Greatest Race Trash Talk in Olympic History: France vs. USA

Charles Hartley, a free-lance writer based in New Jersey, has written more than a thousand published sports articles. He earned Master’s degrees in Business Administration and Journalism. In addition, he was awarded his Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University where he majored in English and Communications.

Trash talking of historical proportions began a few days before the finals of the men’s 4 by 100 meter freestyle relay in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

A member of the French team, six-foot-five-inch Alain Bernard and world record holder in the 100 freestyle, told the press: “We’re going to smash the Americans. That’s what we came here for.”

Bernard was barking.

He had some good for doing so. France had put together four of the fastest free-style relay sprinters in the world at just the right time to be ready to snatch the Gold Medal from the United States.

Collectively, their relay splits and times were faster than the Americans. This was going to be a bad scene for U.S. swimming. In one of the events for which they are most proud of winning Gold Medals for decades, they were going to get humbled by a faster team from France.

Worse, they were being taunted by that team. They were being belittled. They were being disrespected. This doesn’t happen much in international swimming, not the trash talking and especially not about Americans swimmers who have been, as a team, the best in the world consistently for many decades.

These were unchartered waters, the Americans as underdogs, which rarely happens in relay events at the Olympics. Countries may have one person, once in a while, who can swim faster than our faster American in an individual event. But it’s unlikely you have a group of four who can swim faster. Americans have more depth of swimming talent than any other country. It’s been this way since the sport began.

Entering the race, there was no reason to believe the United States would win or even had a chance. Soon before the race NBC analyst Rowdy Gaines said that no matter how many times he crunched the numbers, considering various possibly times posted by each swimmer, the answer to the math turned out equal France taking the Gold.

The Americans would place second. But in this event, second place is like finishing 92nd. In relays, especially for Americans, it’s either Gold or nothing. Silver Medals are considered losses.

Making the dread entering this race even more intense was that one member of the U.S. team, a pretty good swimmer named Michael Phelps, would be part of that losing team. He was on a roll winning Gold Medals in individual Olympic events, and there was worry that he may actually be in a race in which he did not win.

All of this hype, nervousness, and intrigue was going on before this race.

Everything was pointing to glory for France, the mouth-runners, and humiliation for the Americans, the quiet guys who didn’t respond – at least not publicly — to Bernard’s words.

As an American swimming fan, you got a sinking feeling. If there was no chance they would win, based on the expert analysis of Rowdy Gaines, we were going to watch and be disappointed. It was a virtual certainty.

Americans always hate losing and this was a classic case.

When Phelps led off the relay for the Americans, even as much of a championship as he was, there wasn’t much hope for Gold. He finished second in his heat and posted  the fastest relay splits in American history, 47.51, but it was not going to matter. The back half of the French relay squad was wicked fast.

An American victory wasn’t going to happen.

Garrett-Weber Gale and Cullen Jones swam the second and third legs for the Americans. They left the American squad behind by a body length at the end of the third leg.

It was over. No Gold. Embarrassment. Losing to the French, who predicted they were going to whip them, was imminent and certain. Could anything in U.S. Olympic swimming be worse?

Bernard, all six feet five inches of him, dove in the pool. A second later U.S. anchor leg Jason Lezak hit the water.

It was over.

Gaines talked about how the Americans were going to get the Silver. He said there was just no way Lezak could catch Bernard. By the end of the first 50 meters, the Trash Talker had built on the lead.

It was a fait accompli.

France wins. Americans lose. World celebrates.

You could see these headlines all over TV screens and newspapers around the world.

Lezak kept fighting. What was going through his mind at that point? Clearly, he was feeling pain. Clearly, he knew he was behind. Clearly, his chances of catching the Trash Talker were minimal. What mental and physical torture he must have been feeling?

Mid-way through the second half of the race, he appeared to be gaining on Bernard. Not by much, just a little.

It kept happening at indiscernible lengths. But you could see it.

Could he do it? No way. We were being teased.

We all hate to be teased.

Fifty feet from the wall his gains were getting easier to see. Yes, he was gaining. But the wall was so close. Bernard would touch before Lezak could catch him. There just wasn’t enough time.

Nice race, valiant effort but sorry, you lost.

Lezak can’t come back and beat the world record holder in the 100 meter freestyle because he’s not the world record holder. In swimming, things like this hardly ever happen. Swimmers with the fastest times entering races almost always swim the fastest in their next races compared with the other swimmers. Times don’t lie.

Lezak kept coming.

Ten feet from the wall it looked like maybe, maybe, maybe he would touch the wall before the Trash-Talking Frenchman.

No way. This can’t be possible. Lezak is really fast, but he’s not that fast. He’s never swam 100 meters faster than Bernard. How could he do it now? Sure, he’s motivated to beat the Trash Talker and win Gold for Michael Phelps and his teammates, but wanting to win is different from winning.

But there he goes. They’re even ten feet from the wall. Still, even five feet from the wall, they’re even.

Will Lezak out-touch him? How could it? No way.Look at the board. What does it say?

United States.

Lezak nipped Bernard by 8 one hundreds of a second. The United States posted a time of 3 minutes and 8.24 seconds, shattering the all-time world record in this event by four seconds.

The four Americans exalted. Lezak jumped above the water and pumped his arm.

No doubt exhausted, no doubt amazed, no doubt a winner for the rest of his life, Lezak had forever placed himself among the greatest American heroes in the history of the Olympic Games.

Overcoming all the odds and the trash-talking, he found a way to swim the fastest 100 meter time ever, 46.06.

It was insane. It was improbable. It was the most riveting and amazing swimming race in the history of the sport.

It was France. It was the United States.

It was America at its most Beautiful.

In This Story

Comments

  1. Baxter says:

    I dunno…. Gary hall Jr. & the Aussies & popov had some good stuff going too

    • ERVINFORTHEWIN says:

      Yes , a guitar braking story of some kind was rolling on the turn table with Gary as the main DJ

  2. Baxter says:

    The image of GH JR strumming an air guitar post 4 fr relay is forever scorched into my brain

  3. Crannman says:

    I am interested to see how long it takes until somebody beats Lezaks 46.06 relay split. McEvoy is closest with a 46.6 but I cant see him beating it anytime soon….

    • Attila the Hunt says:

      Put mcEvoy in LZR bodysuit and he’ll smash 45.

      • Caeleb Dressel\'s Occupied Stall says:

        Lol. Imagine mcevoy in a lzr or even an arena. Hed be so high in the water i dont think you could say hed even be swimming at that point hahaha

    • Optimistic person says:

      Actually Cielo and Bernard are tied with 46.26s from the medley relay in Rome 2009. Removing that it’s McEvoy for textile in 46.60, then Adrian with a 46.69 from USAs dqed 2013 relay, which still counts because he wasn’t the a leg thats time was affected.

    • robbos says:

      He wore a bodysuit.

  4. bobo gigi says:

    Idiot Gary Hall Jr. in 2000 with “We will smash them like guitars” about Australians.
    Idiot Alain Bernard in 2008 with “We’re going to smash the Americans”.

    The Golden Palm for Bernard who swam like a junior his anchor leg.
    But while I was disappointed for France, I was very happy for MP and his 8-gold medal quest.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaP_XlgUrdc

    • Dave says:

      As I’ve pointed out repeatedly here and will continue to point out as long as this myth is perpetuated, this is Hall’s actual comment: “I like Australia, in truth. I like Australians. The country is beautiful, and the people are admirable. Good humor and genuine kindness seem a predominant characteristic. My biased opinion says that we will smash them like guitars. Historically the U.S. has always risen to the occasion. But the logic in that remote area of my brain says it won’t be so easy for the United States to dominate the waters this time. Whatever the results, the world will witness great swimming.”

      The myth was printed and the truth forgotten in a wave of Aussie home games patriotism.

    • Steve Nolan says:

      Yo, Gary Hall Jr’s not an idiot. (His posts with David Cromwell on this very site are still the best things here.) He’s incredibly thoughtful, especially so if you can appreciate nuance.

      Hell, even the full “guitars” quote is a pretty fantastic example of just that: “I like Australia, in truth. I like Australians. The country is beautiful, and the people are admirable. Good humor and genuine kindness seem a predominant characteristic. My biased opinion says that we will smash them like guitars. Historically the U.S. has always risen to the occasion. But the logic in that remote area of my brain says it won’t be so easy for the United States to dominate the waters this time.

  5. D1MSPC says:

    Beautiful narration of one of the best olympic races in history. Great job, Charles Hartley!

    • Dawgpaddle says:

      I agree. I also suggest Charles replace RottenRoddy Gainer as a color commentator for swimming. It is long past the time we should see Rowdy selling burgers at Wendy’s.

    • Charles Hartley says:

      Thanks very much, D1MSPC. Had there not been pre-race trashing talking, and had the opponents not been the French, and had Phelps not needed the win to take Gold in every race n that Olympics, it still would have been one of the best races of all time. But these added elements catapulted it to the best in swimming history. Lezak’s 46.06 was superhuman.

  6. JP Input is too short says:

    2008 Olympics happened in the summer after my freshman year in college. My younger brother and sister and I were working closing shift lifeguarding, shift got over at 10 PM. We rushed home just in time to turn on the TV and Phelps was getting up on the blocks.

    I knew what was SUPPOSED to happen, so I sat there quietly and watched as the French pulled ahead and my siblings were wondering what the heck the Americans were doing. Lezak dove in and started his gallop in Bernard’s wake. As he hit the turn and broke out I started to stand up a bit.

    “Is he… Is he actually going to catch him?” Bernard started to tighten up and Lezak kept gaining. By this point my siblings and I were all on our feet whisper-yelling (the parents were upstairs asleep!), almost following along with Cullen as he ran the along the side of the pool waving Lezak on.

    That was amazing.

    • bobo gigi says:

      Bernard swam on the side of Lezak. He swam like a debutant. He was ridiculous that day.
      Congrats to Lezak and the US relay. Amazing race.

    • Steve Nolan says:

      Still the best and most invested I’d ever been in a sporting event I wasn’t directly a part of. I was just so despondent during the whole race, too, muttering about how they needed a bigger lead. I almost punched out two lights on my ceiling at the finish I was jumping up and down so much.

      (Though the ’02 Super Bowl is the only thing that’s sorta close.)

      • swammer81 says:

        Same. I went from being sunken and defeated in my chair to a leaping banshee in a matter of 10 seconds. It was awesome.

  7. Steve Nolan says:

    “…the fastest relay splits in American history, 47.51…”

    That set an American record, did it not? Got beat by Eamon Sullivan, who set the world record leading off for Australia.

    (I also am too lazy to look those things up, but given I’ve seen that race ten billion times, I totally think I’m remembering it correctly.)

  8. Dave says:

    This article’s too heavy on the patriotic chest beating for my taste.

    • Coachandy says:

      Dave has been seen cheering on the East German “women” in ’76. Love it or leave it. Don’t let the door hit ya, Dave. (Comrade)

  9. Attila the Hunt says:

    There were talks about USA as underdog, because France has Bernard as the 100 free WR holder (coming into Beijing) as well as the flashy profiles of their sprinters.

    However, on paper adding up respective fastest four 100 free times leading to Beijing showed that USA was actually just ahead of France. So, at the very least, USA were not underdog.
    At the end, the final result actually confirmed almost exact difference between USA and France.
    France can thank Bernard for the result. He made amateurish mistakes: went out in too fast of a pace in 21.27 (Morozov in 2013 and Earvin in 2015 did the same), and swam very close to the lane next to Lezak.

  10. team Rwanda says:

    Well It depends on your perspective. I thought the US team loosing to France in 2012 was a big upset, albeit no trash talking involved. And how about in 2013, when Rowdy Gaines forgot to talk about France for 90 meters of the race, only to see them win over hyped Russia and the US

    • Pau Hana says:

      You mean Rowdy ignored the race in front of him to talk about something else? Gee, that never happens.. ;S

    • swimmy says:

      my favorite is Cullen Jones at the bottom of the screen watching the finish. My kids use this to pump up before big meets. There used to be a great version of this from a completely underwater view. does anyone know where that can be seen?

    • swimdoc says:

      The overhead of Bernard tying up the last 5 meters is unreal. I also don’t know how Phelps had enough adrenaline left to swim the rest of the meet after his celebration.

    • G.I.N.A. says:

      Those suits look ridiculous.

  11. Paswim says:

    “BERNARD IS LOSING SOME GROUND!
    HERE COMES LEZAK!!!
    UNBELIEVABLE AT THE END!!!!!!!!!!

    HE’S DONE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THE U.S. HAS DONE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

  12. GetExcited says:

    Wish there was more of this in the sport. Rivalries. Emotions. Need more.

  13. JPSWIMMER says:

    I cry tears of freedom every time I watch this race #Murica

  14. Crawler says:

    The real guilty ones were the French coaches who switched the line up at the last minute, against the wishes of the swimmers, putting Bernard to anchor (very fast but a novice at relay) instead of Bousquet (at his peak then and very experience in relays from his days at Auburn).

  15. Annie Strenk says:

    The greatest swim memory of my life!!!

  16. Funk says:

    So sometime less than 6 months prior to those Olympic Games, Nike brought a cadre of pro swimmers to my home pool, and indoor 50m pool, for a fancy photo shoot. Towards the end of the day, Jason Lezac strolled to the blocks for a few laps. I noticed he was in no hurry to get in the water- just sitting there quietly looking down the length of the pool. So I timidly approached Lezac, and was curious to hear what he would say about stroke length and stroke count. (I always found it beneficial for my swimmers to think about stroke counting as they transition from short course to long course). I asked Jason how many strokes per length he takes in a 100 freestyle, race pace. His answer was 33. I’ll never forget watching that Olympic race months later, rewinding and counting his strokes. What a legendary swim!!

  17. Swammer says:

    Even just reading this without watching the video I am beyond hyped up right now. The fact that no one in the world has come anywhere near that time since shows how special it was.
    Nothing better than shutting up a trash talker the old fashioned way, just like Phelps would do a year later in the 100 fly

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