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How Winning Silver Won Michael Phelps My Respect

I’m obsessed with the Olympics.


It’s rather pathetic, actually. If I’m not watching a livestream, I’m on Twitter. Thankfully, most of the people I follow on Twitter are British, so I get a wider scope of the games and tweets without the hashtag #NBCfail.

Yesterday, I saw history made. Michael Phelps and Team USA won the gold in the men’s 2x400m freestyle relay, and Phelps received his 19th medal, breaking Soviet Gymnasts Larisa Latynia’s record of 18 as the most medaled Olympian of all time.

But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about what happened an hour before Phelps won the gold.

I want to talk about what happened when Phelps lost to a 20-year-old South African named Chad le Clos.

I’m not a huge fan of Michael Phelps. Funny, considering how my favorite summer Olympic sport is swimming. Obviously, he’s got mad skills, and I might have gone a little crazy while watching the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but he’s not my number one favorite athlete of all time.

(In case you’re wondering, I don’t think I actually have one. Like I said before, I only get excited about sports during the Olympics or World Cup. The rest of the time I’m a very passive spectator. If I had to choose an athlete, I guess I would say Eric Liddell, but that has more to do with how he lived his life than how he won medals.)

The whole world knows Michael Phelps is good at what he does, and his performance in Beijing was legendary, so there have been mixed emotions in the last five days because Phelps has not won every race he’s participated in, and the races he has won have not been easy.

Yesterday, I watched as Chad le Clos won the men’s 200m butterfly by out-touching Michael Phelps.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. It couldn’t. Since 2003, in every international competition that Phelps has been a participant he has won the gold for the 200m butterfly. He wasn’t supposed to come in second.

But he did.

I had so many emotions.

I was happy for le Clos. It was his very first Olympics and the kid was stinkin’ adorable and so excited. It was a David-and-Goliath moment, and everyone loves those. Some kid turning the tables and defeating the expectant winner. It’s good entertainment.

I felt a little smug. Take that, Michael I’m-so-cool, look-at-all-my-medals-and-sponsors, can-we-say-over-hyped, don’t-forget-about-the-pot-controversy Phelps.

I was also very sad. Poor, poor Phelps.

It was obvious that Phelps agreed with me on the last. Poor, poor Phelps indeed. While le Clos screamed in triumph, Phelps looks so disappointed that I couldn’t stay smug. It was sad.

As Phelps waited at the podium for his name to be called, he appeared lost in his own world. He wasn’t sulking like I half-expected him to be. He just looked sad and disappointed.

“Sheepish” was the word the Beeb’s broadcasters used.

When it was his turn to step forward, Phelps did so with a smile and a wave. He might have lost the gold, but his silver medal was his eighteenth Olympic medal, and that in itself was an impressive achievement.

And then the coolest thing happened. Phelps looked to his left at Chad le Clos. The South African couldn’t have been happier. He had just outswam not only the man claimed to be the greatest swimmer and athlete of all time, but his own idol.

It’s the type of story that should happen at the Olympics.

Chad le Clos stood there on the podium with his gold medal, and his happiness was so infectious that Michael Phelps couldn’t stop himself from smiling.

It was amazing. As soon as he smiled, Phelps relaxed. He looked happy. Perhaps even content. I don’t know. I’m not him. I just know that the transition on Phelps’s face was obvious. He went from thinking about himself to being happy for le Clos.

As the Olympic medalists were herded off the podium and led around to the various photographers and journalists, le Clos didn’t seem to know what to do. Phelps stepped up. He pointed him in the right direction, he told him when to hold up his medal and when to smile. The veteran Olympian showed the new kid the ropes with humility, and the world got to see it.

“Gracious” the Brits called Phelps.

If I was le Clos, I think I would have died from happiness.

An hour later, both Phelps and le Clos returned to the pool to compete in the men’s 4x200m freestyle relay with their countrymen. Having seen Ryan Lochte and Americans lose to France in the men’s 4x100m free, I was a little nervous.

Especially when it was announced that Phelps would swim the final leg. The race had the potential of being either really good for America or really bad.

It was good. Really good. Phenomenally good. Thanks to Lochte, Dwyer, and Berens, by the time Phelps dove into the pool, he was a whole body-length ahead of the rest, and he kept the lead. He didn’t slack off. He didn’t cruise into the wall. He just went for it, won the gold, and broke the record for the most Olympic medals of all time.

Chad-le-Clos-and-Michael-Phelps-120731G300I’m proud of him. He raced well, and he deserves his achievements. But mostly I’m proud of him for showing such grace and humility in accepting the silver medal. Phelps has said that this will be his last Olympics. I think he can look back on his time in London and be content.

High-five Michael Phelps.

He still has two more races to go. Bring it on.

Credit: Photo taken from article “Le Clos looking to emulate Phelps” from Super Sport, August 1, 2012 [LINK]

8 thoughts on “Living Legends

  1. Good explanation of it all. I missed the medal ceremony where Phelps was so gracious, and now I wish I hadn’t, but I definitely didn’t miss the race. Like you, I’m really only a sports fan for the Olympics and sometimes the World Series, but I was right there watching in agony as le Clos closed the distance, and I cheered at the TV for Phelps to stretch himself to the end. Of course I was happy for le Clos — it’s hard to not be happy for someone who really earned the medal — but I was a bit sad for Phelps, too. In those first moments as everyone saw the scores, he looked so crestfallen! But later, with his team, he started smilng, so I felt better. Silver isn’t bad at all, after all, and he couldn’t really do much about that race. He swam hard and fast, and so did le Clos; le Clos even won by the kind of almost-by-chance move that Phelps had won by in Beijing so many times. It was fair. And it was an awesome, exciting, race. The Olympics are at their best with such moments.

    It was also nice that the USA relay team went on to win gold. +)

    • Have they shown the medal ceremonies on NBC? I haven’t seen them, but I’m not sure if that’s because they’re cutting them, or because I turn off the the TV too soon. Hmmm…

      Silver isn’t bad at all. Plus, Phelps needed a couple silver medals for his collection. 😉

      I read an interview where le Clos said that in the final moments of the race, he imagined himself as Phelps! I think he was just as stunned at what he did as everyone else. I also read that le Clos and Phelps have gotten to know each other over the last year, and that Phelps has given him advice in the past. Really cool.

      • I’ve been really upset with NBC’s coverage this year, and we still have quite a bit of the games to go. It isn’t so much that I disapprove of their monopoly, but I don’t think they should be editing their footage in a way that falsely represents what is going on. Plus, the games are about the world, not just America. I would like to see the other competitors, too!

      • Sorry. Didn’t mean to get all riled up there. I’m just really frustrated with the media in general at the moment. The Olympic coverage is so blatant with how they control us. It just makes me mad.

  2. Oh don’t worry, I agree, they’re pretty bad. Even for the competitions they show, I’ve seen them not actually show the scores of competitors (even of Americans…even after we’ve won!). They did this especially with the gymnastics and synchronized diving, not showing the final, decisive score. Absolutely infuriating. In fact, when I get home (and have better Internet access than I currently have here) I may send them a complaint. They even edited an entire sequence out of the opening ceremonies so they could air some interview. What they should do is play events from beginning to end, 24/7, and cut down on the commentator chatter. Ah, if I were in charge, haha…

    I think that every country’s channel that broadcasts the Olympics should have as their first priority the sports their country competes in, then perhaps the “big” sports that pretty much everyone wants to see (swimming, gymnastics, track, etc), then other sports as they can schedule the broadcasts. At least, that’s how it seems to me, but I’ve never had to run a TV station!

    • I don’t understand why they cut that sequence. It was a tribute to those who have died, especially those who have died due to terrorism. You’d think that NBC would want to exploit feature that. I haven’t watched most of the gymnastics (our channel connection isn’t that great, so I’ve watched specific events online instead of the prime time coverage), but I did hear something about what they did. Didn’t they re-edit the coverage to build up the suspense with a fake story? Or something…

      I heard tomorrow people are going to boycott NBC. Maybe that will get the message across. I find it fascinating how determined NBC is to ignore the fact that their audience is angry. The poor coverage is even making international news. It’s just ridiculous.

      I agree with you on how the channel should run. A taped and even edited prime time program is fine, but the channel should also show the coverage live during the day. It just makes sense.

      • I haven’t heard anything about a fake story, but they have been too melodramatic with interpreting the reactions of some athletes. During the women’s gymnastics all-around final, one of the Russians had a bad run and was pretty upset about it, even ignoring her coach when he tried to console her; but she was pretty quiet and composed about it, not getting too dramatic. But the announcer described her as “storming” off the mat and “shoving” her coach away, which definitely didn’t happen.

        I don’t know what it would take for them to increase the quality of the broadcasts, but I doubt a boycott would have any effect. I think NBC needs to get its act together, but nobody’s going to not watch the Olympics just because the station is sloppy. I’m not! Flawed as NBC is, the games themselves are still fantastic.

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