By Gary Lemke
Chad le Clos was ready to ‘take it on the chin’, as he put it, as he spoke to the media for the first time since finishing fourth in the Olympic 200m butterfly final in Rio.
‘I’ll take it on the chin, I’ll assess it and I’ll move on. I’ve moved on already. I let a lot of people down, I let my country down. I should have definitely won that race,’ he said of the fourth place finish in the much-hyped rematch with Michael Phelps.
The expectation before Tuesday’s 200m final was amplified by a video that went viral of Le Clos taunting Phelps in the ready room before their semi-final, with the American legend scowling into the empty space ahead of him as a smiling Le Clos shadow boxed in front of him.
When asked how the atmosphere was before the final, in the wake of the video being circulated around the globe, Le Clos said that he hadn’t seen it. ‘The atmosphere was normal, I haven’t watched it … I haven’t been on social media for a long time, I haven’t been on my phone.
‘There was no reason to swim that slow [1min 54.06sec]. Maybe the hype got to me, I wasn’t [cracks knuckles] … this is what I wanted, to race in the final. If I came second in the final and produced my best time, c’est la vie … but to lose with a 54.0 is disgraceful from my side. I don’t accept defeat like that at this level. But, this is not the end of my 200m career and I hope that Phelps can hang around for another year. I’d love to swim against him again.’
‘Congratulations to Michael, he’s a phenomenal champion. I’m in good shape, the best shape of my life and there was no reason to swim that slow. We will assess it and not make any excuses. There may have been reasons for the defeat but I’ll never say that.
‘I said to you guys before we started there was a possibility I could have come in here, got two golds, two silvers … two fourths so I stand by what I said. We have to do a lot better.’
Le Clos, who came to Rio as the man who had toppled Phelps in London in a stunning upset – certainly a much bigger upset that was the case when Phelps exacted his revenge in Rio – called the swim ‘the worst performance of my career. There will never be another performance like that, no matter what.’
Immediately after that final, Le Clos cut a distraught figure as he buried his head in a towel and bypassed the media in the mixed zone, an area where athletes are obliged to give interviews, no matter how uncomfortable the situation. The reality is that it can be a quick couple of soundbites and then move on. However, he is not the only South African swimmer to have walked straight on by during these Games. ‘I’m sorry about the other night, I don’t know what to say.’ It takes a man to admit he made a mistake and Le Clos will have grown six feet taller in many people’s eyes for ‘apologising’.
‘The first couple of hours after the race were the toughest part … but, like my dad said, we [Le Clos’] don’t cry for losing, we cry for winning. As much as I wanted to cry, I really did, I must be honest, I didn’t. Worse things have happened to me this year – it’s been well documented that both his parents are battling cancer – and this isn’t even the fifth worst thing to have happened in the last few months.’
Of the 200m final itself, the 24-year-old said, ‘in my mind I was winning. Even with 10 metres to go, I was still winning, but my body wasn’t. I don’t want to say anything [excuse] … when you get to an Olympics I have always said that there’s a winner and there’s a loser, there’s first, second, third and nothing after that. To offer an excuse would be disrespectful to Michael and the other guys. Maybe I was more emotional towards the 200m fly and when you’re emotionally invested like that it can be detrimental. I’ve got a clear head, I’ll respond. I have always said, “don’t judge me when I’m roaring like a lion, judge me when I’ve got my back against the wall”.’
There has been mixed feedback around the social media forums relating to Le Clos’ post-race ‘behaviour’, but now it’s time to move on and look ahead. He is a champion swimmer and a proud South African ambassador. Perhaps he and Phelps need to go into a locked room together, alone, and sort things out because too much smack-talk and cheap tricks have spoiled what should be a fantastic swimming rivalry. And, importantly, a friendship between a legend and a brilliant young star. ‘The kid’s got talent,’ Phelps said of Le Clos after winning the 20th gold of his career. Maybe he was being derogatory, maybe he meant it as a true compliment. We’ll have to ask him that later.
Now’s the time to look forward and Le Clos was happy to be back doing what he does best, swimming – and swimming fast.
‘It feels great to be back in the water. The last few hours have been difficult to say the least. I don’t know what to say. I needed to get that one [100m butterfly heat] out the way, I was a bit rusty.
‘Going into the 100m I’ve got nothing to lose. He [Phelps] is the defending champion and I have the support of everyone. I’m very hungry for the 100m, hungrier than I’ve ever been, very happy, excited.
‘I hope Michael sticks around for another year so that I can race him again [in the 200]. It’s up to him, if he retires he’s still the greatest of all time, he can do whatever he wants to do. I have the greatest respect for him, he’s still in great shape. He can continue competing.’
And what of the morning after that night before? ‘It was past 3am when I went to bed and I woke up yesterday a different guy. I came to the pool, had a small swim. I’ll be better for this, I’ll come through and hopefully get the “W” in what might be Michael’s last race.’
Image by Wessel Oosthuizen/SASPA