At the Wall, Phelps Has the Touch

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 16 -- What can happen in a hundredth of a second? The beat of a hummingbird's wing, perhaps, or maybe sound moving across an imperceptible distance. Saturday morning here, at the Beijing Olympics, it was the difference between one man's hand touching an underwater wall, another man's hand behind him only because an electronic device said it was so. In that time, Michael Phelps made athletic history just when it looked as if an American-born Serb named Milo Cavic would snatch it away.

Phelps took his seventh gold medal of these Games, winning the 100-meter butterfly, tying Mark Spitz's record for the most golds at a single Olympics. That sentence, while forever true, doesn't begin to describe what happened here, both during a mesmerizing race and in the minutes that followed. Of the eight swimmers in the pool, Phelps was seventh at the midway point. With 15 meters to go, he trailed still. And at the wall, no one and nothing -- not a transfixed crowd at the National Aquatics Center, not the swimmers themselves, barely even the frame-by-frame replays that would follow -- could clearly discern who had won.

Phelps himself blinked the water from his eyes after he popped to the surface and turned around, Cavic in the lane to his right as they faced the scoreboard that would reveal the results.

"I had to take my goggles off first to make sure the '1' was next to my name," Phelps said. It was, directly opposite his time, 50.58 seconds, a new Olympic record -- the only race Phelps has won here in which he hasn't established a new world mark.

Next to Cavic's name popped up a 2. The time opposite that: 50.59. Phelps's victory was by such a margin that placing a sheet of paper between two fingers might not describe it. It was, too, by such a margin that Serbian swimming officials filed a protest with officials from FINA, swimming's international governing body.

"I don't want to fight this," Cavic said afterward. The fight would last only minutes. FINA officials watched video broken down beyond what television viewers could see, they said.

"It was very clear that the Serbian swimmer touched second after Michael Phelps," said Ben Ekumbo, the meet referee and a member of the FINA technical swimming committee. Ekumbo said Serbian officials, upon seeing the video, were satisfied with the ruling and did not pursue the matter further, which might have led to a jury hearing.

The video showed Phelps finishing with half a stroke, jamming his hands to the wall. Cavic, a Californian who swims for his parents' home nation, finished with a lengthy extension of his arms.

"When I did chop the last stroke, I really thought that cost me the race," Phelps said. "But it happened to be the direct opposite. If I would've glided, I would've ended up being way too long. I ended up making the right decision."

This week, in which so much has fallen into place for Phelps, that fits perfectly. Cavic, too, watched the replay, considered the timing system. Could it be wrong?

"It's possible," he said. "Everything's possible. . . . The hand is quicker than the eye."

Nothing, apparently, is quicker than Phelps. Momentary controversy or not, he had his seventh gold, matching the mark Spitz set at the 1972 Munich Games.

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