Contemplating the media presence of Michael Phelps.

Contemplating the media presence of Michael Phelps.

Contemplating the media presence of Michael Phelps.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 19 2008 8:06 PM

Newborn Demigod

Contemplating the media presence of Michael Phelps.

Matt Lauer and Michael Phelps. Click image to expand.
Matt Lauer and Michael Phelps

Earlier this week, in the immediate wake of Michael Phelps' gold rush, Today host Matt Lauer sat the swimmer down for a chat. This was a conversation between a newsreader recently named to the International Best-Dressed List and an athlete so single-minded in his pusuit of greatness that he never fails, when wearing anything other than a swimsuit, to look notably awful. All the American media have their eyes on a newborn demigod, and he drapes himself iin garments best suited for a quick hop to 7-Eleven. That Phelps cannot dress himself is part of his gentle charm. He is not your average sloppy 23-year-old. Rather, he seems to have stopped developing, in some respects, at about the age he started training seriously and thus resembles a sloppy 11-year-old superhuman. Not without poise, Phelps has declared events related to his record-breaking string of performances "cool," "very cool," "neat," and "really neat." In the glow of his triumph, he faces the camera with something more interesting than real humility (which is pious) or false modesty (which is dull). He's working a kind of confounded ecstasy, ducking his head as if he's slightly shy to feel so good about himself, easing his way into the idea of not trying to stifle his grins. Matt (loafers, no socks) said to Michael (flip-flops): "She seems to be the perfect combination of raw emotion and quiet strength." He was speaking of Debbie Phelps, from whose loins the hero sprang. Where in the world did Lauer develop his control of tone? He was speaking in a way that implied he felt a fellow parent's admiration in his heart and yet also intimated dollar signs in his company-man's eyes. What a mother! Up in the stands, huddled with the interviewers, wherever she reared her bangs, you could count on Debbie Phelps to bubble without burbling over. She simmered low and steady all week, the anti-stage mom. Johnson & Johnson, recognizing the marketing potential of the woman's off-the-chart huggability, has named her the official "Baby Mom" of the Games, and today's papers find endorsement consultants floating the idea that mother and child would be well-equipped to do a Campbell's Chunky soup deal. The Wall Street Journal reports that that swimmer's agent has thus far fielded offers for movies, books, bobblehead dolls, commemorative coins, and car rims—though, strangely, the Journal thinks it odd that a man in Omaha "offered to sculpt a statue of the chiseled swimmer." Isn't our admiring his body half the point of his celebrity? Does not his Sports Illustrated cover shot—which dares the viewer to resist imagining where Phelps' pubic hair should be—suggest that SI wants to put him out to stud? And what about the most important endorsement a citizen can make? Elsewhere on NBC, looking like crap opposite Brian Williams—we could see up Phelps' shorts as far as the upper thigh—the well-trained golden boy resisted committing to a presidential candidate: "Ah, ah, dn, dah—I'm I'm not getting into either side. ... Y'know, personally I do, but y'know, I just sort of keep that to myself." His media-trained mind short-circuited for a second there, but the message was clear: Michael Phelps is selling himself as a superstar so apolitical as to make Tiger Woods look like Cassius Clay. U-S-A!

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.