Before the American came to China for the 2008 Games he seriously took a few Chinese lessons. A popular online video shows how hard he tries to imitate the voice of a Chinese learning multimedia software in saying such basic words as "guo zhi" (juice), "nan hai'er" (boy) and "nu hai'er" (girl).
But still, the 23-year-old rated his Chinese language studies as the most difficult thing he had tried in his life. "Learning Mandarin is even harder than winning eight gold medals in the pool."
In primary school Phelps took French and German courses, but the swimming ace said, "all the words, characters and pronunciations in Mandarin are so different. All of them are hard to manage."
He was not the only star athlete trying to learn some Chinese language and culture. When gymnast Nastia Liukin arrived back home in Dallas, Texas, with five medals around her neck, the Russian-born blonde appeared in front of her reception wearing a black T-shirt with two big Chinese characters "Beijing" in the front.
"The Beijing Olympics have brought world attention to the Chinese civilization and further enhanced the utility of the Chinese language worldwide," said Zhao Guocheng, the Office of Chinese Language Council International (OCLCI) deputy director general.
He called the Games an opportunity for the Chinese language to gain more popularity and for China to be better understood by foreigners.
CHINESE LEARNING AREA
As a direct way for foreigners to gain understanding of the nation's culture and history, Chinese characters are undoubtedly the most accessible signs of the nation.
Some foreign spectators who witnessed the Games' opening ceremony at Beijing's National Stadium were completely puzzled when artistic director Zhang Yimou presented a performance showcasing the country's ancient invention of movable-type printing. The show featured a formation of some 900 men imitating the operation of a printer and creating the image of the Chinese character "he," meaning "harmony," in different calligraphic styles.
Foreigners likely were even more puzzled after they saw the sequence of entry at the athletes' march-in, which was completely different from previous Games. The order of entry was decided by the number of strokes of the first character of a delegation's Chinese name, but not by the country's first English language letter.
Anxious to learn the secrets of the strokes that formed a Chinese character, many foreign athletes and reporters came to the "Chinese learning area" in a corner of the Olympic Village.
Since its July 27 opening, the area had received thousands of visitors from about 70 countries and regions, said an language promotion official in charge of the activity.
With a floor space of about 30 square meters, the area is brightly decorated with Chinese painting scrolls, Peking Opera masks and China knots, a traditional handicraft symbolizing good fortune.
The area, jointly established by the OCLCI and the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG), was designed for foreign athletes, coaches and officials living in the village to learn some Chinese and have a taste of Chinese culture for free.
Zhao said athletes usually learned some basic Chinese such as "ni hao" (hello), "xie xie" (thanks) and "zai jian" (goodbye) in less than 30 minutes or after a few hours.
"The Chinese they learned proved useful during their stay in China," he said.
In addition, Chinese tutors also taught the visitors how to congratulate fellow athletes or rivals in Chinese, such as "zhu heni" (congratulations) and "ni zhen bang" (you are great).
They could also try some traditional Chinese calligraphy and play the guzheng, a stringed instrument of the zither family, or Chinese chess.
Deng Yaping, the Olympic Village spokeswoman and four-time Olympic gold medal winning table tennis player, told the press on Aug. 15 the most popular activity at the area was to get a Chinese name for the athletes themselves or their friends. Tutors usually chose a Chinese name that suited the sound or meaning of the foreign visitor's original name.
The area features a large bookshelf loaded with Chinese-learning materials, and a wall to which more than a dozen brush-pen writings by the foreign learners, carrying either their Chinese names or their blessings to the host city and nation, are glued.
Deng said the area at the Beijing Olympics was something unique that previous Games didn't have.
FREQUENTLY USED OLYMPIC CHINESE
Among the spectators at Olympic venues, a great deal of foreigners were holding large Chinese placards with characters such as "wanmei" (perfect), "li" (force), or "pinbo" (striving) while watching the Games.
England footballer David Beckham had his waist tattooed with a Chinese idiom meaning one's fate and fortune was decided by the God.
Chinese-character tattoos also appeared on NBA star players on the gold-medal winning U.S. men's basketball team and a Canadian woman beach volleyball player, who considered the skin art fashionable and auspicious.
Chinese cultural signs such as "blue and white porcelain," Olympic medals of gold inlaid with jade, China knots and jasmine flowers, also became representatives of Chinese culture that left great impressions on foreign visitors during the Games.
Phelps and his mother bought some Chinese character scrolls at Silk Street, a place popular among foreigners looking for cultural souvenirs, as gifts to bring back home and as decoration.
But none of these Chinese cultural signs had left a more indelible impression than two simple characters "jia you," a chant that can be loosely translated as "Go! Go!"
The rally call of support and encouragement, easily pronounced than most other Chinese characters, was the most practical and widespread phrase during the Games.
But foreigners have found it hard to properly translate "jia you" as the phrase seems so omnipotent that it could be used in various cases such as "Wenchuan Jiayou" or "Sichuan Jiayou," referring to the Sichuan earthquake that struck the region on May 12, causing huge losses to life and the economy; the whole nation was motivated to conquer the hardship.
Online discussions of the topic became heated since many posters appeared on BBS, inviting ideas about how to best translate "Zhongguo (China) jiayou."
It seems to have become the unifying cry of Chinese everywhere since the devastating earthquake and during the overseas leg of the Olympic torch relay.
Netizen "JSummers83" wrote on TravelChinaGuide.com that he did not consider the translation "Go China" really fitting, especially for the case of the quake.
"Lemoncactus" responded by saying that "Come on China," "Come on Sichuan" might well be a satisfactory translation, meaning support for continuously striving and succeeding despite being in a difficult spot. But its common link with sport made the translation seem odd to him when it had to be related to the earthquake.
Though lost in translation, spectators don't even bother to translate it. During the Games, foreign spectators, waving different national flags, simply chanted "jia you," or even painted the words on their face, to cheer for athletes.
The OCLCI's Zhao said Confucius Institutes worldwide had helped to offer Chinese lessons to athletes attending the Games. The Confucius Institute of the University of Auckland was commissioned by New Zealand's Olympic Committee to teach athletes and coaches some Chinese and culture.
The institute, a Chinese language and cultural teaching body, was named after the great ancient philosopher and educator who traveled across separated Chinese kingdoms about 2,500 years ago to spread knowledge and peace. They had been set up by the OCLCI through cooperation with colleges worldwide since 2004.
It is the Chinese version of Spain's Instituto Cervantes, Germany's Goethe-Institute, the British Council and Alliance Francaise.
By July, 262 Confucius Institutes, mostly a combination of local teaching facilities and teachers sent from China, had been established in 75 countries and regions, statistics showed.
Many elite universities such as the University of California in Los Angeles, the University of Melbourne in Australia and Waseda University in Tokyo had set up Confucius Institutes with the OCLCI.
Currently, there were 40 million non-Chinese learning the language worldwide. The figure was growing by at least 10 million a year and was expected to reach 100 million by 2010, the OCLCI claimed.
After their brief language training with the local Confucius Institute, foreign athletes usually took along small handbooks such as "Olympic Chinese 100 useful sentences" with some "survival Chinese" included.
"About 1 million books have been distributed to foreign athletes or tourists in the athletes' village or at the airport," Zhao said.
In another free service, the OCLCI paid China Mobile to send a text short message to all mobile phone users in the Olympic Green, the central area of the Games, which taught the recipients four short phrases in Chinese, English and the Chinese pronunciation system of Pinyin.