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Le Clos joins the golden generation
- Updated: July 31, 2012
Gary Lemke in London
Chad le Clos pulled off the greatest upset in South African Olympic history when he dethroned American legend Michael Phelps to grab gold with one sensational last lunge in the men’s 200m butterfly final here on Tuesday night.
As football writer Hugh McIlvanney once told a young hack sitting next to him when George Best scored a wonder goal, “don’t worry about remembering the time, remember the date”.
It was just after 7.50pm on an overcast London night on 31 July 2012 when swimming opened its arms to a new era. One in which Chad le Clos signed his name in lights as the most marketable swimmer in the world. He’s only 20 and 2016 was supposed to be his moment. But greatness doesn’t need to wait. Ke Nako, this is his time.
Phelps had come to London as the king of the pool. He’d won 14 Olympic gold medals and 16 in total and needed another three to be the most decorated Olympian of all time. The 200m butterfly has been his domain for a decade and the silver he earned last night took his tally to 18 overall, tied with the most.
But this was the night the fearless Durbanite refused to lie down and take home silver, or bronze, even when he was guaranteed of a medal with 50 metres to go. In the most thrilling of races, he dug deep down, his hunger, desire and talent getting him to touch first in a lifetime best of 1min 52.96sec. It is the third fastest of all time, behind Phelps and Takeshi Matsuda ÔÇô who got bronze on Tuesday night ÔÇô but those are mere statistics on a night when the story was far bigger than numbers.
Chad le Clos beat Michael Phelps to win Olympic 200m butterfly gold. Had anyone said that publicly at the beginning of the year they’d have been given a visit and wrapped up in a┬á straitjacket.
In the race itself, Phelps had it won from the start right until the final glide into the wall 200m later. Le Clos, who was second at 50m, second at 100m and then slipped to third at 150m, then showed why South Africans, when they are united, have a courage and determination unmatched on the planet.
His final 50m was a sensational 59.20 ÔÇô a full half second faster than his split from 100 to 150m ÔÇô and with it he nailed Phelps by 0.63 seconds in that final stretch.
In the mixed zone, there was a stunned silence, albeit for the briefest of periods, before chaos reigned. Le Clos was quickly whisked off to prepare for the men’s 200m freestyle final.
The sensational victory came two nights after Cameron van der Burgh opened South Africa’s Olympic medals account with a world record swim in the 100m breaststroke. The positive energy in the camp following that swim undoubtedly rubbed off on his countryman. Like a London bus, we’ve waited 16 years for two swimming gold medals in an Olympics. And then two come virtually at once.
Le Clos, who will be the busiest South African at London 2012, had come to London brimming with confidence. And there was no shortage of backing from his coach, Graham Hill either. When asked how good he thought his man was last week, he replied, “I know I’m biased, but ÔÇª let’s just say he’s very, very good.”
The 20-year-old who admitted that he enjoys taking ice baths after training ÔÇô “OK, I don’t actually enjoy the few minutes that I’m sitting in them, but I enjoy the benefits and recovery they provide” ÔÇô had laid down his Olympic marker in the men’s 400m Individual Medley, where he progressed to the final and then finished fifth. He was not spooked by the presence of the man routinely called the greatest Olympian of all time, and the equally hyped fellow American Ryan Lochte.
“I know I’ve got time on my side because Phelps is retiring and Lochte won’t be around in Rio in 2016, but when I get to the final then I’m actually going in there to get a medal,” he said earlier in the week.
Le Clos continued his busy programme in the men’s 200m freestyle on Tuesday where he anchored South Africa and helped pull them into last night’s final. And on Wednesday he needs to get up early again to go out in the heats of the 200m IM. Sandwiched between this was that small matter of the 200m butterfly.
Le Clos has come on visibly and grown in stature, both mentally and physically, over the past two years since winning double gold at the Commonwealth Games, including in the 200m butterfly. He is getting used to the experience of appearing in major finals and together with Van der Burgh, South Africa has two superstars who represent the changing face of global swimming.
Also in action on Tuesday night was Gideon Louw who had recorded the second fastest time of the morning’s 100m freestyle heats ÔÇô a quick 48.29sec. He found himself in lane four in the semi-finals, with the Australian James Magnussen to his right in the next lane. Also in the field was Brazil’s world record holder, Cesar Cielo.
Such is the wide open nature of this event, not too much could be read into the morning’s timesheets, other than confirm that the 16 in the semi-finals would have to go a lot quicker in the semi-finals if they wanted to walk out for Wednesday night’s final.
He was bitterly disappointed after finishing fourth in 48.44, which left him agonizingly close ÔÇô but yet so far ÔÇô from a place in the final, placing ninth.
In the men’s 200m freestyle final, South Africa finished second, shortly after Le Clos had won gold. The big significance of the United States winning gold was that it was Phelps’ 15th Olympic gold and a record 19th medal overall.