17 August 2008

Not just too close to call, too tight to touch. With 50, 20, 10, five, two, one metres to go, Michael Phelps could not peg back the speeding Milorad Cavic to win the 100 metre butterfly final and his place alongside Mark Spitz in Olympic gold immortality. But he did. Only he will know why.

History, and the wonders of electronic sensory timing equipment, will state that he beat the feisty California-based Cavic by only one hundredth of a second, 50.58 seconds to 50.59. Replays seemed to show that the Serbian’s fingers were actually on the wall first but it was Phelps who beat him to apply pressure. It was something else too. It was as great a display of will to win as this Olympics or any Olympics will ever see.

We couldn’t believe it. The Serbians couldn’t believe it so much that they made an official protest that they only withdrew after being shown the timing videos. Phelps was most unsure. “When I saw the race afterwards I was shocked,” he said. “I took short fast strokes to try and get my hand on the wall. All I can say is that I raced as hard as I could and swam my best and that the scoreboard shows that I got my hand on the wall first.”

But forget all the statements. Forget the million-dollar bonus Phelps now gets from Speedo. Forget the protest and that Cavic, despite being smilingly gracious in defeat, said: “If we raced again, I would win it.” The real story here is that reports of Phelps being superhuman are an insult to him. He may have developed an astonishing physique, huge powers of concentration and an almost dolphin-like technique, but he bleeds all right. At the 50-metre mark yesterday morning, a full six-tenths of a second down on Cavic and lagging seventh of the eight finalists, it looked as if he was to face the full haemorrhage of defeat.

In the high, wide, and wonderful blue vastness of Beijing’s Water Cube swimming complex, there was a throat-gripping sensation that all our Olympics had led to this. From the first time that Phelps had marched out for the final of the 400m individual medley on Sunday, we could not keep our eyes off him. The strange white dressing gown, the trance-like look, the ritual towelling down of his starting block, the sinking stretch of first one long leg then the other, the final disrobing of those 6ft 4in and 14 stones of hard, sculpted muscle, and then the moment when he shakes that 6ft 7in wingspan long and loose below him ready to plunge into the element he has made his own. We had seen it four, five, six times. But now the enormity of the seventh was upon us.

And not lost upon Cavic. He was in lane four. He was even bigger and taller than Phelps. He had clocked a faster time in the semi-final and as Phelps stood flexing his thigh downwards with one huge foot on his starting block, Cavic turned towards him to do exactly the same. The two dark-goggled figures stared at each other, two testosterone-fuelled amphibians about to battle it out in the water. High up in the stadium we held our breath.

Right away we could see it was going to be difficult. Once he surfaced from his dive Phelps was clearly being outpointed. He was working with his normal intensity but his whirling arms had no more bite, rather less, than the others. As he came to the wall he was even further down than in the semis. When he surfaced from the turn, he was a full length behind Cavic.

It was impossible but he would not accept it. Deep inside a true champion there is a will that refuses to swallow defeat. It is why he takes the early mornings, the impossible training sessions, the carbo-loaded diet, the unrelenting routine, the feeling that without winning there cannot be air to breathe or eyes to see. You see it with them all, just as much with Rafael Nadal in tennis as with A P McCoy in the racing game. In press conferences and again yesterday morning, Phelps has smiled and spoken serenely of noble things like “taking the sport of swimming to where I would like it to be”. But right at the core he is a champion because he has an ingrained rage against the possibility of defeat.

Up out of the water it screamed at us now. He was closing but Cavic would not weaken, Phelps wasn’t closing fast enough: he was still almost half a body length behind as they went under the five-metre wire. It had to be Cavic, but with one last titanic thrust Phelps asked the ultimate question. He turned and could see the numbers 50.58 and 50.59 up on the scoreboard. He pulled his goggles down to check his number was at the lesser one. Then the roar raged out.

When he finally came through from the pool side he was still fired up enough to give very direct answers. No flannelling about records or sporting legacies, no stooping to cheap jokes about rivals. “It just shows,” he said. “That if you put your mind to something and really focus, anything is possible.”

What Michael Phelps did last week has defined this Olympics. But his records will be matched, his marks will be passed, what matters more is the impression he left when it looked as if the seven-golds ambition was beyond his reach.

That is the one Olympic dream that should never die.

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