Michael Phelps Finishes … Fourth?! Analyzing Phelps’ Flop and Ryan Lochte’s Gold in the 400 IM.

A Blog About the Olympic Games
July 28 2012 3:38 PM

Michael Phelps Finishes … Fourth?! Analyzing Phelps’ Flop and Ryan Lochte’s Gold in the 400 IM.

Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps after finishing fourth in the men's 400 IM.

Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/GettyImages

The guy with the most gold medals in history is just a man, not a merman. On Saturday, Ryan Lochte cruised to victory in the men’s 400-meter individual medley while Phelps struggled to fourth place, an unimaginable 4.1 seconds behind his rival and 5.5 seconds behind the world record he set in Beijing in 2008. (That record was set using a swimsuit that has since been deemed illegal.) The perpetual winner and omnipresent Subway pitchman failed to win a medal in an Olympic event for the first time since the Sydney Games in 2000, when he emerged from the depths of Atlantis at age 15 to lord his aquatic superiority over us landlubbers.

On the NBCOlympics.com live feed, the non-American broadcasters expressed shock that Phelps was so far back. When the event is broadcast on NBC on tape delay this evening, that shock may be accompanied by the sound of network executives’ heads exploding.

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But this is one of the better possible outcomes for the NBC hype machine. NBC has promoted the Lochte-Phelps rivalry ad nauseum in the run-up to the games, and the telegenic Lochte lived up to the hype. Phelps did not. While Florida’s tire-flipping, chain-dragging, Shar-Pei-resembling aquatic lothario improved on his time from the U.S. Olympic Trials by almost 2 seconds, America’s Olympic hero swam nearly 1.5 seconds slower than he did a month ago in Omaha.

The fact that the previously uncrackable Phelps cracked so badly makes for a fascinating storyline. After the race, the humbled Baltimorean told reporters that he swam "a crappy race" and that his competitors “were more prepared."

While viewers will doubtless tune in to see if Phelps can regain his sea legs, how will this unexpected loss affect his marketability?

If Phelps medals in his remaining six events, his loss here might actually increase his marketability. It shows that Phelps is human; it makes him a bit more likable. If, however, he continues to flounder, he'll take a short-term marketability hit while setting himself up for a hell of a comeback narrative going into 2016. (Phelps has said that he’s going to retire after London. If he keeps losing, those plans could change.)

Can't you just see the commercials?

VOICEOVER: When you've been down, all you can think of is getting back up.

CLOSE UP: Michael Phelps putting on his swimsuit.

VOICEOVER: So you work hard. Stay focused. Keep your eyes on the prize.

CLOSE UP: Michael Phelps strapping on his goggles.

VOICEOVER: Because losing, more than anything, makes you hungry ….

CLOSE UP: Michael Phelps walking down a long hallway toward a door.

VOICEOVER (cheery): Hungry for a foot-long meatball sub from Subway!

CLOSE UP: Michael Phelps eating a sandwich.

Blackout.

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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