Michael Phelps (R370).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This may sound strange, but in my mind, it was in defeat on the night in which Michael Phelps became the most successful Olympian in history that we were given a rare glimpse of what makes him so unique.
Entering the 200-meter butterfly final on Tuesday, Phelps, the clear favorite, had already owned 17 Olympic medals, eight from Athens 2004 (6 gold and 2 bronze), eight from Beijing 2008 (all gold) and one silver from London.
Phelps began the swim, in which he prevailed in 2004 and 2008, just one medal adrift of Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won her 18 medals in three Olympics beginning in 279781 1956.
He controlled the final for the first 190 meters, but lost out on the gold by five hundredths of a second to South African Chad le Clos after mistiming his finish.
Phelps was stunned.
He hadn’t lost the 200m fly in a major competition since 2001.
He was 16 then.
Frustrated and dismayed, Phelps seemed to require all of his superpowers just to crack a smile as he was awarded his second silver medal of the 2012 Games, and of his career.
The American just seemed unable to fathom that he was beaten in his trademark event.
It was incomprehensible to him.
Not because he was arrogant or complacent, but because he simply hates losing so much.
Sure, the elation and ecstasy of winning is a big incentive, but with Phelps, as well as many other all time greats, it is the fear of losing that really spurs him on.
He had just tied Latynina for Olympic history and all he could think about was how did things go so horribly wrong that he could only manage a silver? Why he hadn’t done any better? Minutes later he did, anchoring the US’s 4x200m free relay team to the gold, making the record all his own with his first gold in London and 15th overall, six more than any other Olympian.
Phelps put himself in a category of his own with Tuesday’s triumph, so much so that his medal count is being compared to that of other countries rather than fellow athletes.
By the way, Phelps has won more medals than the likes of Croatia and Slovenia, not to mention 12 more than Israel in its 60 years of Olympic competition, while picking up more golds than Jamaica or the Czech Republic.
It was remarkable to see first hand everything go his way in Beijing on the way to a record haul of eight golds in a single Games, but Phelps powers are clearly waning and he has been forced to deal with disappointment in London.
He may not enjoy it much, but it gave us a chance to peek into the soul of the great man and understand slightly better what has made him such an irresistible force.
He is unstoppable no more, but that diminishes nothing of his legacy.
If anything, it has only enhanced his place in the history books.
Unrealistic expectations have meant that much of Phelps’s success down the years has been taken for granted.
Tuesday’s loss to le Cros was a timely reminder that Phelps is in fact human and what a privilege it has been to follow his career.
Ironically, it took a defeat to fully appreciate the greatest winner of them all.