COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — 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 only six months left before the flame is ignited at the opening ceremonies, The Associated Press sent e-mails 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.