Five-Ring Circus

What Have You Done for Us Lately, Lochte? Yesterday’s Hero Caught from Behind as Americans Lose to French.

Ryan Lochte
Ryan Lochte after getting caught from behind in the men’s 4-by-100 freestyle relay.

Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP/GettyImages.

At the Beijing Olympics, Alain Bernard promised that the French 4-by-100 freestyle relay team would “smash” Michael Phelps and his American teammates. When the USA’s Jason Lezak caught Bernard on the final leg of one of the greatest relay races ever, we all thought the cartoonishly trash-talking French swim-villain had gotten his comeuppance. But maybe we got it all wrong. Maybe Bernard was just thinking four years ahead.

On Sunday, the French got revenge, shocking the Americans at the end to take gold in the same race where they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in 2008. Where does this rank among the great moments in French history? I’m guessing somewhere close to the invention of the croissant.*

The Americans were in first place at every touch of the wall except for the one that counted. They were led by one-time good swimmer Michael Phelps, who swam the second leg in 47.15, the fastest split among the four Americans. The only guy on any team who was faster was France’s Yannick Agnel. Taking over the anchor spot from Bernard, who announced he would retire at the end of the London Games after failing to qualify for any individual events—au revoir, Alain!—Agnel smashed everyone with a time of 46.74, a full second faster than American anchor / yesterday’s hero Ryan Lochte.*

After yesterday’s 400 IM triumph, Lochte exuded a cockiness that was just barely below French-grade. “Oh, I’m ready, oh, I’m ready to rock. … This Olympics is going to be one to remember,” he told NBC’s Andrea Kremer, breaking into a huge smile. After receiving his 400 IM gold medal, Lochte covered his pearly whites with a sparkling grill. I believe Jim Thorpe got his medals stripped in 1912 for doing the same thing. The world has changed.

Lochte’s confidence earned the approval of Dwyane Wade. It also seemingly got the attention of the U.S. coaches, who put him on the 4-by-100 relay ahead of the team’s freestyle specialists. But the most-confident swimmers aren’t always the best ones. Just ask four French guys who finished second in 2008. And consider the team that was heavily favored in Sunday’s race. The Australian relay squad, which had Bernard-ishly dubbed itself “the weapon of mass destruction,” finished off the podium in fourth place—the biggest Aussie flop since Crocodile Dundee 3: Paul Hogan Needs Money.

The move to put Lochte on the freestyle relay didn’t work out, but it’s hard to argue that anyone screwed up. The Floridian was so dominant on Saturday, and seemed so unshakable and zoned in, that it was a no brainer to get him to compete in any event involving water. But Lochte was also tired, and swimming a race he doesn’t focus on. To be as good in the 100-meter freestyle as he was in the 400 IM, Lochte would’ve had to be superhuman—a guy who never loses even when he’s got every excuse to come in second. He would’ve had to be the world’s greatest swimmer. Anyone remember that guy’s name?

*Correction, July 29, 2012: This post originally referred to the birth of Jacques Brel as a great moment in French history. Brel was Belgian.

*Correction, Aug. 1, 2012: This post originally said that Alain Bernard has retired. He has announced he will retire at the end of the London Games.