The first week of the Olympic Games has swimming as its “centerpiece”, with the track and field programme taking over towards the end of next week. So for this week, it’s all eyes on the ‘Water Cube’ in Beijing where Michael Phelps has begun his quest for 8 gold medals in style.
This morning (well, SA time at least, and Beijing. Thanks, NBC!), Phelps won the first Gold medal of the Games in the pool, when he decimated the field and his own world record in the 400m Individual Medley. Second place, somewhat surprisingly, went to Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, with the pre-race “challenger” Ryan Lochte of the USA fading disappointingly to come third.
Phelps vs. Lochte – a race to 300m, then a blowout
This 400 IM race was expected to be one of Phelps biggest ‘threats’ to his bid to beat Mark Spitz’s record of 7 gold medals, since Lochte had pushed Phelps incredibly close in the recent US trials, when both broke the old world record. And for about 300m, it seemed that Lochte had a chance…
Going into the race, it was Lochte’s relative strength over Phelps in the breaststroke event (the 3rd leg of the medley) that was seen as a possible pivotal moment in the race. Phelps’ butterfly leg (the 1st leg) was stronger, and backstroke would see him lose a small part of that lead, but the general perception was that if Lochte was in touch at the start of the breaststroke, he’d be a real challenger. And so when the breaststroke leg began with Lochte “only” 0.20 seconds behind Phelps, it seemed that he might challenge for the gold.
But Phelps first held Lochte, and then built his lead gradually over the next 50m, so that by the time the freestyle leg began, he was 0.99 seconds ahead of Lochte. And then he buried him – he opened up an body length lead within the next 50m, helped partly by a Lochte fade, but also by a spectacular finish that put him well ahead of his world record line.
It saw Phelps finish almost 1.5 seconds faster than the old world record, and a full 2.5 seconds ahead of Cseh in second, with Lochte claiming third. So the result was expected, but the manner was not – all the previews of the race expected Phelps to build a lead over the first 2 legs, then hold off Lochte’s breaststroke challenge before fighting it out over the freestyle.
Phelps’ quest begins
So Phelps has claimed gold number one, and will now look ahead to the next seven. It is an incredible quest, and as I write this, Phelps has just finished second in his heat for his next event, the 200m freestyle. He was coasting, and so that second is nothing to be alarmed about. But his programme, and perhaps Ian Crocker in the 100m butterfly, represent the only real challengers to Phelps.
Even in his 200m freestyle heat, he was well behind up to about 150m, and then on the final turn, he shifted gears and within about 15 m of underwater butterfly kicking, Phelps was level with the race leader. Phelps’ abilities, while numerous, seem to be built around the most spectacular ability to shift pace off the underwater phase – how often Phelps goes to the wall level with a rival and emerges 15 m later with half a body length lead is extra-ordinary.
Challenges to the 8-gold dream
So can he win seven golds? Difficult to say. His programme is so difficult that by the end of the week, Phelps will have swum 17 races, heats included. Fatigue is the biggest threat, and in particular, it’s the required “between-race” activities that can cause the problems – a swimmer who wins is subjected to all kinds of demands, including media, doping control and public attention that the actual act of swimming is often the least of their concerns! Even something as arbitrary as a medal ceremony will be a challenge for Phelps, because there are days when he swims less than five MINUTES after a medal ceremony. That requires enormous discipline and strength to overcome.
Apart from fatigue, Phelps must also look out for the likes of Crocker, and maybe Lochte and Cseh in the shorter Medley event. Ian Crocker, in the 100m butterfly, holds the world record, but has been beaten by Phelps in the Olympics, World Champs and at the US Trials, so in competition, Phelps has dominated. But by the time they race, it will be Phelps’ 16th race (with some days having three races!), so that should favour Crocker. His PB is also 0.4 seconds faster than Phelps’, and so I believe this is the race where Phelps challenge is likely to fail, if at all.
And of course, there are relay events (the 4 x 100m/200m freestyle and medley races), where his fortunes lie somewhat in the hands of others – who can forget how Ian Crocker false started and got the USA disqualified at the World Champs last year in Melbourne? The USA should have the strength to win the relays though – in 2004, they were beaten by South Africa, but that won’t happen in Beijing. The big threat will be France, who have 3 men in the top 20 in the 100m event. The USA has 6, and so they should have the edge over France, if they swim to form. South Africa are unlikely to challenge for gold, and will instead be racing Australia, perhaps Canada for bronze. So that race should go to the USA. The 4 x 200m relay will almost certainly be won by the USA, and the 4 x 100m medley relay seems a straightforward gold too (as far as they come in the Olympics, that is!)
So I certainly would pick Phelps to win 8 medals, and a place in history. Probability, and fatigue, dictate that surely he can’t win ALL of them, and so maybe the conservative guess is seven golds, plus a silver or bronze. Where that sole medal will be “lost” I don’t know – Crocker, maybe the 4 x 100m relay, who knows? But watching his quest for history is going to be a highlight of the Games, and I certainly hope he pulls it off.