It’s the rematch that’s been four years in the making. Can you just imagine if it was staged by Don King Productions. It ought to be, it’s that big.
In the one corner you’ve got the defending Olympic 200m butterfly champion, Chad le Clos. The confident, never-say-die South African who refuses to lose. Younger, brasher, but is he still the faster of the two when they come together in the rematch of London 2012? Only their times will tell.
In the other corner you’ve got the great Michael Phelps. A legend who bossed the sport over the years before he was left floored by Le Clos coming over the top with a perfect touch to snatch his 200m butterfly belt in 1min 52.96sec in London. There was, for a split second, the kind of stunned silence that only 17 500 people can make, before all hell broke loose.
And the new Olympic champion, all the way from South Africa, Chad le Clos. ‘Unbelievable’, his father Bert uttered as he became emotional on live BBC TV. Such has been the Le Clos’ rollercoaster family journey that they’ve since produced a movie by the same name.
He came to Rio having just shared with the world the plight the family are going through. Both parents have been diagnosed with cancer. ‘Yeah, look, it’s been difficult, it’s been hard. It’s been an emotional week, you know. I was on the blocks and my dad shouted for me and that’s important for me. i just want to do him proud.’
After London 2012 Le Clos’ career went in one direction – upwards – and Phelps ‘retired’, as he promised he would. With 18 gold medals amongst a total of 23 Olympic medals, he’d had enough of the sport. He was going to take up golf, or anything else, but not swim competitively. ‘I’ve been watching Chad for a couple of years now and I want to enjoy watching him over the next few. I’m handing over the torch to him,’ he said graciously in defeat. The King is dead, long live the King.
Phelps ‘retired’ still owning the world record of 1:51.51 and Le Clos freely admitted that taking down that record would be his major objective in 2013 and 2014. It never happened and that 1:52.96 is still the fastest he’s gone in the event. He entered Rio 2016 with a year’s best of 1:54.42, set in Barcelona in June. That placed him fourth on the rankings heading into these Games.
Phelps’ retirement didn’t work. He became involved in a number of high profile distractions and even spent time doing community service. The 31-year-old needed the brutal swimming regime to pull him back on the rails. And here he is, in Rio, the unlikeliest of comeback kids.
They say that the greats should never come back, that they can only tarnish their legacy by doing so. Phelps is the greatest swimmer the planet has seen. Sue me if you disagree. How sad would it be to see him beaten in his signature event and not only by a Le Clos who hasn’t scaled the heights that were maybe unfairly expected of him – and by here we’re talking swimming greatness – but by a Hungarian five months older than Phelps himself, Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh.
The latter was actually the bookies’ favourite coming into Rio, having set the 2016 bar at 1:52.91 in London in May.
When he was asked, after climbing out of the water following his 200m fly heat, whether he could win gold, Cesh said: ‘Maybe this is the first time I feel in myself that I am totally ready to be the best.’ Could he finally beat Phelps? ‘I’ll try my best. I think I’m capable of doing that but we will see. I think the power is in myself, so I’ll try my best.’
So, now there are three in the mix. It’s not just Le Clos versus Phelps, the Remake. There’s a twist to the script with a shaven-haired swimmer a few months older than Phelps and six years the senior of Le Clos who is right in the thick of this rivalry.
Last year Cesh beat Le Clos to the 200m butterfly world title, although the roles were reversed in the 100m in which Le Clos clocked a personal best 50.56 in winning the world title.
Around the same time a war of words was erupting between Le Clos and Phelps, who was struggling with his comeback and for prolonged stages looked an outside bet to be at Rio 2016.
‘He’s been talking a lot of smack in the media about how slow the butterfly is, so I just can’t wait until I race him,’ the South African said in 2015.
Two days later Phelps replied with action, not words. He clocked the fastest time in the world for 2015 at the US Championships, a 1:52.94. It was the quickest he’s gone since 2009 and it was 0.02 faster than the mark Le Clos had put up in snatching the 200m butterfly cloak of invincibility off his shoulders at London 2012.
When told about it, the-then 23-year-old Le Clos smiled. ‘Michael swam a great time, but with all due respect, that’s not so hard to do when you’re swimming on your own.’
Fired up by his 200m defeat to Cesh, Le Clos, the 2012 silver medalist in the 100m, sprinted to world championship gold in 50.56. Afterward he told the media in Kazan: ‘I just did a [100m butterfly] time that [Phelps] hasn’t done in four years, so he can keep quiet now. I’m just very happy that he’s back to his good form, so he can’t come out and say, “Oh, I haven’t been training” or all that rubbish that he’s been talking. Next year [at Rio] is going to be Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier.’
Well, Rio, here we are. Who is Ali and who is Frazier? And, will Cesh get in their way?
The semi-finals pitted Phelps and Le Clos in the same race, separated only by Tamas Kenderasi in lane four. Kenderesi won, Phelps was second, but the final will be the real deal. Let’s get ready to rumble. These are two great champions, both of whom are willing to be carried out on their shield. This is what makes sport such theatre and while there can only one winner, neither of them are losers.
Phelps’ comeback to the Olympics has already gathered him gold No19 when helping the USA to the 4x100m freestyle title, but now it’s head-to-head again.
Let’s leave the last word to the reigning Olympic champion. ‘I’m very excited, I’ve been waiting a very long time for this. I’m very, very excited.’
The stage is set.
The men’s 200m butterfly final is at 10.28pm on Tuesday local time (3.28am on Wednesday SA time)
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