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Does Phelps have the "It" Factor?

September 8, 2008

Michael Phelps Wins Gold With the dust finally settled on Beijing’s Olympic extravaganza , US Swimmer Michael Phelps is undoubtedly the athlete who caused the most splash.

Not surprisingly, Phelps’ 8 gold medals also helped him strike gold with the media. Some have begun to wonder whether he has what it takes to merit our long term attention.

One Chicago Tribune columnist expressed doubt warning that Phelp lacks the “it” factor which he explains as the charisma, the spark, the cool necessary to keep us enthralled with him outside of the pool, the way we were with Jordan outside of the basketball court or Ali outside the boxing ring.

Phelps does little there, he opined.

I beg to differ.

I found myself watching Phelps’ every race and rooting for him passionately, not just because I want my country to win or because I wish to see as much positive American representation on the world scene as humanely possible, what with our global image having deteriorated over the past few years. ..

.. but precisely because, for me at least, Phelps has the "it" factor.

You see, it all depends on your definition of the "it" factor.

Who says the "it" factor has to be charisma, spark, flair, cool, and style?

That assumes a cynical world that only cares when it is entertained and dozes into lackadaisical indifference when it is not.

For me, the "it" factor can also be authenticity, vulnerability, and the wonder of a seemingly every day bloke accomplishing an utterly supernormal feat.

The sheer intrigue, if you will, of how the boy next door can rise above his everyday challenges to become the once in a lifetime, possibly a once in history, phenomenon is captivating and fuels my interest in the Phelps brand, not just the Phelps man.

And I think it just may for a lot of other Americans.

It is precisely his imperfect face, crooked smile, rather unimpressive speech style, his boyish relationship with his adulating mother combined with his genuinely nice guy demeanor that makes his monumental feats so "touching." He reminds me of one of my interns and I am sure he reminds many people of their kids, siblings, friends, neighbors etc. I'll venture to say that's something Jordan and Ali -who come off as larger than life - do not do for many.

Phelps is 23. He is at the zenith of his career with about 8 years still left in it if we assume he is to match teammate’s Jason Lezak's longevity. As such, I predict that he will likely not be forgotten soon and his crooked smile will outlive Beijing's 15 minutes of fame.

It will be interesting to see how authenticity, vulnerability, and an everyday persona fares in a field typically dominated by charisma, spark, and cool.

Only time will tell. Stay tuned.

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