The Read Zone Classic (2012): NBC Should Be Ashamed of Bob Costas and Last Night’s Interview of Michael Phelps

By: Brian Mangan

[We at the Read Zone have been a little busy this week, but in light of the Winter Olympics and Bob Costas in the news, we thought it would be appropriate to run our first Read Zone Classic, an article written by this author in August 2012.  We hope you enjoy].

It may have been longer in real-time, but in mere minutes after the completion of the 4×200 freestyle relay that ended up with Michael Phelps winning his 19th overall medal in Olympic competition — hence becoming the most decorated Olympian of all-time — Phelps sat down via satellite for an interview with Bob Costas of NBC.

This is not an Olympic or general interest blog, but I’ve got to take a moment away from regularly scheduled programming to say that Costas, and NBC, should be ashamed of the treatment of Phelps in said interview. Here is part of the transcript of the interview[1]:

Bob Costas: “Let’s talk about that 200 butterfly. You had the lead much of the way. You were out-touched by Chad Le Clos of South Africa 5 one-hundredths of a second.  It’s hard to say that when you win a silver medal that something has gone wrong but your standard is so high that I guess we can put it that way. What went wrong?

Michael Phelps: Um… … there are times I go slow into the wall or touch lazy and it showed…  And, sure I’d like to have been 6 one-hundredths faster but there’s nothing I can do about that right now, it’s time to move forward…

Bob Costas: But virtually anybody else’s standards you’re still working like a demon but in 2008 in Beijing you were at the peak of fitness, peak of talent and technically you were also better than everybody else… Is it fair to say that even a little bit, where things are measured in one-hundredths of a second, even just a little bit, you’re not quite where you were in ’08?

Michael Phelps: No, that’s obvious… For me I’m just having fun. Being at my fourth Olympics. Representing the USA, the greatest country in the world.
(…)
Bob Costas: You’re one of the greatest competitors ever but I get the sense things are winding down in your career

I find discussion of Michael Phelps’ training, and his relative abilities compared to Beijing 2008 to be interesting.  But now was not the time to be asking these questions.  As I sat on my couch watching the interview, I felt myself becoming more and more offended by the way Costas was constantly wearing down Phelps.

Phelps, like him or not, literally just became the most prolific Olympian of all time.  The odds are, he will be setting a record in London that will not be broken in our lifetimes.  How can Costas sit there and ask him about his failings?  How can you make the central focus of the interview — not a slight tangent, not a curiosity — the fact that he’s been better, and could have been better, and that he has failed to be his best?

For what it’s worth, he completed the 200m Butterfly yesterday in 1:53.01.  He was the second fastest swimmer in the pool, after Le Clos, and only missed out on victory by the narrowest of margins — by .05 of one second.  However, his time of 1:53.01 is, on its own, absolutely remarkable.  How remarkable?  His time yesterday, although only good for second in this race, was faster than every recorded 200m Butterfly time in history prior to 2007.  It was also within a second of the Olympic Record, which he himself set in Beijing.  Of the 37 swimmers who competed in the 200m Butterfly at this year’s Olympics, only ten of them came within even three seconds of that time — the other 27, who came from all over the world to compete, wouldn’t have even been in the frame of the picture on your television at the finish line against Phelps.

Michael Phelps is at the absolute peak of human performance – and he’s within a millimeter of his own peak performance.  Who is to say that the amount he fell off has as much to do with training as it does with age?  With the conditions that day?  With luck?  With his specific performance in that run that has nothing to do with conditioning or desire?

The point is, there definitely is a time and place for that kind of post-mortem.  But not now — not when Michael Phelps is barely out of the pool, and when the gold on his medal from his most recent victory is still cool from the box that it was sitting in before the medal ceremony.  Don’t wear him down about being only the second fastest human-being in the world; especially not when he’s mere minutes separated from accomplishing what is, probably, the greatest individual feat in the history of sports.

Michael Phelps is the best of all time.  He’s an American.  And he was due a lot more respect than he was given in that interview. Ten years from now,  nobody is going to be able to look back on his first interview after this incredible accomplishment and feel anything resembling pride, listening to Phelps apologize and speculate as to why he wasn’t better.  And it’s a damned shame.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney who lives in New York City.  He loves the Mets, the United States, and knows there is a time for critique, and a time for celebration.