagination of swimmers across the country.
“It’ll definitely be on peoples’ minds now,” said senior Kevin Carey. “It’s not going to be one of the major sports but it got a lot more people into the world of swimming.”
USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body in the United States, reported a 5 percent increase in participation after the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and a 7.2 percent increase after the Athens Olympics in 2004, according to the Associated Press.[img_assist|nid=31190|title=In the lane|desc=Coverage of the swimmers in the Beijing Olympics has gotten some Red swimmers excited to compete again.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
USA Swimming is anticipating an increase of about 10 percent over the next year.
Carey, who races in the backstroke and freestyle events for the Red, said that he doesn’t expect swimming to develop as big of a following as sports like basketball and football, but added that “there’s always a possibility especially when someone like Phelps comes along.”
For the two weeks of the Beijing Olympics, Phelps was transformed into an athlete-celebrity in the same mold as Tiger Woods or Peyton Manning. He currently has endorsement contracts with Speedo, Visa, PowerBar, Omega, AT&T, Rosetta Stone, Hilton and Kellogg’s. Speedo paid Phelps a bonus for breaking Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in one Olympic Games, and Peter Carlisle, Phelps’s agent, estimates that his client’s success at the Beijing Olympics could be worth “hundreds of millions” of dollars in endorsement deals.
Fame and fortune aside, Phelps hopes that his success will help garner swimming more media coverage and national interest.
“I don’t want this sport to be an every-four-years sport,” Phelps said. “Yeah, we get the most attention every four years [at the Olympics]. But in between those four years, there’s really not as much exposure for us.”
The success of the American swimmers and Phelps in particular has been a shot in the arm for some of the Red swimmers.
“It encourages me and all the other swimmers to keep doing what we’re doing,” Carey said. “He’s definitely an inspiration to me and all the swimmers.”
The near-ubiquitous coverage of Olympic swimming and Phelps in particular was aided by the International Olympic Committee’s decision to hold preliminary races in the evenings and finals in the mornings, which allowed finals to be broadcast live in primetime slots in the United States.
“It was cool to see all the coverage, the underwater cameras and everything,” Carey said. “It gets you in the mood to get [into the pool] and see if you can go fast.”