Le Clos was simply better than Phelps
31 July 2012 will go down in history as one of South Africa’s finest moments in Olympic sport, for it was on this night that Chad le Clos won gold in the 200m butterfly, ending the reign of the legendary Michael Phelps by the tiniest of margins, 0.05s.
The race was expected to be a coronation for Phelps as he needed only one more medal to equal Larissa Latynina’s all- time Olympic medal haul of 18. And for 199m of the 200m race, it seemed he would do so with gold.
But Durban-born and bred, Le Clos had other ideas.
Having earned a favourable centre-lane for the final, Le Clos had the opportunity to measure his effort off Phelps the entire race, and he stayed in touch throughout, turning and reaching 150m only 0.58s behind Phelps. It was the perfect position, and he ate progressively into Phelps’ advantage over the final 30m. Still, Phelps looked certain for gold until the very final stroke.
Then, in a scene that was astonishingly similar to what happened in the 100m butterfly in Beijing, Phelps found his final stroke short of the wall, leaving himself too long a glide, and Le Clos pounced.
On that occasion, it was Phelps edging Milorad Cavic, much to the Serbian’s astonishment. This time, it was South African hearts that first stopped, and then soared when the result appeared. Le Clos won gold in a new African record of 1:52.96.
Phelps’ “failure” at the finish was the talk of the commentators on the broadcast, which did a disservice to Le Clos’ performance. Le Clos did exactly what any Olympian, particularly in their first Games, aspires to do — he got faster and faster, race by race, and ended with an enormous personal best. He was comfortable in the heats (fifth fastest), then swam a personal best and African record in the semi-finals to earning his favourable lane, and then he went even faster in the final. He ended with a PB of 1:52.96, over two seconds faster than he brought to London. One cannot ask for more from a young swimmer.
Of interest too, is that Le Clos’ winning time is faster than Phelps swam in the World Championships last year, and it is faster than Phelps swam at the US trials only a month ago. Phelps himself was faster in the Olympics than he was in either of those races, and so it certainly cannot be said that Phelps did NOT produce a good swim in the final — he was as fast as he has been in years.
But it was not good enough, because Le Clos was, simply put, better.
And finally, the finishing “error” Phelps made could well be put down to fatigue. What happens to a butterfly swimmer is that as they get tired, they “sink” down into the water, and the result is that their stroke becomes shorter and shorter. Even 1% more length, and Phelps would have finished on the wall. He did not have that luxury, because Le Clos was pushing him beyond his capacity. That’s a deserved gold medal, however the world’s media wish to spin it!
Le Clos came to London carrying what might be described as hope and potential. Even he said before the Games that he’d do his best, hope for a medal as a bonus, but the real target was Rio 2016. I dare say he wildly exceeded his own expectations. If he continues to be managed and coached effectively, and if his competitive fires continue to burn (as seems likely, given his attitude and apparent personality), there may be no limits to what he can achieve.
More strength, more physical maturity, possibly an even broader programme, and Le Clos is a man who may take the mantle from Phelps in more ways than he showed on Tuesday night.