John Clay

Olympic fever, caught at the pool

I didn't want it to happen.

I was intent on indifference. The Olympics didn't matter to me. Not with baseball's pennant races proceeding. Not with NFL training camps opening. Not with Kentucky and Louisville starting their annual grid dance toward their Labor Day weekend showdown. More interesting matters deserved my attention. I would stage my own Olympic boycott.

But my wife, she loves the Olympics. She can't wait for them to start. She's not much of a sports fan — tolerates what she doesn't understand, mocks what she does — but to her the Olympics are different. She still buys into that Olympic ideal of amateur athletes performing great physical feats in athletic endeavors never given their due by the mainstream media. (That would be me.)

So, as expected, she's hooked on these Games of the 29th Olympiad.

Only here's something totally unexpected: I'm hooked, too.

To be sure, I found the grandiose opening ceremonies to be a bit on the creepy side, with the overabundance of fireworks, the laser lights and all that synchronized drumming. It was Orwellian for me, so many people in lock-step, a faceless, if spectacular, exhibition produced by an authoritarian state.

And I still find the gymnastics creepy, as well. The constant sight of those young women who have sacrificed their childhood for the individual importance of the uneven bars is a bit too much to take. And talk about your hug parties. Every completed routine apparently requires an immediate hug, better to ward off the pulverizing pressure, I suppose.

But as for the rest of it — I'm there.

I want to see whether Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, now that the latter has found her wedding ring, can repeat as gold medalists in beach volleyball. I want to see whether Lexington's own Tyson Gay can win the 100 meters. I want to hear the catty remarks from analyst Cynthia Potter when the divers go awry, even by a fraction of an inch.

But, really and truly, it's the swimmers who have drawn me in.

I am now a Michael Phelps fanatic. I want to know what the world's greatest athlete had for breakfast, what he did before lunch. I want to know the names of his sisters (Hilary and Whitney), whatever happened to his father (estranged), where exactly is that North Baltimore Aquatics Club (close to Pimlico, perhaps?). I want Phelps to get the great eight.

As for his mother, my wife put it perfectly, as she often does.

“How can you not like that woman?” she said the other night. Indeed, whether she's rooting on her son from the stands, or crossing her fingers, or chatting with Matt Lauer, or nervously squeezing Cris Collinsworth's knee, Debbie Phelps is just so gosh-darn real.

A mother like that deserves a son like that.

But then they're all deserving, these swimmers, amazing athletes who don't get enough pub. I marveled at the laid-back Aaron Piersol winning the 100-meter backstroke. I celebrated with Natalie Coughlin when she did likewise on the women's side. I empathized with Katie Hoff, so often just a bit short. As someone in his late 40s, I want to see 41-year-old Dara Torres kick a little nautical butt.

Mainly, late Sunday night, like the rest of America, I gasped when Jason Lezak miraculously ran down the trash-talking French for a fingertip win in one of the most dramatic events I have witnessed in all of sports — that U.S. win in the 4-by-100 freestyle relay.

The way those four Americans (Phelps, Lezak, Cullen Jones and Garrett Weber-Gale), came together, screaming and celebrating and hugging in the pure joy of the moment, is surely what this Olympic ideal thing is all about.

And why, in spite of myself, I'm hooked.