When Michael Phelps speaks, everyone listens

Somehow, Michael Phelps is smiling.

The other press conferences – for divers, wrestlers, and archers – have been modest affairs, a sprinkling of jet-lagged journalists amid empty seats and pat answers. But Michael Phelps steps to the podium, and instantly the Olympics have begun.

Questions come in every accent the world has yet devised, all asking questions that he has answered for more than four years. The word “Spitz” – that's Mark Spitz, as in the world record holder for most gold medals won in a single Olympics (1972) – is rather common.

But Phelps, by now, is a professional Olympian, as is 40-something Dara Torres to his right, who notes that she has now been doing this for 24 years. Teammate and world-record holder Katie Hoff is 19.

On the stage, they whisper to each like two schoolkids at the back of the class, grinning at their own daring. Phelps has chosen this of all moments to grow a Fu Manchu moustache that makes him look at once comic and oddly imposing. Five hours later the decision is on Google News.

There is the sense that he is laughing at us – at our view of him, at the Michael Phelps of our mind. That word comes up again: “Spitz.” Can you really win eight gold medals, Michael?

“I’ve never said anything about that,” he responds. “Bob and I know my goals,” he says of his coach, “I have never told any of you.”

It is not petulant, but it is a rebuke. “You don’t know me,” might be one way to paraphrase it.

He raced the 200-meter freestyle in Athens, he says, not because he expected to win, but because he relished the challenge of swimming in what was probably the single most hotly contested swimming race of those Games.

He finished third. He will swim it again in Beijing.

He appears sincerely to enjoy the idea of honoring his country with medals. But he swims for himself. As he must. Otherwise, how could he sit before this crowd – this curious hybrid of United Nations and Spanish Inquisition – with the expectation of a world upon him and laugh with the teammate he calls his mother?

"What do you think of the Fu Manchu?" a reporter asks Torres.

“She’s my mother," Phelps jokes. "She has to like me no matter what.”

Easy. Unforced. The Olympics are perhaps more theater than sport now, and Phelps is a professional Olympian – as much in control on the dais as in the pool.

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