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 espn.com 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.