It's easy to get cynical about Michael Phelps. It's easy to lie back and wait for him to slip up somehow, as if his superhuman collection of Olympic swimming medals—which will need an enlarged display case when he gets home from London—has to be masking some sort of tragic or comic flaw.
And so a Google search on "Phelps bong" returns 365,000 results, along with some amusing attempts at photo editing. And so the critics pounce when he turns up in London and misses the podium for the first time since 2000.
The backlash was beautifully lampooned here:
Only 18 medals in 20 races? Michael Phelps is a clownfraud choker, amirite?— Barry Petchesky (@barryap1) July 31, 2012
It's as if we have something within us that won't accept that someone can be that good.
Well, too bad. He is that good.
The question now: What sort of legacy has he left for his sport? Can he create a long-term fanbase for a sport even as it struggles with widespread accusations of horrific sexual abuse?
We know everyone's watching swimming now. The numbers for Phelps (and, yes, Gabby Douglas) were through the roof. That doesn't even count the people who managed to watch it live online. He's even drawing peak viewership in Britain.
None of these numbers means that swimming will replace the Super Bowl as the top sport on American airwaves. Even if you could shake Americans out of their long-standing antipathy toward "Olympic sports" in non-Olympic years, swimming doesn't lend itself to a sustained TV presence.
The big reason is the nature of the sport. Swimming isn't a week-in, week-out sport. It's built around the "taper"—easing out of heavy training just in time to be fresh for a big event such as the NCAA Championships, the World Championships or the biggest of all, the Olympics.
Swimming has a World Cup circuit. But if you look at last year's rankings, you'll see one guy who broke out in the Olympics (South Africa's Chad le Clos), a couple of other big names from the Olympics and then a few names you won't remember from the medal stand in London. Phelps ranked sixth, and it's safe to say he wasn't worried about it.
Perhaps the World Championships can get more viewers. Last year, you could listen to the excitable Rowdy Gaines on NBC's coverage, though most of it was dropped off on the sporadically available Universal Sports network.
If the World Championships were more widely available, would you watch?
That's the real question. Phelps has done all he can. And it's safe to say we'll all be watching the pool when the Olympics roll around again in 2016. Whether we watch Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky in their more immediate endeavors will depend on NBC's cable and broadcast strategy and the ratings it can get.
And so in the long run, the medals belong to Phelps. His legacy is up to us.