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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

London 2012 Day 4: Quick thoughts

London Day 4 recap: le Clos pips Phelps, Phelps claims the record, a badminton farce and more on Shiwen

Four thoughts on yesterday's Olympic action

1)  le Clos wins gold by 0.05s from Michael Phelps in the race of the Games so far

South Africa is celebrating a gold medal today, after Chad le Clos and Michael Phelps produced one of the great races of the Games in the 200m butterfly.  It was le Clos, and not Phelps, who claimed the gold, ending Phelps' reign in the event and giving South Africa a second gold.

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 in the final 1m, in a sequence that was astonishingly reminiscent of the 100m butterfly final from Beijing, the lead changed hands, as Phelps found his last stroke too short of the wall, and his long glide left the door open for le Clos to snatch a dramatic win.  Four years ago, Phelps was the beneficiary of Milorad Cavic's long glide, winning by 0.01s.  The role was reversed last night as the greatest swimmer the sport has ever seen lost out by 0.05s to the South African debutant.

Having earned a favourable center-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 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 that very final stroke.  It was a reminder of the margins between gold and silver at the Olympic level.

Phelps’ “failure” at the finish was the talk of the commentators on the broadcast, which is understandable - the historical context of the race, Phelps' dominance of the event in the past, and hey, it is Michael Phelps, after all, were the reasons that the talk was more of the silver medalist than gold.

This did something a disservice to le Clos’ performance though.  But being South African, you'll forgive me for looking to Lane 5 and not Lane 6 for some thoughts, at least at first.   It has to be said that 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 (1:53.34), and it is faster than Phelps swam at the US trials only a month ago (1:53.65).  Phelps himself was faster last night 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 may have felt that he should be even faster, and certainly his 400m IM performance still suggests to me that something is not quite right, especially over the longer distances and in the second half of his races.  But Phelps didn't lose the race overall, as much as le Clos managed to elevate his level when it matter.  The "loss" by Phelps came in that final stroke.  

And that finishing “error” could well be put down to fatigue.  Even 5% more in Phelps' stroke length, and he finishes on the wall.  But as a swimmer fatigues, his stroke becomes shorter as his body position becomes lower in the water.  The result is that he's left with 1m to glide, rather than 50cm, for example, and that's worth 0.05s, at least.  Phelps held a fairly large lead over le Clos with 50m to go (0.68s), and the final 50m saw a stronger finishing le Clos get the final stroke right.  The result is a deserved gold medal for le Clos.

It was an unexpected gold, not only for the rest of the world, but dare I say it, for South Africa.  Chad le Clos is a name we'd all do well to remember, however, because he has the ability to go on from this and forge one of the great swimming careers.  He came into London carrying the "burden of potential", in the sense that everyone who has seen and followed his rise recognizes his future ability.  However, even he would not have predicted the gold medal in his strongest event.  He was quoted before the Games as promising to do his very best, but that a medal would be a bonus and the real target would be Rio in 2016.  My picks for London had le Clos as a "medal hopeful", rather than a "medal expectation", because I felt he needed the perfect day to win a medal.  He produced that, and then some, and the result was not just a medal, but the gold one.

So le Clos is ahead of his own curve now, and leaves London with that prized gold medal, and a personal best and African record that is about 2 seconds faster than anything he'd ever done before for the event.  And there may yet be more to come - the 200m individual medley is next, though he may not be the favorite, with both Lochte and Phelps in that race...but we've seen how that billing has played out once already.  Then there is the 4 x 100m medley relay, where South Africa's outside chance seems to have become a lot stronger, thanks to Cameron van den Burgh in the breaststroke, and now le Clos in the fly.  That happens later in the week. 

2) Phelps first equals and then beats the all-time medal record

Now, a word about Phelps.  The 200m butterfly produced a silver lining in more ways than one - first, he won silver in the event.  And secondly, while he'd have been disappointed, it took his all time tally to 18 medals, equal with Larissa Latynina.  

In the aftermath of the race, during the medal ceremony, Phelps showed tremendous class and true champion attitude in the manner in which he spoke with and engaged with le Clos.  It was, on a night of drama, perhaps the most rewarding sight, because he was magnanimous in defeat and honorable towards le Clos.  He earned a silver medal, but should also have earned enormous respect for that.  More than a record medal haul, it underlined Phelps' status for me.

If there was any disappointment (and there must have been), Phelps came out shortly after the medal ceremony and channeled it into the swim that would take him to sole position of the all-time medal list.  This time, it was a gold in the 4 x 200m freestyle, with Phelps producing the second fastest leg of the race (Yannick Agnel, the individual 200m champ, was fastest at 1:43.24 compared to Phelps' 1:44.05)

That took Phelps to 19.  15 are gold - this was already the record, the two bronze from Athens and the silver last night making up the collection.  Phelps has three events remaining - a leg in the 4 x 100m medley relay where it is very difficult to see the USA not winning gold, then the 200-IM where perhaps Lochte is favored, but Phelps should medal given the shorter length, and then the 100m butterfly, where he probably is favorite.  It's likely that Phelps will end his career on 22, with possibly 17 golds.  An amazing collection from the all-time greatest Olympic medal winner.  Cue debate about how 22 swimming medals compares to say, 5 rowing medals, where the multiple hauls are simply not possible. Regardless, Phelps is an undisputed Olympic legend.

3) Badminton farce as teams throw matches to avoid one another

Then a less than savoury story emerged from the Games yesterday, as eight badminton players were charged with "not using one's best efforts to win the match".  I didn't see the matches (following the Olympic Games is an Olympian task), but it was the talk of Twitter and obviously big news.  The story is summarized here, but basically, teams that had already qualified want to get themselves favourable draws and so they tried not to win the match.

There are some sports where this is easier than others.  Running and cycling, for example, lend themselves to slowing down just enough to lose.  Technical sports, it's not as simple, because when an elite player repeatedly duffs a serve or simple shot, even a non-discerning fan will spot it.  As they did - fans jeered, the match officials warned players and then disqualified them, only for the DQ to be overturned on appeal and the match continue. 

The players should simply be expelled from the Games.  No questions asked.  Obviously, the act of deliberately under-performing is the reason, and this is one of the most disgraceful things an athlete can do, surely?  Doping is terrible, but at least it's for the right reason!  There is also a part of me that thinks they should be expelled because from all reports, they didn't even play badly well (if that makes sense). If you're going to defraud the event and public, at least do so convincingly...but that's a bit tongue-in-cheek.  

Of course, proving it is very difficult - suspicion is obvious, proof is not!  The Badminton World Federation will be dealing with the matter.

4) Shiwen in the spotlight, still: My one-tweet summary below...

And then speaking of easy suspicion with difficult proof, China's Ye Shiwen remains a talking point in London.  She won the 200m IM last night, to go with that 400m IM title that created the controversy in the first place.

I was contacted by a few media yesterday, and will even be talking to CNN later today, and so I've been giving the story and speculation a great deal of thought.  If you missed my initial thoughts on the subject, you can find them here, and then also see what has been said about her from other sources.

It's such a polarizing debate, because the idea of "targeted testing" or suspicion based solely on whose flag an athlete competes under is so easily turned into sports' equivalent of racial profiling.  There is no doubt that Shiwen is MORE suspected and questioned because she is Chinese.  Is that right?  I'm ambivalent.  There is a reality that can't, and shouldn't be ignored, and that is that Chinese athletes have a history of doping.  I quoted figures the other day of 40 Chinese swimmers failing tests, three times more than the next nation.  Yesterday I received a tweet saying it's 57, a shade over twice the next nation's numbers.

Regardless, it's clear that Chinese athletes have "earned" the mistrust that accompanies them.  That's just a fact.  What is unfair is for that to be turned into an immediate accusation against every swimmer from China who does well.  For example, Shiwen is NOT actually based full-time in China - I believe she is in Brisbane a good deal of the time (if anyone can confirm this, let me know).  It doesn't mean there's no link to a state system in China, of course, but it does force us to reconsider the generalization and image we probably have of young swimmers doping in rural China where no drug tester can go, right?  So guilt by association is a bad idea - we'd all be guilty of many things this way, and with no recourse.

So let me wrap this discussion up (for now), with the following quick thoughts:

I think the main point that needs to be made is that in sport, history has taught us to be skeptical of anything that is remarkable.  It's a sad state of affairs, but we've all been made fools of before.

In that light, the performances of Shiwen compel people to ASK questions,  But I think it's very important to understand two things:
  1. Asking is not the same as accusing.  We should be quick to ask, but slow to accuse, and before accusing, should seek facts and information.  Asking the question applies pressure, it helps to change behavior, it adds to scrutiny.  It's good.  The more transparency we can "force" onto the system, the better off the sport, and the only way to do so is to ask questions.  But the knee-jerk reaction to a young swimmer dominating in that fashion is to accuse and reach judgment, and that's not fair.
  2. Recognize that she is not the only one from whom questions should be asked.  Any swimmer who wins an Olympic gold medal is already remarkable.  To do so with a world record is even more so, and to do so with huge improvements when so young is a final piece of what is a remarkable story.  But Shiwen is not unique, and so she, along with other swimmers, should be placed under the same scrutiny.  The reality is that an Olympic medal comes with fineprint of suspicion, and that includes le Clos, it includes Phelps, in includes everyone.
  3. The scrutiny should take the form of doping controls - you cannot "convict" someone of doping just because they are performing well.  It's unfair and unnecessarily cynical.  What you can do is use performance to establish a targeted testing programme, because performance gives context to drug testing.  So all swimmers, but particularly those who produce "uncertain" performances, should be the target of testing, some perhaps more than others.

The reality is that only drug testing can answer the question.  The question is asked based on performance, but answered based on testing.  I was earlier asked to sum up my view in a single tweet, so here goes: I'd say "unfairly judged and accused, but worthy of question. If that's unfair, hey, welcome to elite sport"
Lots more action to come on day 5!  Stay tuned