If you’re like me, you can’t get enough of the Olympics. I need more Olympics in my life. I’m guessing the fact that they only come around every four years makes them as appealing as they are. If they had to survive a 162-game slate like MLB, I’m sure we would all hate the Olympics. But that’s not how it is and I’m riding the Olympic-wave. There have been a number of notable subplots from Dara Torres nearly winning the gold medal in the 50M freestyle at the age of 41 and Usain Bolt destroying all conventions of how fast a human can be to Bela Karolyi re-writing the rules for on-air analysts. Torres swam in the 1984 Olympics (!!!). Bolt broke the world record in the 100 m despite beginning to celebrate with high steps and chest slaps at the 75 meter mark! And, I’m begging for some sort of legislation that demands Karolyi be an analyst for every sport whether he knows anything about it or not. In fact, I’d rather he not know anything about it. He would be a ratings-machine. I could go on forever about the intrigue that these games have brought.
Despite the sheer awesomeness of these games, the obvious story in Beijing has been Michael Phelps. To get an idea of how captivated the world has been by Phelps, take what you did in front of your TV in your living room (standing, yelling, screaming, fist-pumping etc.) and multiply that by 40 million. You weren’t alone.
Going into the Beijing games, NBC and ESPN—among others—began to speculate heavily about the possibility of Phelps winning eight gold medals. Clearly this was in their best interest because such speculation would no doubt drive-up ratings. Phelps won six gold medals in Athens so it wasn’t totally unreasonable to suggest eight was possible. However, it seemed like the line between possible and likely was intentionally blurred beyond recognition heading into the games. People were expecting Phelps to break Mark Spitz’s 36-year record. It doesn’t take a lot of math and swimming knowledge, though, to realize that the odds were heavily stacked against Phelps to the point that it was unfair to treat it as anything more than an absolute best-case scenario. Best-case scenarios almost never happen. For starters, Phelps and his American teammates weren’t even the favorites in the 4 x 100 free relay. If Phelps had a 40% chance of winning gold in that race, and a 95% chance of winning gold in his other seven races, the odds of him winning eight gold medals was 26%. The odds were much worse than that, though. Phelps didn’t have a 95% chance of winning the other races. In fact, he probably only had a 65% chance of winning the 100 fly and an 80% chance of winning the 4 x 100 medley relay. If we assume that he had a 95% chance of winning the other five races—which he pretty much did—then he had a 16% chance of winning eight gold medals. That’s not very good.
So, how did something with a 16%-likelihood end up happening? There were a multitude of factors that provided the “perfect storm” for arguably the greatest individual performance in sports history. Here they are in no particular order:
1). “The Thorpedo”
Ian Thorpe was instrumental in this whole thing for two major reasons: 1). He retired—effectively removing Phelps’s primary competition in the 200 m freestyle, and 2). He said it wasn’t possible. As everyone knows now, that’s something you don’t say about or to Michael Phelps. Like Michael Jordan or Tigers Woods, Phelps creates criticism or exaggerates existing criticism to motivate him to perform beyond his already elite level. What Thorpe said wasn’t outrageous by any means. In fact, he said he wished Phelps the best and that Phelps is the only person that could do it. However, Phelps took Thorpe’s comments as a slap-in-the-face and ran with it. These comments came out leading up to the Olympics so it no doubt got Phelps fired up at the perfect time.
2). Jason Lezak
Lezak probably gave the most incredible performance of any athlete of the Olympics—Phelps included. Lezak was already a pretty good swimmer in his own right. He once owned the American Record in the 100 m freestyle with a time of 47.58. Still, he had never medaled at an individual event in the Olympics despite being the oldest male swimmer on the U.S. Team. When it came time for him to jump in the water to anchor the U.S.’s 4 x 100 free relay, it looked like Phelps’s quest for eight gold medals was over. France’s Alain Bernard not only had a full-body length lead over Lezak but he was also the World Record holder in 100 m with a time of 47.50. Lezak’s mission wasn’t just to keep up with Bernard—something he couldn’t do to begin with—he had to beat Bernard by more than .5 seconds. Lezak not only kept up with Bernard, he flew by him. In an effort that can only be described as superhuman, Lezak swam more than 1.5 seconds faster than he had ever done before in the 100 m. If that’s not unbelievable enough, he also swam the fastest 100 m freestyle in history by close to .6 seconds. It was the most impressive display of swimming of all-time. Phelps doesn’t win eight gold medals without an unfathomable swim by Lezak. Lezak went on to do in the 4 x 100 medley relay what Bernard was not able to do in the 4 x 100 free relay and that was hold on to a full body-length lead. He held off Australia’s Eamon Sullivan who is the world record holder in the 100 free (he broke Bernard’s record in Beijing).
3). Milorad Cavic
Poor Milorad Cavic. Nobody in Beijing was more complimentary of Phelps than Cavic. He did, however, make three gigantic mistakes. He reportedly said he would win the race for sure, stared down Phelps before the race, and said it would be good for swimming if Phelps lost. Word no doubt got back to Phelps and the rest is history. I’m not sure how much of a factor Cavic’s comments were but since he only lost by .01 seconds, they probably cost him the gold medal.
4). Alain Bernard
Despite getting blitzed by Lezak on the anchor leg of the 4 x 100 free relay, Bernard didn’t “blow it.” He swam a 46.73 split which is blazing. However, Bernard did provide Phelps with more “fodder for the fire” when he made the following comments before the final:
“The Americans? We're going to smash them. That's what we came here for.”
Again, I’m not sure how much of a factor Bernard’s comments were but considering the U.S. needed the fastest split in swimming history by nearly .6 seconds and got it, I’m guessing they probably cost him the gold medal.
5). Mark Spitz
I can’t help but to feel for Spitz. He wanted to be at the Beijing Games to see Phelps possibly break his record but nobody invited him. His only recourse was to do interviews back in the States professing his desire to be there. However, without his Spitzian-efforts 36 years ago that produced seven gold medals in a single games, I doubt Phelps even attempts to achieve eight gold medals. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Phelps broke it by one. Spitz set the record—and as everyone knows—records are made to be broken.
Looking back on how the whole thing unfolded, it’s clear that luck or fate or whatever you want to call it had more to do with Phelps winning eight gold medals than anything else. I said earlier in this post that going into the Olympics, Phelps probably had close to a 16% chance of breaking Spitz’s record. Well, in hindsight, his chances were much, much worse. What are the odds that Jason Lezak was going to swim 1.5 seconds faster than he had ever swam before and .6 seconds faster than anyone had ever swam before? The odds are 1 in 100 at best. Cleary, this is a guess on my part but Lezak has swam many, many times in his life and never even come close to swimming that fast. 1 in 100 might be giving that possibility too much credit. As if those odds weren’t enough to overcome, what were the odds that Phelps was going to pass Cavic after being considerably behind even as Cavic’s fingers were inches from the finish pad? At no point in the race—especially in the last 50 m—was Phelps better than a 1 in 10 bet of winning. That’s probably on the optimistic side as well since Phelp’s hands were six feet from the wall when Cavic’s hands were one foot from the wall. It doesn’t take too much math to know that the odds of both a 1 in 100 event and a 1 in 10 bet of happening are 1 in 1000. Nevermind the other six swims. Phelps had water leak into his goggles in the 200 m fly. If that happened in the 100 m fly, Cavic would’ve won. Even the great Michael Phelps can’t plan victories by one-tenth of a second. Luck ruled the week.
7). Michael Phelps
That’s not to take anything away from Phelps who is an athletic freak. His body is perfectly designed to swim and his work ethic is equally impressive. Plus, Phelps has the unique ability to deliver. There is no doubt that Phelps was capable of winning each of his races. He had done it before. However, winning all of them at the same event is what separates him from every other athlete in the world. For instance, Aaron Piersol—the best backstroker in the world—was certainly capable of pulling off a double-gold in the 100 and 200 m backstroke like he did in Athens. However, he could only manage a silver medal in the 200. The best backstroker in the world couldn’t go two for two. Phelps went eight for eight. He delivers. His work ethic and determination are also what sets him apart. In an interview following his final race in Beijing, Phelps hinted that he would like to try other events like the 50 or 100 m Freestyle or the 100 m backstroke. That would be like Michael Johnson—former U.S. Sprinter and current World Record holder in the 200 and 400 m—throwing his name into the 100 m and hurdles. That’s unprecedented if not impossible. Phelps vs. Piersol in the 100 m backstroke and Phelps vs. Sullivan and Bernard in the 100 m freestyle officially become what I’m looking forward to the most in the 2012 Summer Games in London.