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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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August 9, 2008 2:57 PM

The (swim) world according to NBC: Go Michael go!

Posted by Ron Judd

Michael Phelps swims to an Olympic record in the 400 individual medley prelims in Beijing (AP Photo/Bob Bukaty).

"He's really the only swimmer to watch here."
-- NBC's Dan Hicks, as Michael Phelps goes to the starting blocks for the first of his 17 races in Beijing.

Call that a Freudian slip.

Nobody has more invested in Michael Phelps' quest for eight gold medals than NBC. Literally. The network, not surprisingly, has built its billion-dollar Beijing effort around Phelps, perhaps the greatest swimmer of all time. An eight-gold medal haul would rank with the greatest single-Games achievements in Olympic history, and it creates the sort of suspense that can build over a 10-day span -- and potentially translate into a ratings bonanza.

The problem? Two of the events in which Phelps, who will swim five individual races and three relays, is most vulnerable come early in the Olympics -- tonight and tomorrow night, in fact.

One, surprisingly, is the grueling 400-meter individual medley, the finals for which occur at 7 p.m. PT tonight. It's an event Phelps has dominated on a global level for six years -- until recently, when teammate Ryan Lochte began to show up in the Baltimore swimmer's rear-view mirror.

No sane person would wager against Phelps in the 400 IM, his speciality. He lowered his own world record to 4:05.25 at the Olympic swim trials last month. But Lochte appeared to push Phelps to his limit in the final, hanging with him to the end, touching at 4:06.08. An upset by Lochte would be huge news -- and a potential disaster for the network. It would truly qualify as a worst-case-scenario for NBC, which sits fat, happy and self-congratulatory today after near-record ratings for last night's opening ceremony, in spite of a 12/15-hour east-west coast delay.

If Phelps survives that first test, it gets more, not less, difficult. The next event on the docket is the 4 x 100 freestyle relay. It's a race that Phelps can't control, placing himself at the mercy of three teammates. They're no slouches -- as usual, the men's 100 free stable is well-stocked. But the U.S. was beaten in this event at the past two Olympics (by Australia in 2000 and South Africa in Athens, spoiling the Phelps-win-streak angle there early in the Games, as well). And they're expected to get all they can handle in Beijing from France, led by world-record sprinter Alain Bernard (47.50). South Africa also remains strong.

It shows you how unreasonable it really is to expect Phelps to walk away from Beijing with eight gold medals -- eight medals, period, would be a momunental accomplishment. The U.S. still holds the world record in the relay, 3:12.46. But a time as low as the lower 3:10s might be needed to take home the gold.

Tune in, and watch NBC hold its breath, as the U.S. swims the relay final -- likely with Phelps on the leadoff leg -- at 7 p.m. PT Sunday.

UPDATE: 7:20 p.m. (With obligatory SPOILER ALERT):

Honestly, if you don't want to know....

OK, here goes.

One down.

Phelps swam 4:03.84 to destroy his own world record as Lochte faded for the bronze.

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Blogroll and links The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information. Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site. Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription). News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions. Beijing Organizing Committee Web site. Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site. London 2012 Summer Games site. Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site. Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.