Asked if he would stay in Beijing for the Closing Ceremony, a week after his final race, Phelps said, "I have some other things . . . obligations that I've got to do."
So while Phelps attends to sponsor promotions, the Games organizers and NBC Sports are committed to playing out the schedule through Sunday. It's just that without him, the 2008 Olympics are limping toward the finish.
That's more than an expression, in China's case. Track hurdler Liu Xiang, a defending Olympic champion and a Yao Ming-sized star in this country, pulled out of his 110-meter heat Monday because of a foot injury. He walked slowly away from the starting blocks and off the track, taking the hopes and years-long anticipation of China with him into the tunnel of the "Bird's Nest" stadium.
The Chinese still have Yao and his basketball team, which qualified for the quarterfinals, but Liu's absence causes "major trauma," said Jamie Metzl, an executive of the New York-based Asia Society.
"It is impossible to overstate the impact of Liu Xiang to the people of China," said Metzl, a former State Department official. He had predicted if Liu lost his final race, "you would feel the air going out of the stomachs of 1.3 billion people."
That may describe how NBC executives felt when Phelps climbed out of the pool for the last time. The network was enjoying a record pace for Olympic ratings, averaging some 30 million viewers nightly as Phelps was shown live (or close to it) in U.S. markets, winning a record eight gold medals while competing in the mornings in Beijing.
The American women's gymnasts also helped boost the ratings, and they're down to one event: All-around champion Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson will compete Tuesday on the balance beam.
So what's left after that? Not much. There's still some drama in the gold medal count, being led by China, but few high-profile contests will spice the competition. Track and basketball usually drive the second week of the Summer Games. With Liu out, the biggest track event is Wednesday's 200 meters, with Jamaica's Usain Bolt attempting to duplicate his world-record performance in winning the 100 last weekend.
For Utahns, there's intrigue in Wednesday's quarterfinal basketball game, featuring former University of Utah center Andrew Bogut of Australia against the U.S. team with Jazz players Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. But the Americans have played so well, in contrast to 2004, that little mystery remains in the tournament. What's more, Sunday's gold medal game begins at 12:30 a.m. Utah time.
At this point, NBC's best strategy might be to superimpose an image of Phelps swimming alongside sailing vessels or canoe paddlers, or just show a lot of beach volleyball.