America's next star? Could be anyone
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Michael Phelps. Missy Franklin. Jordyn Wieber. Ryan Lochte.
Any of those athletes could be the defining face of the U.S. Olympic team in the run-up to the London Games. So far, though, none stands alone as "The One To Watch" — at least not according to people who make a living out of watching the Olympics.
With 2012 under way and only six months left before the flame is ignited at opening ceremonies, The Associated Press sent emails to sports agents and executives, public-relations people and others with strong Olympic ties, asking them who America's so-called face of the Olympics would be as the games approach.
Unlike past Olympic cycles, when Phelps or Marion Jones or Bode Miller or Lindsey Vonn were the clear-cut Americans to watch, there was no consensus this time around.
Phelps got the most votes with four, followed by Franklin with three, then Wieber (gymnastics) and Lochte (swimming) with two apiece. The rest of the 16 responses were spread among five athletes: gymnast Nastia Liukin, sprinter Allyson Felix, swimmer Dara Torres and soccer players Abby Wambach and Hope Solo.
That the question produced such a scattered list makes clear that generating buzz for the Olympics will take more this year than simply plastering a single person's face on a 50-foot billboard in Times Square.
"I think we have 10 or 20 athletes who could be that face," said Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "As I sit here today, I don't know who that face is going to be."
The people who received the AP questionnaire were assured their names would be kept confidential, in an attempt to get the most candid answers possible.
They were asked for American athletes only, which precluded them from naming Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who owns world records in the 100 and 200 and could have come close to sweeping the survey if nationality were no factor.
"Clearly, the world will be watching Usain Bolt, for obvious reasons and deserved reasons," said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Book of the Olympics." ''Clearly, people will be keeping their eye on Michael Phelps, as a record setter, even if he's not as dominant as he was before."
Phelps already owns more Olympic gold than anyone and needs three more medals of any color to become the most decorated athlete in history. His quest will, of course, be compelling, but it will also be mixed in with his competition against Lochte, who won five gold medals at the 2011 world championships and beat Phelps in their two head-to-head matchups.
If viewing patterns stay similar to what they were in 2008, Phelps vs. anybody in the pool will draw the best ratings. All of NBC's prime time telecasts that drew more than 30 million viewers in 2008 came on nights when swimming was featured. (Track and field didn't fare as well, though most of that coverage was shown on tape delay while most swimming coverage was live.)
"It's an intriguing story," Wallechinsky said of the Phelps-Lochte drama that could develop. "But trying to sell a U.S. versus U.S. rivalry, where the characters don't really hate each other, sometimes that's a little rough. It pains me when, sometimes, you see media pitching a rivalry between two athletes who are actually friends, just for the sake of creating a rivalry."
That's very much the way the 2008 gymnastics competition was fed to the public — Nastia Liukin vs. Shawn Johnson. They battled back and forth in the years leading up to Beijing, and their head-to-head in the Olympic all-around was high theater, barely won by Liukin.
Both are trying to make the 2012 team, but unlike 2008, this year's star isn't permanently affixed to anyone just yet.
Wieber, the 16-year-old world champion is the front-runner to become America's top all-around gymnast, and she already has an appearance on "Ellen" and a deal with Kellogg's as signs of what some people think of her potential. But the health of Rebecca Bross, who was touted as the "next big thing" before injuries derailed her, could still factor into the big picture.
Of course, the U.S. team can't depend on any single athlete to make the Olympics an overall success, though Phelps' eight golds in 2008 certainly helped matters.
Americans have won the most medals at the past four Summer Olympics, but with China and Russia improving and with smaller countries, such as Brazil, Great Britain and Australia, chipping away from the other side, there's a sense that the United States is under more pressure this time.
"The medal count is going to be the medal count," said Alan Ashley, going into his first Olympics as the USOC chief of sport performance. "To us, it's all about how we support the athletes and coaches and help them put their best foot forward when they get to London. If we do our job, then the medal count will take care of itself."
Key to that medal count will be the fate of the track and field team, which won a disappointing 23 medals in Beijing, but improved to 25 at last year's world championships — an upward trend team leaders hope will continue.
Yet finding a singular star from that sport has become difficult, in large part because of the numerous drug scandals that have tainted track over the decades and more or less tagged its top sprinters with a "buyer beware" sign, regardless of their history.
Tyson Gay, possibly America's best sprinter, has no doping issues in his past, but has been hampered with injuries and missed both the finals at the Beijing Games and all of last year's world championships; he didn't garner a single vote in the AP survey. Neither did decathlete Bryan Clay, the defending Olympic champion — a sign of how the clout of the so-called "World's Greatest Athlete" has diminished since the days of Bruce Jenner.
On the women's side, Felix is well-spoken and looks good in magazine shoots, but has been a big factor in her sport for almost a decade now and hasn't connected viscerally with the casual sports fan that makes up a big chunk of the Olympic audience.
"I don't have an explanation for that," Wallechinsky said. "It is a bit odd. There might be some Marion Jones backlash, where they don't want to get burned again, don't want to back a sprinter then have that person test positive at the Olympics. It's one of those things where you can be completely innocent and still be under the shadow of other people's transgressions."
With billions of dollars invested in televising the Olympics, NBC will shape the way most American take in the games. The network, with everything from local affiliates to the web at its disposal, can tell numerous stories on numerous platforms.
Chief Marketing Officer John Miller — the guy who created the catchphrase "Must See TV" — said the network learned a lot when it loaded its pre-Games hype into Bode Miller before the 2006 Olympics, only to watch him turn into a bust on the mountain and a source of controversy off of it.
"We put a significant amount of eggs in that basket," Miller said. "As a result of that, instead of going with one athlete, we decided we had to spread it around a little more. Fortunately, in the Summer Games, we have compelling stories to go after. A lot of them."
In addition to track, gymnastics and swimming, NBC also focuses a lot on beach volleyball, where Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor will go for their third Olympic gold.
"We have enough bandwidth to go after four or five sports in a big way and cover a lot of angles," Miller said.
NBC, he said, has no need to go with one athlete in the lead up. The network invited about 100 athletes out to its pre-Olympic TV shoot in West Hollywood, "because you never know who's going to come out and turn into something big."
In this case, there's no real consensus on who's big before the games, either. The USOC is accepting that fact — trying to embrace the idea of promoting an Olympics with no clear-cut star instead of forcing a single story line.
"It's different from other years because there's not one story there that's bubbled to the top yet," Ashley said. "That's one of the things I love about the Olympics, is that you never really know the answer to that question."