Phelps’ ‘Failure’: 2012 Olympic Performance

05 Aug

Well sports fans, Michael Phelps is allegedly done.  Finit. Peaced out.  Retired.  He announced (and has said leading up to and during this entire Olympics) that this was his last international competition.

The debate has already begun and will surely continue to rage as to whether this past Olympic performance put Phelps on top as the greatest Olympic athlete of all time.  This is an interesting argument with some compelling evidence, but one that I’m not going to tackle here (maybe in a later post).

Regardless of whether he is the greatest athlete or not, he is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time with 22 medals: 18 gold, 2 silver, and 2 bronze.

However, if you’ve been paying attention and watching much of this year’s Olympic coverage of the swimming and Phelps’ performance, you might have thought that Phelps underachieved and had a disappointing performance this year.  Perhaps it was because Phelps didn’t go 8 for 8 with gold medals this year as he did in ’08 in Beijing (in London he was “disappointing” with 4 gold and 2 silver medals).

This is how Messner argues that we define success and is problematic…

This seems to be an example (in many ways) of an article by Michael Messner entitled “The Meaning of Success: The Athletic Experience and the Development of Male Identity.”  Messner’s main argument here is that, by definition, 99% of individuals will fail at “success” in sport because we have such a narrow definition of what success is – making it to the very top.  He further argues that this is especially important to males’ identities.  I would argue that the coverage surrounding most of Phelps’ Olympic performance in London matches what this article argues.  We have such a narrow standard of success (especially for Phelps) that when he failed to medal in his first event (the 400IM which is usually a signature event for him), all kinds of people questioned his “killer instinct,” his training, his drive, and his stature as an Olympic athlete.  These questions continued to swirl even as he went on to medal and post incredibly successful results in his remaining races.


Even Bob Costas, who I normally respect and admire as a sports guy, seemed to fall into this routine as he peppered Phelps with questions asking about his ‘killer instinct’ and his will to win in at least a couple of interviews.  Phelps, the consummate professional, acknowledged that he had trained differently and had more “reasonable expectations” this year (basically not expecting to go 8 for 8

Less than 8 for 8 just won’t cut it…

again), but that he was going to let his swimming do the talking.


But the overall tone during this entire Olympics suggested that Phelps’ performance was a huge disappointment.  But I would argue that this disappointment could only be considered “disappointing” based on a terribly narrow definition of success.  Let’s face it, 4 gold and 2 silver medals will probably still be the most impressive performance of any athlete of any country this Olympics.  But it’s still not enough for the media to let Phelps completely off the hook.


I think that as the Olympics (and time) go on, people will come to appreciate Phelps’ accomplishments.  Indeed, we can already see that starting to come out as people begin to acknowledge that he has an incredible Olympic medal record (and that this is the end for the historic swimmer).  But unfortunately, in his last Olympic games, he was forced to confront these reporters and others as if he had somehow failed.  I believe that was Messner’s main critique: that how we define athletic success is problematic and there are many pitfalls to this narrow definition.  And this can be applied to Phelps’ Olympic situation.

So let’s please remember that simply making the Olympics (as if that’s simple) is a huge accomplishment (something Phelps has done 4 times now: 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012).  And medaling is also huge (that means you are one of the top 3 people in the world at your event at that point in time).  And medaling and winning that consistently is even more impressive.  And even if someone doesn’t medal in the Olympics (even if we think they should) does not make that person unsuccessful.  So let’s think about Messner and try to understand what he is saying – especially about defining and acknowledging what “success” is.  It’s important to occasionally think outside of these narrow definitions defined by sport, as well as realize the importance of other, non-sport activities.

So to be very clear, I don’t think that Phelps’ 2012 Olympic performance was in any way, shape, or form a failure.  I’m disappointed that it was covered by many in the media as if it was a less than stellar performance.


Posted by on August 5, 2012 in sociology, Sports


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

6 responses to “Phelps’ ‘Failure’: 2012 Olympic Performance

  1. Buddy

    August 5, 2012 at 2:01 PM

    I felt like Phelps bounced back after not placing in his first event. I was disappointed in him at first, but he really finished strong. Locthe was a different story. After destroying the field in his first event, I expected him to live up to his hype. He just couldn’t finish. Oh well, America>>>China.


  2. trokspot

    August 5, 2012 at 2:39 PM

    Yeah, and one of Phelps’ silvers could’ve easily been a gold (the relay). He had a great Olympics but the media beat up on him I thought, even after he started winning his events…

    I never quite bought into the Lochte hype even though he was on par with Phelps leading up to the Olympics.

    America rocks, but unfortunately the medal count is tilting in China’s favor:

    Maybe track will help put us back on top…


    • joe

      August 7, 2012 at 3:37 PM

      I don’t know the exact statistic, but I read that a “much higher percentage” of females watch the Olympics than men. Their reasoning was due to the drama that is involved with the events as well as the drama created by the media. There are many back stories that are very interesting. Samyr Laine who is in the mens triple jump final, was a roommate of Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard and was facebook member #14. But I digress… My point is leave it to the media to exacerbate any miniscule storyline to grab our short attention spans. I think that is what happened to the Michael Phelps “failure”.


      • trokspot

        August 9, 2012 at 11:09 PM

        That’s interesting. I hadn’t seen that, but I can honestly say that I’m not terribly surprised. If you look at the Olympic sports that receive a lot of coverage, I think that you’d find that those are the sports that are not traditionally considered masculine or valued by male “sports guys” in the US (i.e. swimming, women’s gymnastics, perhaps even track).

        But, yes, you’re exactly right. Anything to drum up some attention/drama….


  3. Andy

    August 9, 2012 at 4:20 PM

    But many of Phelp’s golds over the years could have also been silvers. Think of Jason Lezak’s performance in the 4×100 in Beijing. Without that, you would still have people arguing that Phelps and Spitz are equal.

    Greatest olympic athlete of all time = Daley Thompson (back to back decathlon gold medalist and four-time world record holder) It doesn’t get any more badass than the decathlon.


    • Fly Killa

      August 9, 2012 at 11:02 PM

      You’re exactly right – like track, swimming races are often decided by tenths or even hundredths of seconds. I’m not sure if I’m willing to argue if he is the greatest olympian of all time…I can certainly see both sides of that argument (including the fact that simply the structure of swimming meets allows him more opportunities to medal than the average olympian). But he is the most decorated.
      And my beef with this year was covering Phelps as if he was washed up or somehow underachieving. That’s simply ridiculous and unfair by the media.

      Rick Reilly keeps pushing for Jesse Owens as GOAT and I can’t argue with that one. The context in which that happened makes his performance that much more impressive. I think a solid case could be made for a small handful of athletes.



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