NEW YORK (AP) — NBC may believe that Michael Phelps means it when he says his swimming career is over, but ultimately isn't ready to bet the house on it.
The network turned its Saturday night broadcast into a valedictory for the Olympics' most decorated athlete, properly so. Phelps won his 23rd gold medal for his part in the Americans' victory in the 4x100 medley relay, his 28th medal overall in 30 Olympic events.
"Here he is, Superman, finally handing in his cape. What a way to head into the sunset," said metaphor-happy analyst Rowdy Gaines.
"Michael Phelps has ended his Olympic career in spectacular fashion," said his broadcast partner, Dan Hicks.
The finality matched the way NBC had been playing it up all evening. After all, the 31-year-old Phelps has said he was retiring from swimming, and during the meet had seemed very much at peace with himself publicly.
Phelps had retired once before, though, after the 2012 London Games. The first inklings of doubt came during Michele Tafoya's interview with the relay team. Swimmer Ryan Murphy said that "maybe it's his last race, maybe not. He says it is. I don't think so."
"It is, it is," Phelps said.
"Potentially," teammate Nathan Adrian said.
Tafoya sharply asked Phelps, "How can you be so sure?" The 23-time gold medalist replied with some familiar bromides about it being "not the end of a career, it's the beginning of a new journey."
By the time Hicks signed off from the pool, there was less certainty: "An emotional journey, we think, has come to an end." Later, after the team received its gold medals, Gaines noted that Phelps' mother really wanted to go to Rio de Janeiro. "I think she'd love Tokyo, don't you?" he said of the 2020 Olympic site.
PIGGY-BACKING ON PHELPS: Advertisers love to be associated with a winner, but NBC's parent company Comcast's attempt to wrap itself in Phelps' glory felt stunningly inappropriate. Comcast ran two ads mixing its products with Phelps' swims right after the winning relay, and repeated one of them later.
ROWDY TIME: It was a mixed night for the excitable Gaines. He astutely identified Britain as the only team really capable of challenging Phelps' team in that final race, and the Brits earned silver. His praise of swimmer Cody Miller seemed odd after Miller coughed up a big lead in his leg. And he seemed too much of a homer in his praise of American silver medalists Simone Manuel and Connor Jaeger, at the expense of gold medalists Pernille Blume of Denmark and Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy.
TRACK TIME: As the Olympics shift to track and field events, we're looking forward to the work of NBC analyst Ato Boldon. He was particularly sharp Saturday in his analysis of Usain Bolt's qualifying race, not just saying Bolt was rusty, but explaining precisely how.
RATINGS: The ratings picture for NBC has stayed consistent: strong, but not at the levels of London. An estimated 24 million people watched Friday night's telecast, and NBC said an additional two million watched NBCSN or streamed the Olympics in prime time. The London Games reached 28.5 million viewers for the corresponding Friday.
COURAGEOUS RACE: She finished 16 seconds behind her closest competitor in a 400-meter heat on Saturday, but Maryan Muse earned cheers from the crowd and a heartfelt salute from NBC. Muse, from Somalia, wore a hijab head covering and was more modestly dressed than her competitors. "In the spirit of the Olympics and inclusion, it's great to see the best that Somalia has to offer," said NBC's Sanya Richards-Ross. "Just the fact that she's here means so much."
THE O'DONOVANS: For some fun, go online and check out the interview Irish rowing brothers Paul and Greg O'Donovan gave to a home country TV station after winning a silver medal. They're disappointed to be missing celebrations back home for Ireland's first medal of Rio. Something tells us they'll make up for it.
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder