Category Archives: olympic swimming

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.

Ryan Lochte, drowning diplomat


Consider the Olympic ideal of worldwide peace and brotherhood, of this global festival meant to foster respect for all amid the Games’ divergent cultures and languages. Now, think about American swimmer Ryan Lochte’s behavior in Rio de Janeiro, just in terms of foreign diplomacy.

His kind of statesmanship wouldn’t get a fellow into the front door of the International House of Pancakes.

Lochte was just one of 11,000 athletes at the Rio Games, virtually all of them carrying on admirably, but he managed to reinforce the notion that U.S. citizens routinely tote their superiority complex abroad. Reports of his post-competition drunken conduct were bad enough. But for him to lie about the circumstances, and paint himself as a victim, not only denigrated his Brazilian hosts but also smeared all of us Yanks all well.


Juxtapose Lochte’s demeanor to how U.S. soccer superstar Mia Hamm evaluated the last of her three Olympic experiences in 2004 in Athens. “One of the things we focused on,” she said, “was that this was a great time to show that different countries and different nationalities and creeds can come together to celebrate sport and humanity. It wasn’t about Us versus Them. It was about what we all do.”

Jamaica’s Usain Bolt demonstrated such kinship this week, moments after winning the second of his three sprint gold medals in Rio—on his way to nine in three Olympics—with the grace to pause during a live TV interview with a Spanish reporter and stand in silence while the U.S. anthem was played for the winner of the race following Bolt’s.

Compare that thoughtful gesture to the haughty existence of the U.S. basketball team, a collection of pampered millionaires housed on a luxury ocean liner to maintain their distance from the hoi polloi in Rio’s bustling athletes’ village. When asked by a French reporter about “living on a boat,” U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski gave a rambling, persnickety response, beginning with his sarcastic clarification that “we don’t live on a boat. We’re staying on a boat. I actually live in Durham, N.C., and have a swimming pool.”


Krzyzewski’s feeble explanation for the special treatment, that “we’re here to play basketball”—as if all the other basketball teams, and all the athletes in 28 sports, weren’t in Brazil with similar competitive expectations—merely echoed decades of coddling the American hoops community at international tournaments.

At the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, U.S. head coach Jack Hartman moved his team from the village to Americanized hotels, moaning that the playing conditions “are questionable and the living is less than desirable.”

Bill Wall, when he was executive director of the U.S. basketball federation, went a step further at the 1991 Pan Am Games in Havana, Cuba, chartering $10,000 flights to Miami between games to house and feed the team in a luxury Cocoanut Grove hotel.

“If it makes us spoiled and arrogant,” Wall said then, “so be it.”

Such a sense of entitlement—the assumption of exceptional care to guarantee on-the-court success—is especially strong in the U.S. basketball organization. Even before NBA players were welcomed into the Olympics in 1992, and ever since, U.S. players always have been provided the classiest accommodations, away from the athlete villages, even at the 1996 Atlanta Games. (This is one reason that, of all the Summer Olympic sports, basketball interests me the least.)

And now we see an American swimmer who can be just as tone deaf and contemptuous of non-Americans as Bill Wall was.

Too bad he hadn’t talked to Donna de Varona, three times an Olympic swimming gold medalist at two overseas Games, in Tokyo and Rome in the 1960s. De Varona once told me that “the best thing I did to prepare to compete internationally was to read the ‘Ugly American’ when I was 12 years old.’”

That 1958 political novel depicted the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. For less than $10, Lochte can get a copy on Just in case, though, somebody should alert IHOP about a potential international incident if Lochte is in the vicinity.


Olympic swimming’s close shaves






Children of the Fifties would recognize the medium: A series of five or six roadside signs, spaced for sequential reading by passing motorists, rhymed and with a punch line before concluding with a plug for the sponsor, which was a brand of brushless shaving cream.

(Example: Drinking Drivers. Nothing Worse. They Put the Quart. Before the Hearse. Burma-Shave.)

The company, Burma-Shave, was sold in 1963 and its iconic red signs—which had been spread throughout the contiguous United States—disappeared. But let’s get to the message, which dates to 1956 and remains an Olympic staple: Elite swimmers, seeking every little edge that might allow them to win by a hair, shave their entire bodies.

(So I made up that Burma-Shave verse at the top to fit the occasion.)

Legs. Arms. Backs. Armpits. Chests (the men, that is). Sometimes heads.

It’s a ritual. A psyche job. It’s a beginning, swimmers’ own personal Olympic opening ceremony, traditional and formal, like cutting a ribbon or breaking a bottle of champagne over a ship’s bow. Along with tapering down their training mileage anywhere from two to five weeks before their most important meets, these barbers of aquatic skill scrape off every last bit of bristle, down and fuzz.


According to the Indiana University’s Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming, “the effect of shaving on swim performance is not well understood….mostly anecdotal in nature and includes physical, psychological and neurophysiological factors.”

But the center’s namesake, the late Hall of Fame swimming coach Doc Counsilman, acknowledged in 1968 that “shaving the hair from the arms and legs may increase the swimmer’s sensitivity to the ‘feel’ or pressure of the water and, consequently, improve his coordination.”

The story is that an Australian freestyler named Jon Konrads first took a razor to his whole body before a 1956 meet and, according to American John Naber, who won four golds at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, “was the laughingstock of his whole team.” Except Konrads proceeded to cut a full two seconds off his best time and, by the end of that season, at the Melbourne Olympics, all of the Australian swimmers were shaving. (Konrads set 26 world records in his career and won a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics.)

Years ago, Naber explained shaving’s benefits to me this way: “Steve Martin used to say that he put a slice of baloney in his shoes before he performed to help him feel funny. Well, shaving helps you feel fast. It is an essential ingredient in a swimmer’s state of preparedness.”

Many Olympic swimmers have said they first shaved before they were teenagers, even if they hadn’t yet grown any hair on their bodies, because everyone else was doing it. Chrissy Ahmann-Leighton, before she won two relay golds and an individual silver at the 1992 Barcelona Games, told me she first shaved when she was 8. “We had a big party on the pool deck and everybody shaved,” she said. “Then, you’re a part of the team.”

The first time shaving, Naber said, “is like getting the first dent in your brand-new automobile.”

The swimmers use barber clippers, safety razors and straight razors. They get teammates or wives or girlfriends to shave their backs. (Although, Naber said, “you never shave somebody in your same event.”)

There are limits to this almost endless quest for aerodynamics. B.J. Bedford, a member of the U.S. women’s gold-medal relay team at the 2000 Sydney Games, had shaved her head before the previous Olympic trials but swore never to do it again. “My head,” the then-blonde Bedford said, “looked like a dirty tennis ball when my hair started growing out.”

To avoid that problem, virtually every top swimmer wears a cap.

Swimmers have related that the shaved sensation “makes the water feel like soap,” that it resembles “a dolphin and how slippery they are in the water.” Three-time 1984 gold medalist Rick Carey’s response to my research on this matter was, “You’re asking me to describe what a tomato tastes like and all I can say is, it tastes like a tomato.”

Just as significant as taking off all their hair, many swimmers believe, is shaving’s removal of a layer of dead skin, moving up the level of sensitivity. Rowdy Gaines, the triple gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Games who is doing NBC-TV commentary in Rio de Janeiro this month, called the shaving routine “real mental. But, then, it’s real physical, too. I don’t know how to describe it. The feeling is like a greased watermelon. You feel silky. It’s tingly. It’s cold.”


(Lather up. Take the plunge. Soak up victory. Like a sponge. Burma-Shave.)