Somewhere in the lower stands of Beijing’s National Aquatics Center, right around where Debbie Phelps and Kobe and LeBron were sitting, it was probably very obvious that something historic was happening here Sunday morning. But from Section 202 of the Water Cube, where I was lucky enough to win a seat in a ticket lottery last fall, it was sometimes hard to tell whether I was at the Olympics or a high-school swim meet.
As Phelps’ race for eight approached, the PA announcers inside the building never mentioned what he was trying to accomplish. Blame the overwrought sense of decorum and fair play that permeates the Olympics—heaven forbid the International Olympic Committee acknowledge that the crowd might care more about Michael Phelps than a backstroke specialist from New Zealand. As a consequence, while viewers at home were reminded of Mark Spitz, we were watching inflatable Friendlies gyrate to the Hamster Dance. The result was a surprising lifelessness in the stands, even though a Phelps victory was not a foregone conclusion. There was also the strange fact that tickets to watch Michael Phelps swim were among the toughest to get in town—I heard stories of people paying nearly $1,000 for views no better than mine—and yet, as has been the case throughout the Games, more than a few seats went unfilled.
Within the Games, there’s wide variance in the degree to which the crowd gets involved. Beach volleyball—with its cheerleaders and MCs—is at one extreme. (And it’s not just that Phelps isn’t Chinese: On Sunday night, the atmosphere at an Australia-Brazil beach volleyball quarterfinal match was more electric than the Water Cube’s had been 11 hours earlier.) Even the organizers of an archery final I went to Friday did a better job creating a sense of drama.
Why was Sunday morning’s swimming session so lacking in tension? It didn’t help that the events started at 10 a.m. The biggest problem, though, was the bizarre pacing. First came the 50-meter women’s freestyle, which was over in less than 25 seconds. That was followed by the men’s 1,500-meter freestyle, an event so long that what sounded like elevator music played throughout the first dozen or so laps. Then there was a long wait, which included the medal ceremonies for the first two events and a rendition of “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi. Finally, the two medley relays began—with just a few minutes between the end of the women’s race and the moment when Phelps finally stepped onto the deck.
On TV, all of the pre-race bluster helps build suspense. The elements that are usually so annoying about televised sports—the bombastic in-studio introduction, the amped-up scene-setting by the announcers, even the cut to commercial—do a pretty good job of creating anticipation for a three-and-a-half-minute race. In the Water Cube, by contrast, the closest thing to a dramatic build-up was a Microsoft Windows-style hourglass on the Jumbotron informing us that there were only 10 minutes to go before the session started. Except at the finish of the first three races, the crowd around us was oddly calm for most of the morning.
Of course, if the crowd wasn’t up to the occasion, it was partly my fault—or, at least, the fault of people like me. Like most Americans (or Chinese, for that matter), I pay attention to swimming only every four years. And yet because of the vagaries of the Olympic ticketing system—if you’re an average fan, you basically apply for dozens of tickets and take what you get in a lottery—my brother and I got very, very lucky. Sure, there were a few “super fans,” including the families and friends of the athletes and other devotees who follow these sports during non-Olympic years. (The loudest cheers in the building probably came from other swimmers who packed the stands.) But the aquatics center wasn’t filled with swimming junkies ready to cheer themselves hoarse; these were fans who would have been equally content to watch badminton.
When Phelps got into the pool, I finally felt as if I was witnessing history. I have Kosuke Kitajima to thank for that: The breaststroker, who claimed a sort of parallel dominance to Phelps at these Games, managed to claim the lead for Japan by the end of the medley’s second leg. By the time Phelps began his swim, it became clear to us—even without the benefit of any commentary—that there was a decent chance the Americans wouldn’t win.
Viewers at home saw the race from two vantage points: a bird’s-eye view of the eight swimmers in the pool and a closer shot of the swimmers from above the water. Watching in person, you’re mostly confined to that first view—albeit with a better angle than the one usually shown on NBC, and with a sense of distance that emphasizes just how unnaturally fast the swimmers move through water. After Phelps retook the lead and Jason Lezak tried to hold onto it, my mind was able to focus on just one thing: the slim margin between the swimmers at the front of the pack. As Australia’s Eamon Sullivan swam just fast enough to suggest he might catch Lezak, I forgot even to look at Phelps cheering his team on.
When Lezak touched the wall and the American celebrations began, the crowd finally began to acknowledge what had happened. And, in its own weird way, so did the swimming federation responsible for running the event, giving Phelps a “certificate of recognition” that seemed more appropriate for a Little League awards dinner. A few minutes after the race was finished and the results had been certified, the PA announcer—in the same tone he used to admonish the crowd not to use flash photography—said that the “Beijing Olympics has witnessed the greatest Olympian in history—Michael Phelps of the USA.” Everyone in the building already knew that, but it was still nice to hear someone say it out loud.