It's only when you hear such stuff that you realise he is human after all. On Saturday, after 16 races here, Michael Phelps said: “I misjudged the distance of the wall.”
“I either had to glide or lunge. I chose the latter,” he said, after winning the 100m butterfly by the narrowest of margins to tie Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold at a single Olympics.
A protest, a photo-finish and desperate lunge added zing to the drama. The stage was perfect for a nail-biting finish. Thousands thronged the Water Cube to watch Phelps try and equal Spitz. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe it was Serb Milorad Cavic’s grit but Phelps was really stretched on Friday. To the naked eye Cavic was the winner, but the Omega – the official timekeeper and one of Phelps’s sponsors – equipment said otherwise.
For once Phelps looked vulnerable. He was trailing until the last foot. Maybe his long hands made the impossible possible for him when he managed to touch the pad one-hundredth-of-a-second before Serbia’s Cavic at 50.58 seconds.
It’s not about 100th of a second. Maybe because of his greatness, we always think he is not allowed to make a mistake. Maybe because of his victories so far we tend to take away all the hard work he has put into his game. Only the 4x100 medley relay on Sunday now stands between Phelps and history. And it is not a race the USA have lost since it became an Olympic event.
The Serbians protested after Phelps was named winner, but after being shown TV footage, accepted the decision of the judges.
When Phelps realised he was a few feet away from the wall and saw Cavic gliding towards victory, he was forced to lunge. “When I chopped that last stroke I thought I would be behind Cavic. I had to take my goggles off to see whether my name would be against the No 1. That was too close. But if you keep focused I think anything is possible.”
Cavic was gracious in defeat, creditable given the circumstances. “I don’t want to fight this,” Cavic said. “People will be bringing this up for years and saying you won that race. If we got to do this again, I would win it.” The International Swimming Federation said that the result was fair and that there was no fault with the timing equipment.
Maybe Cavic’s right, but what’s more certain is that 36 years after Munich, someone is on a par with Spitz. Someone who’s also got 13 Olympic gold medals. And someone who is likely to beat his own record on Sunday, in his last race at these Games.