By Ted Keith
A recent story out of Beijing suggested that, even as he smashes records, wins gold medals and becomes arguably the greatest Olympian in history, there is one thing Michael Phelps can not do: become a household name in the homes of more than 1/6 of the world's population.
Indeed, while Michael Mania reigns in the U.S. and much of the world, in China, Phelps' rising star may never eclipse the heights already attained by some of China's native sons and daughters, who to their 1.3 billion countrymen are the true stars of these Olympic Games. Few of those athletes are as popular as Guo Jinging, who now may also be known by another name: most decorated female diver in Olympic history. Guo thrilled the fans of her home nation by winning her fifth and sixth Olympic diving medals this week, including the 3-meter springboard on Sunday. This is now the second straight Olympic Games in which Guo has won both the individual and synchronized diving gold medals.
Clearly, Guo's success is nothing new, and neither is her popularity. But it does speak volumes about how the Olympics are really as much local theater as global spectacle. That explains how an athlete like Michael Phelps can be lauded and lionized on both sides of the Atlantic, while his fame barely causes a splash in the Pacific, and as far as the United States is concerned, Guo makes more of a ripple entering the water on her near-perfect dives than she has on these shores in two wildly successful Olympiads.
Some might see that as disappointing, but to me, it's a good thing. It means that the world's fans are finding enjoyment - and inspiration - from athletes throughout the Games, whether their medal totals are outnumbered by their sponsorship deals or whether they simply succeed, like Guo did, in reminding us what the Games are truly about: the world's best athletes, competing at their best, at the best possible time.