Category Archives: michael phelps

Phelps’ “race:” Google “Jump the shark.”

Maybe Michael Phelps somehow assumed he was furthering his brand with that photo-shopped Discovery Channel concoction, purporting to match him against a Great White Shark in a 100-meter ocean race. Surely he didn’t need the money. Twenty-three times an Olympic swimming champion and with the ensuing goldmine of endorsements, Phelps has a net worth reported between $55 and $94 million. Possibly he felt the shark show promoted his stated wish, first voiced before he began collecting an unprecedented amount of Olympic hardware at the 2004 Athens Games, “to change the sport of swimming the way Michael Jordan changed basketball.”

But not a few people saw it as a humiliating stunt. Phelps certainly wasn’t in a situation similar to 1936 Olympic sprint champion Jesse Owens, who was an American hero at the Berlin Games but just another black man when he returned to the United States. Competing almost 50 years before the Olympics was opened to professionals, Owens earned four worthless olive wreaths and, once back home in Ohio, found himself trying to make ends meet by allowing promoters to stage exhibitions of him racing against horses, dogs and motorcycles.

“People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse,” Owens later wrote. “But what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

And in Owens’ case, at least the man-vs.-beast gimmick consisted of actual races between real creatures. The Phelps-Shark flimflam—one Discovery Channel promo called it “The Battle for Ocean Supremacy”—went from extended carnival barking to a video of Phelps swimming alone in the waters off South Africa. The rival seen hustling alongside him was a computer-generated shark, digitally inserted into the action.

It was almost as silly as those old Land Shark skits on Saturday Night Live, when Laraine Newman or Gilda Radner would be lured to open her apartment door with the promise of a candygram, only to be devoured by a cartoonishly fake shark.

Patrick Redford, writing for Deadspin, called the Phelps-Shark contrivance “a spruced-up version of one of those videos they play between innings in baseball stadiums where three helmets race and [fans in] one section get free pizza if their helmet wins….”

Redford suggested that the Discovery Channel “at least make it goofy, since, you know, you’re having a guy pretend to race a shark.”

Both the Discovery Channel and Phelps protested afterwards that they clearly had signaled he would not be swimming side-by-side against a live shark. (I can hear Bobby Darin singing… “When that shark bites with his teeth, babe/Scarlet billows start to spread.)

Both nevertheless argued for the legitimacy of the competitive comparison and cited Phelps’ genuine fascination with the fish’s power and speed, and described Phelps as a real “shark nerd.” In fact, the elite swimming world in general has had a shark thing for a long time. Prior to the 2000 Olympics, the swimming gear manufacturer Speedo produced a “sharkskin” model amid the marketing of similar full bodysuits by big-name suppliers.

That Speedo suit was studded with tiny hydrofoils with V-shaped ridges like the “dermal denticles” on a shark’s skin, and it was worn by 83 percent of the sport’s gold medalists in the 2000 Sydney Games. Phelps, then 15 years old, had only one fifth-place finish in Sydney but began breaking records a year later wearing the sharkskin. Before long, the suit was judged to be “performance-enhancing” because it provided a buoyancy and muscle constriction that worked to reduce fatigue. In 2010, all full bodysuits were banned by swimming’s global federation.

Anyway, it turns out that real sharks typically don’t swim in a straight line for very long, so the Phelps 100-meter challenge was further skewed by another simulation. Scientists had to estimate sharks’ straight-ahead speed, then feed that data into their computer-generated aquatic racer. What they came up with was 36.1 seconds, which Phelps (38.1) couldn’t quite match. (Surprise, surprise.)

Business Insider quoted George Burgess, director of shark research at the University of Florida, that a side-by-side duel not only was impossible but that even the fastest of humans would “always get his butt kicked” by a shark.

“A far more interesting scenario,” Burgess said, “would have been if you give Michael a head start and put the great white behind him and see how fast he could swim with the white shark chasing him.”

In an post, D’Arcy Maine cast the whole show as a “joke.” Phelps’ mere participation in the hocus-pocus, Maine concluded, meant that “either being the best swimmer of all time isn’t as lucrative as we previously believed or he is really, really bored in his retirement….”

It’s certainly not the former case. As for the five million who were hoodwinked into watching, I have one word: Candygram.

Bringing a colossus of Rhodes back to life


There is a wonderfully expressive lyric by They Might Be Giants, about the 19th Century avant-garde artist James Ensor, that goes

    Meet James Ensor/ Belgium’s famous painter/

    Dig him up and shake his hand/ Appreciate the man.

And that, essentially, is what Michael Phelps has done to Leonidas of Rhodes. By winning his 12th career Olympic gold medal in an individual event this week—and with the able help of crack Olympic historians—Phelps has revived the late (very late) Leonidas and his remarkable athletic dominance.

Details are hit and myth. But there is no doubt that no one else, since Leonidas sewed up the last of his dozen Olympic victories in 152 B.C., had piled up so much Games’ hardware. (“Hardware” isn’t the right word, really; champions in the Ancient Olympics received olive-wreath crowns cut from a sacred tree in Olympia. Not medals.) For that record to have lasted 2,168 years is as much a tribute to Leonidas as it is to Phelps.

Overall, Phelps is easily the most decorated Olympian ever, with 21 total golds, but nine of those have come in relay events, which didn’t exist in Leonidas’ time. Swimming competition didn’t exist then, either; Leonidas was a versatile runner. Also, while Phelps, now 31, is competing in the Games for a fifth time (he did not medal as a 15-year-old in 2000), Leonidas needed just four Olympic cycles to win 12 times, the last when he was 36 years old.


According Tony Perrottet’s 2004 book, “The Naked Olympics/The True Story of the Ancient Games,” accounts of those contests were no more specific than describing a champion who “could catch hares on foot….and not just because sundials and water clocks were incapable of precision. The Greeks simply did not share our modern passion for comparing performances.”

“Instead,” Perrottet wrote, “the Greeks accrued ‘records’ by the sheer number of an individual’s victories—opting for quantity rather than quality. The greatest Olympic runner of all time by this yardstick was Leonidas of Rhodes, who won all three footraces in the Games of 164 B.C. and was given the honorary title Triastes, or ‘triple crowned.’”

In each of the next three Olympics, Leonidas repeated his trifecta in what some sources describe as the stadion and the diaulos, races of roughly 200 and 400 yards, and the hoplitodromos, a run of about a quarter mile while outfitted in bronze armor with a shield.

(Sportswriting colleague Charlie Pierce, who has gone on to bigger things with his political posts for Esquire, put up this photo of Leonidas…)


(With the comment, “Thank god for Speedo, is all I can say.”)

Perrottett unearthed the fact that, even had the Greeks been able to record race times in Leonidas’ day, they would have been meaningless because “there were not even standardized lengths for the stadiums….Every running track was ‘six hundred feet,’ but this was literally six hundred times the foot size of whoever first walked it.”

Dramatic enough were reports that Leonidas could run “with the speed of a god” and was worshipped as an immortal on his native island of Rhodes. Because of him, other athletes began keeping track of their victories on memorials.

Somehow, it seems appropriate that Phelps’ exceptional run of Olympic success began in the home country of Leonidas and the Games themselves. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps arrived like the new Poseidon, a 21st Century god of the seas stirring up a storm in the Olympic pool. He was only 19, but had won six events (and set six world records) in the previous year’s world championships.

His tales in Athens seemed akin to the ten labors of Hercules, Greece’s legend of the strongest man in the world who, by passing repeated tests thrown at him by the gods, became the only mortal accepted onto Mount Olympus as a god.

Phelps won six gold and three bronze medals that summer, methodically working his way through the competition like Hercules slaying the nine-headed Hydra, killing the vulture that feasted on Prometheus’ liver, snuffing out the most fearsome lion in the world, cleaning the Augean stables, and so on. It was historic stuff, taken up a notch by Phelps’ unprecedented eight golds in Beijing in 2008, four golds (and two silver) in London in 2012 and, so far, three golds in Rio.

Now Phelps’ medal tally is recalling the feats of Leonidas, who could be considered a more modern Colossus of Rhodes, his Olympic triumphs standing for more than 2,000 years like the 98-foot statue that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 226 B.C.

So Phelps has done with Leonidas what They Might Be Giants suggested was in order for the long-gone Belgian painter.

    Raise a glass and sit and stare/ Understand the man.