Any champion in any sport will tell you the same thing: nobody ever wins anything that matters without a few breaks along the way.
At the 2008 Summer Olympics, en route to his record-setting 8 gold medal haul, Michael Phelps had more than one of those breaks. The two most iconic moments of the Games, and arguably swimming history, were Michael Phelps’ incredulous finish in the men’s 100 fly against Milorad Cavic, and Jason Lezak’s come-from-behind victory over the French in the men’s 400 free relay.
They were the two moments that left the hearts of American swim fans pounding for hours; sent them to their cell phones just to find anybody to tell about it; and inspired a generation of young swimmers.
But for every good break for one side of a race, there is someone who gets a bad break and is left with heartbreak.
This year, the Americans have twice been returned the favor in mirror-images of the two legendary moments from Beijing.
In the 400 free relay, the Americans this time entered the water with a lead of the French. With Ryan Lochte on the end, it was a lead that seemed like it would be hard to overcome. But that is because nobody had yet realized the sort of meet that France’s anchor Yannick Agnel was going to have in this meet. He exploded off of the last wall and reversed the tables, giving the French the most thrilling Olympic performance in their history.
The second race came in Tuesday’s 200 fly. Though it wasn’t exactly the same race as the 100 we saw in Beijing, it was the same stroke, and looked very much the same coming down to the wall. This time, however, it was Phelps who finished on a long stroke, while South African Chad le Clos took a final quick stroke to sneak his fingers into the wall, winning by just .05 seconds.
Without attachment to the great Phelpsian performance in Beijing, these moments for most sports fans will be stored away, recalled perhaps with vague recollections about the “kid who beat Phelps”. But for the swimming communities in those countries, these comeback victories will loom as large as even the moments of Phelps from 2008.
And that’s what the Olympics are all about. Taking the joy and enthusiasm of one country, and spreading it around to the globe to lift the whole of the sport. Americans can now relate to French fans, and South Africans to Americans. These emotions and the medals are spread to different countries and infused into their cultures in a bit of rebalancing of the Olympic spirit. In 2008, Michael Phelps dominated and that lit up the American swimming community. Now the French swimming community is lit up. That’s what makes the Olympics fun.