Michael Phelps is the most decorated American athlete in Olympic history. His incredible run in the last four Summer Games will be remembered for the rest of our sporting eternity. Whatever he does in London, Phelps has already established himself as an immortal champion.
So why are so many people rooting against him?
I thought it was just me for a while. To be honest, I kept my rooting interests quiet during the Beijing Olympics whenever Phelps dove into the pool. When another American was in the pool, I would pull for that guy instead. When Phelps was against a heat of non-Americans, it wasn't as if I actively rooted for another swimmer as much as I found myself passively rooting against Phelps.
It turns out that this time around I'm not even the only one in my house—let alone the only one in the country—with Phelps fatigue. My wife can't stand the guy. My mother, who always disagrees with me, is shockingly rooting against him in this Olympics too. When I brought this up in random circles during the first weekend of the Olympics, I was shocked to see how many people agreed with me.
It really is a tough position when you watch the Olympics hoping a specific American doesn't win gold. We've been conditioned for generations that the Olympics are as much about cultural equality as they are about international dominance through sport.
Countries have defined themselves through sporting successes for centuries. For the better part of 12 years, American athletic supremacy has been defined by Phelps.
Is there a rule for this? Is rooting for one specific American to falter unpatriotic?
Many people told me before the Summer Games began that they would have a hard time rooting for USA basketball with LeBron James on the court. Some people are sick of the antics from Serena Williams and find it hard to root for her in anything, let alone the Olympics.
It makes sense to root for our team sports to win gold, as the teams are an amalgamation of talent constructed to represent our country. Suck it up, LeBron haters, you have to root for that guy no matter how much you dislike him. (And for me, well, I have to root for Phelps in the relays without a second thought.)
Come to think of it, there is a less negative way to look at American rooting interests in the Olympics.
We are conditioned by NBC to root for storylines from athletes of all countries. If you root for double-amputee Oscar Pistorius in the 400-meter, does that make you un-American if LaShawn Merritt is in his heat?
Does it make you un-American to root for Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer in a match against John Isner or Andy Roddick? When they play professionally, nationality doesn't matter. So, is a die-hard fan of one of the world's best players supposed to root against him because someone from their country is competing too?
Maybe the answer is…yes.
Or, perhaps, tennis may be a bad example, as the two competitors in that sport compete directly against one another. Perhaps the best example is the men's 100-meter dash, where Usain Bolt has become an icon around the world after his record-setting performance in Beijing and his record-shattering run a year later in Germany.
Can Americans root for Bolt to break his own world record? Or do we have to root for Tyson Gay or Justin Gatlin just because they wear the same flag we stand and salute?
It's not that anyone may be rooting against Gay or Gatlin specifically, it's more that people who want to witness greatness know that Bolt can establish himself as the greatest sprinter of all time if he wins another gold at the Olympics.
I know what you are thinking, because as I write this, I'm thinking it myself: How can it be justifiable to root for Bolt because fans want to see greatness at the expense of American dominance, yet not root for Phelps who has exhibited both greatness and American dominance throughout his career?
There is no answer to that question, other than to say that our Olympic rooting interest may be a lot like rooting interests in professional sports—you root for whomever you like.
If you like Rory McIlroy more than Tiger Woods, you don't care which guy is American, do you? If nationality doesn't matter when they compete in the U.S. Open in golf, why does it really matter for the competitors in the Olympics?
And then again, maybe it does. Maybe the answer is yes. If these athletes are representing our country, maybe we should be rooting exclusively for them—even if that support comes grudgingly for some.