Five-Ring Circus

How NBC Spun the Phelps–le Clos Poolside Psychodrama Into TV Gold

South African swimmer Chad Le Clos after beating Michael Phelps in the men’s 200-meter butterfly final during the London Olympic Games on July 31, 2012.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/GettyImages

At the Olympics, world-class athletes face off against each other in grueling competitions they have trained for their entire lives, years of preparation coming down to mere minutes that can leave them triumphant or disappointed forever. It’s inherently dramatic stuff—but not more dramatic than two grown men in track suits making furious eyes at one another.

A few days in to the Olympics, the dramatic high points of NBC’s coverage have been finger wags and angry glares. In the first case, well-documented by my colleague Justin Peters, outspoken, 19-year-old breaststroker Lilly King out–finger wagged, out–shit-talked, and then out-swam Russian Yulia Efimova, who has run afoul of Olympic drug laws on two occasions. But just as the King-Efimova drama crested, a new contretemps was born, when Olympic legend Michael Phelps, 19-time gold medal winner, stared at someone, really, really hard.

That someone was Chad le Clos (middle names Guy and Bertrand), a South African swimmer who is nine years younger than Phelps and in 2012 unexpectedly defeated the two-time defending Olympic champion in the 200-meter butterfly. At the time, the two were friendly. Le Clos, who is simultaneously tan and blond in a way that makes him seem rich and/or evil and/or French, openly identified Phelps as his hero. Phelps, for his part, took his defeat graciously. You can see the two smiling and chatting after the medal ceremony, while le Clos’s father, the excitable Bert (“Look at my beautiful boy!”) became one of the viral sensations of the games.

This friendliness ended after Phelps came out of retirement and started competing in the 200-meter butterfly again, specifically citing the slow times its elite practitioners were posting as an inducement. Le Clos, as one such practitioner, took offense. After the 2015 world championship, which Phelps did not attend because of a suspension stemming from a DUI, le Clos said at a press conference, “Michael Phelps has been talking about how slow the butterfly events have been recently. I just did a time [in the 100-meter butterfly] he hasn’t done in four years. So he can keep quiet now.” Later that same week, swimming as the U.S. nationals, Phelps bested le Clos’s time. To this, le Clos said, “Look, I don’t want to say it’s easy to swim by yourself [against lesser competition at the U.S. championships compared to the worlds], but it’s a lot harder when you know Chad le Clos is coming back at you the last 50 meters. That’s what he’s got to think about really.” Phelps told the New York Times. “Chad liked me, and then he didn’t like me. He said I was his hero, and then he was calling me out.”

All of that led up to last night, where sitting in the ready room, waiting for the second semifinal in the 200-meter butterfly, le Clos and Phelps put on a show—or rather, le Clos put on a show, and Phelps tried to harm him with his eyes. Le Clos, standing a few feet and one folding chair in front of Phelps, pranced around, peacocking, jabbing the air, shaking out his muscles with all the naturalness of a person pretending not to care if anyone is watching him, desperate to be watched. Phelps was watching. Slouching in his seat, hood up, headphones on, Phelps glowered in the corner, chin tucked, eyebrows forward, apparently grimacing in disgust.

Some of Phelps’ faces really were special—his petulant “can you believe this punk” look, the slack-faced distaste, the nothing-says-angry-like-a-puckered-chin death glare—but it’s hard to know how dramatic this would have played without the color commentary from cackling NBC announcers Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines. “Oh my goodness, I have never seen anything like that in the ready room. … He’s standing right in front of Michael!” Gaines enthused. You might think swimmers generally keep more of a distance, except earlier in the night, King and Efimova had been positioned just as close, albeit in silence, as they stood in the ready room, waiting for their event to start.

Back to Phelps and le Clos. “Look, it’s like he’s growling like a dog! This is, this is great television!” Hicks exclaimed. “This is great television! … I hope they just delay this forever,” Gaines replied, evincing as much interest in what was about to happen in the pool as a cat does. “And this is just the semifinal!” Hicks, his fingers audibly crossed, responded. “You thought Efimova and King was good! This might be something.”

Alas, swimming did eventually have to interrupt the faceoff. As they loitered around the starting blocks, le Clos kept cutting eyes at Phelps, which, for some reason, did not help him win the race.

Le Clos came in third and Phelps second, both behind Hungarian Tamas Kenderesi, who had presumably spent his warmup forsaking great television to prepare for an Olympic swim.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.