BUDAPEST — Did you know, my 18-year-old daughter said to me over FaceTime, she in California, me here in Budapest at the FINA world swim championships, that Michael Phelps raced a shark? Did you also know, she went on, that it wasn’t really a real shark? And Michael had a monofin? And Michael went 38.1 seconds and the shark 36.1 seconds? He was close!
So, I said to the darling daughter, now that you have told me everything about Michael and, as it were, the ultimate example of jumping the shark, what can you tell me about what’s going on here? Because, I said, this is a great meet.
To switch animal gears, or something, here was her response: crickets.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the existential dilemma of Olympic sport in 2017.
In Thursday’s racing at Duna Arena, the United States went a rock-‘em, sock-‘em 1-2 in the heavyweight fight of swimming, young Caeleb Dressel going out hard and fast and holding on for the victory in 47.17, the Olympic champion Nathan Adrian just back in 47.87; later, the U.S women’s 4x200 freestyle relay team, with Katie Ledecky swimming anchor, won for the seventh time in the last eight world championships, 7:43.39.
These are world-class athletes. With great stories.
This 100 marked Dressel’s long-anticipated emergence onto the sport’s big stage; Adrian is one of the sport’s leading men; Ledecky is the light of the American team.
“He crushed it, it’s just fun to watch,” Adrian said of Dressel, and if you have never seen Dressel rip off the blocks, it’s the swim version of lightning roaring across the waves. “He’s going to be incredible in the years to come."
By and large, the U.S. swim program is one of the consistent success stories in American sports. The Americans are now up to 20 medals in all here, nine gold — already one more than the eight golds the U.S. team won at the 2015 worlds in Kazan, Russia.
My daughter is far from alone in expressing keen interest in Phelps and that shark stunt.
You know that red line they show on TV at swim meets, the one that depicts how close a racer is to a world-record? Maybe in light of what we have learned with Phelps and the shark, broadcasters ought now to superimpose a computer graphics-generated shark behind every racer. How would that be?
OK, this next part is for real: at a news conference here the other night, Ledecky was asked about Phelps and the shark. No. She was.
“Yeah, it was good to see Michael have some fun with that,” she said, adding, “We really miss him on the team and everything that he brings … we are all stepping up to fill the presence that Michael brought to the team.”
A digression, and if wishes were fishes: let’s see what’s what come the 2019 FINA championships. Phelps won the men’s 200-meter individual medley at the 2016 Rio Games in 1:54.66, by nearly two seconds over Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, 1:56.61. Hmm. In Thursday night’s first final, Phelps’ American protegé Chase Kalisz won the 200 IM in 1:55.56, Hagino just behind in 1:56.01. Do the math.
Let’s be clear, though.
This is not about Phelps.
Olympic sport is on a quest to be relevant. This meet is like a mini-lab. It clearly presents three very distinct strands. The fundamental issue is whether they are operating on parallel tracks, or those tracks can in any way be tied together to serve sport’s traditional higher purposes, especially when young people are increasingly geeked out on the likes of Shark Week and Phelps.
— One, you can’t organize a meet better than the Hungarians have done here.
The Duna Arena project was built on budget and on time, and under severe pressure when Budapest stepped in two years ago for the 2017 Worlds after Guadalajara, Mexico, dropped out. The national government is conservative; the district leadership socialist. Everyone worked together. Cost: roughly $150 million all-in, the building itself just over half that.
Everything works. Transport, WiFi, broadcast technologies, the airport, Budapest’s location in central Europe, everything. You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a water taxi to the arena — oh, there’s champagne on board?
Attendance: sparse at diving but fantastic everywhere else. The city has no synchronized swimming culture but synchro was packed. The thunder sticks have been rocking Duna for swim all week and when local heroes such as László Cseh or Katinka Hosszú appear, the building roars like a minor earthquake.
Eight-thousand people jammed into a historic stadium on an island in the Danube for a game Tuesday night between the Hungarian and Russian men — a game that, as always, brings up the 1956 Olympic Hungary-Soviet Union “blood in the water” match. A rainbow appeared over the same stadium Wednesday evening before the American women dispatched the Russians en route to the championship final.
The city’s architecture is spectacular. Its restaurants are great. It feels safe to walk around, no matter how late into the night or even early morning.
These championships were part of a strategy to put Budapest and Hungary on the map as a sports nation for an Olympic bid. The plan was 2024, with FINA and the judo championships later this month as a springboard.
The 2024 bid collapsed earlier this year but it’s abundantly clear Hungary is up to organizing — whatever.
Along with the FINA worlds, meanwhile, there’s a European youth Olympic-style festival going on a short drive away; this weekend, the Formula 1 scene comes to Hungary.
The next edition of the FINA worlds go down in 2019, in Gwangju, South Korea, part of an overall turn by Olympic sport to the Far East — the 2018 Winter Games, 2020 Summer Games, 2021 FINA championships (Fukuoka, Japan), 2022 Winter Games and more.
Korean organizers are going to face a huge challenge in meeting or exceeding Budapest.
— Two, the swimming has been fantastic, with the usual display of rippling bodies and a collection of world records, led by Britain’s badass breaststroke champion Adam Peaty. So, too, the water polo.
And we haven’t even gotten to the high dive. Which gets underway Friday. And which in years to come, guaranteed, will be an Olympic event.
— Three, the media coverage.
That is, the lack of it.
This is Europe and, to be fair, there are some number of European outlets represented here.
Let us count — outside of Paul Newberry of Associated Press — the number of reporters here from mainstream media outlets in the United States.
There are a handful of writers here for U.S.-based swimming-oriented websites, a familiar Olympics reporter here for the Team USA website and, well, me — and three students from my graduate-school journalism courses at the University of Southern California.
This has been a few years coming, but in coming it has been entirely foreseeable, indeed predictable. As recently as the 2011 championships in Shanghai, the likes of the Washington Post and USA Today were on hand; the New York Times made it to Kazan two years ago.
Its not like this situation is likely to get better for Gwangju. Deep cuts have afflicted staff positions just in recent months at ESPN, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and Yahoo Sports.
Broadcasting pays a healthy chunk of what makes it happen in Olympic world. We in the print side get all that. We don’t pay.
We also get that broadcasting and mobile devices are a big part of the future. This is why the International Olympic Committee launched the Olympic Channel and why, as the “Home of Team USA,” it went live July 15 through a partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee and NBCUniversal.
All the same, it is the print (or, now, digital) outlets that pick up the slack. We tell the stories of the athletes.
Indeed, a little bit like Caeleb Dressel, Michael Phelps once upon a time had a breakout meet.
It was the FINA worlds, in 2003, in Barcelona.
Don’t worry about Michael. Maybe he comes back, maybe not. Whatever. He’s set.
The worry is about the sport — all Olympic sports, actually. Time for some really smart people to get to work, and with all deliberate speed, before the cue goes out for the music from “Jaws.”