RIO DE JANEIRO — On the eve of arguably the most anticipated race of the swimming program at these Olympics, there was no need for words. No need for soft and cuddly clichés about respect or admiration. Instead, one 10-second television clip told you everything you needed to know about the relationship between Michael Phelps and South Africa’s Chad le Clos.
It was four years ago in London when le Clos, who grew up idolizing Phelps, handed the American his first loss at a major international meet in a decade by out-touching him in the 200-meter butterfly final. Afterward, a gracious Phelps offered medal stand pointers to the then-20-year-old le Clos and there was talk that Phelps would someday visit South Africa to go shark diving with le Clos.
Now that possibility couldn’t be any further from happening.
On Monday night, in the call room before the second semifinal heat of the 200-meter fly, le Clos began shadowboxing directly in front of Phelps. The most decorated Olympian of all time glared over, under and pretty much right through the South African. The moment was picked up by NBC’s cameras, prompting commentator Rowdy Gaines to say “I’ve never seen this before. Let’s just leave these cameras right here.” Before the night was through, Phelps’ glare of death would become the latest sports-driven meme.
“Everybody has their own race strategy of what they do,” Phelps said afterward. “If that’s his, then that’s his. I tried to not really pay attention.”
When told after the session that cameras had picked up his moves, le Clos seemed surprised.
– NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) August 9, 2016
“Did they catch that?” he asked. “Dammit. I don’t know. I just do what I need to do. The call room is what it is. It’s a difficult place. A lot of tension, especially before a final. We will see tomorrow.”
Tomorrow refers to the 200 fly final that has been circled on the calendars of both men for about a year now. It was August of 2015 when the flames in this rivalry first began to burn from opposite ends of the globe. With some 6,500 miles and eight time zones between them, le Clos, competing at world championships in Kazan, Russia, took offense to Phelps’ comments that the world’s top times in the butterfly events weren’t all that impressive. Phelps was unable to compete at worlds as part of his punishment for his DUI arrest in September 2014 and was instead at U.S. nationals in San Antonio at the time.
Le Clos responded with a 50.56-second 100 fly, telling reporters afterward, “I just did a time that he hasn’t done in four years. So he can keep quiet now.”
Those words caught the eye of Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman. Phelps was on his way to the Northside Aquatics Center that night when Bowman made a comment how everyone in the van needed to “keep quiet now.” Phelps picked up on it immediately.
“He was like, ‘Did you read that?'” Bowman said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ I knew there was no way he wasn’t going to see that.”
Phelps responded with a 50.45, the fastest time in the world in 2015 and the fifth-fastest ever. Afterward, Phelps refused to name le Clos specifically but said he thrived on opponents trash-talking him. He begged more of them to do it. Bowman took it a step further, pointing out that the time le Clos beat Phelps head-to-head in London, Phelps was at a point where he despised the sport of swimming and had been ditching training sessions.
“I don’t know why you would say something like that,” Bowman suggested that night in San Antonio. “He beat Michael in a race where Michael was completely unprepared. Other than that … it’s like … just shut up.”
From that moment on, a rivalry was born. That fall, le Clos told the website Sport360 he felt his quotes had been taken out of context. He said the same Monday night. But in that Sport360 interview he took another shot at Phelps, questioning his status as a global role model.
After Phelps’ swim, questions on cupping runneth over
The practice of Chinese cupping has been around for more than 2,000 years, but the form of therapy used on Phelps is somewhat different.
So, what are those circles on Michael Phelps’ body?
We have the answer, just in case you were wondering what those reddish-purple circles were on the swimmer’s upper body.
“He’s my idol. Maybe not … I look up to him in swimming terms, that’s it,” le Clos said. “But if I was as great as he was, I would conduct myself in a way children would be proud of. That’s what defines a champion. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how many gold medals you have, you must be a true champion and I pride myself on being that.”
In Monday’s semifinal, Phelps’ time of 1:54.12 was the third-fastest in the world this year and good enough to beat le Clos by nearly a full second. But le Clos was coming off a challenging double after becoming the first South African to medal (bronze) in the 200 freestyle. He vowed that Tuesday night’s final would be different.
“I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in,” le Clos said. “Like I always say, I race to win. I want to beat Michael and he wants to beat me.”
Le Clos said he will be dedicating Tuesday night’s final and all of his races to his parents, who are both battling cancer. Le Clos put out a statement this summer that doctors found a tumor in his father’s prostate that required surgery and his mother had to undergo a double mastectomy after a second bout with breast cancer.
He said this week that both of his parents as well as his brother and sister are in Brazil cheering for him.
“It’s been difficult. It’s been hard. It’s been an emotional week,” he said. “I was on the blocks and I heard my dad shout for me, and that’s important for me. I want to do him proud.”
That would involve beating the most decorated Olympian of all time at a second straight Games in one of his marquee events.
“All I can say is I will race my heart out,” le Clos said. “I’ll keep coming back at you. I’m sure everyone else will be thinking of that those last 50 meters.”
Added Phelps: “[This] race I would expect is going to get a lot of hype. It’s going to be exciting.”
The men’s 200-meter butterfly is scheduled to start on Tuesday, at 9:28 p.m. ET.