Michael Phelps Did Not "Blow It" at the End of the 200 Fly

In the press earlier today I read that Phelps had failed to finish first in the 200 fly because he made an "elementary mistake" at the finish. I read this claim in the afternoon, and so I was curious to see what really had happened. After watching the finish twice, I can say with confidence that, once again, we have writers ignorant of swimming writing rubbish about what really happened.

The complaint is apparently that Phelps glided into the wall, allowing Le Clos to narrowly beat him. But here is what really happened: Both Phelps and Le Clos were simply trying to swim that last length as fast as they possibly could. Neither of them were thinking, "I should swim so that the strokes I am taking will turn out to be an integral divisor of 50 meters." As top-notch swimmers, they might, in fact, have been able to assure that result. But if that is what they had been focusing upon, the two of them would have finished seventh and eighth in the finals. No, each of them was focused on swimming that length as fast as possible. In doing so, it happened that Phelps's last stroke left his hands about three feet shy of the wall. As such, his best choice was clearly to glide in -- to attempt another stroke probably would have added half a second to his time. Le Clos was luckier: his last stroke happened to land his hands right at the touchpad. And so he won the gold medal, but that had nothing to do with any "screw up" on the part of Phelps

UPDATE: Rob makes a good point in the comments: of course, one can adjust one's stroke at the end and alter where one's hands will be at the finish. But that has its own cost: Presumably, one has been taking the optimal length strokes, and altering that length will slow one down. Sometimes you have to do this, for instance, if you are going to wind up going in face first. But Phelps's last stroke was not off by much: I didn't see that there was any adjustment that would have won the race for him. But I may be wrong!


  1. What they should do is locate each swimmer's precise center of mass, implant some kind of transmitter at that location, and have a plane within the pool a couple feet from the wall be the finish line. That would eliminate any lucky advantage from where you happen to be in your stroke at the end. (This might impart some advantages to oddly shaped people, or those with large heads, but I think the disadvantages these quirks create in swimming would make up for the advantage.)

    They should do the same thing in all races so sprinters can stop doing that awkward looking tip at the finish line.

  2. What about a half-stroke, like the one he used in 2008? http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/16/sports/olympics/16swim.html


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