Michael Phelps, Emperor of the pool, is also King of ‘cool’. In a semi-formal interaction with the media Tuesday evening, the four-letter word inundated his replies.
Being at the Olympics was cool, winning medals was cool, London was just too cool – and not in the sense of the weather obviously. In the 15 minutes Phelps spoke he used the word ‘cool’ at least 15 times – and that’s a conservative estimate.
|Michael Phelps at a media event in London on Tuesday evening
The only time he refrained from saying it was when a Brazilian journalist brazenly asked him what he thought of athletes smoking marijuana. No, Phelps didn’t lose his cool, but turned frosty instead. The deep impressive baritone, with a hint of gravel, suddenly went quiet.
There wasn’t a squeak from him as second ticked away in pin-drop silence, but his smouldered eyes and the broad shoulders twitched perceptibly, as if to ready for a counter-attack. The tension in the room became palpable.
Some looked at their shoes, some at the ceiling, a few at the Brazilian journalist who insisted it was a ‘serious question’. It took the lady interlocutor a few minutes to recover from her shock before she grabbed the mike and manouvered the interview into more placid waters.
The pointedness of the question was matched by its pointlessness. It was way back in 2009, soon after he had won an unprecedented eight gold medals at Beijing, that somebody who he was partying with him used a phone camera to take pictures of Phelps dragging on a bong and put it out in the public domain.
Within hours Phelps image was in tatters. He had been the toast of not just the United States but the entire sporting world, and suddenly he was almost like a pariah. The nexus between cannabis and enhanced performance in sport is at best nebulous.
It wasn’t even clear that this was not just a party fling that the 24-year-old had had with it. But it is a banned substance – and more than that a social taboo. Not quite what a role model should have been doing.
A tearful public apology could not stave off a three-month ban by US swimming authorities before Phelps could come back into the pool. Talkshow host David Letterman had said of the incident that ‘Michael was just being Michael’, which kind of made his ‘crime’ less grave, but also helped build up some kind of a stereotype.
Three years later, now 27, Phelps however is not quite the same Michael. There were no tears. Not even an overt show of anger. Once the Brazilian journalist had been stymied, he was back at his peppy best, answering questions freely and with forthrightness.
The same day, Alexander Popov, former gold medallist from Russia and Chad Le Clos, current 200m butterfly champion had also interacted with the media. But where Popov was patronizing in the way people living on past glory can be, and Le Clos appeared a little overawed, Phelps handled the session with aplomb – and with an endearing sense of humour.
“The Olympics Village is an amazing place,” he related. “You meet all kinds of athletes. The other day, I saw three women who towered above me. I thought I am tall, but I had to look up to see their faces.” The titter of laughter around the room warmed him up and he shifted gears.
“These Games are the greatest,” he said. “Where else can you get the best athletes of the world all under one roof. It’s an amazing experience.” The Olympics couldn’t have had a better person to extol its virtues.
And yet, Phelps sees no role for himself after he is through. No, not even as coach or mentor. “I am through with swimming,” he said. “I might occasionally jump into a pool for recreation, but not for competition or coaching.”
Though there are votaries for Al Oerter, Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Janet Evans to name the very few in contention, Phelps’s 22 medals in three Olympics – including 18 golds – would probably make him the greatest Olympian ever.
Shouldn’t such a strong role model give back something to the sport. “I am not cut out for this role (coaching etc). A person must be what he is and enjoy,” said Phelps. “I want to relax. I am in the happy position to wake up and drive to wherever I want, take in a match, do whatever. I like that.” That might seem self-indulgent to some.
But considering that philosophically everyone hopes to do exactly what Phelps intends, isn’t this kinda real cool?