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.
"If you dream as big as you can dream, anything is possible," Phelps said. "I saw so many quotes saying it's impossible to duplicate it. It won't happen. It just shows you that really, anything can happen."
Now, when Phelps speaks, it will be about his place in history, not his pursuit of it. He has repeatedly reminded questioners that he never mentioned Spitz's record until he was asked about it. That quality, seeing the trees rather than the forest, has allowed Phelps to move through his program this week as an assembly line worker, monotonously dealing only with what's before him. After Saturday, he has swum 16 times, somehow managing not to have one dip detract from another.
"I just like best that he's handled each race individually as its own little challenge," said his coach, Bob Bowman.
Still, of all the events on Phelps's schedule, the 100 butterfly is perhaps the one that suits him least, particularly given what he has trained for. It is his only individual race of less than 200 meters. It is the only individual event he entered here in which he did not already have the world record, a mark still owned by Maine native Ian Crocker, the man who finished fourth Saturday -- by, if you can believe it, one-hundredth of a second. Phelps frequently falls behind, and must make up ground fighting the waves created by the swimmers ahead of him.
With that in mind, Phelps had a number in mind for the first 50 meters Saturday: 24 seconds, flat. His actual swim: 24.04 seconds. But Cavic turned at 23.42 seconds. Phelps, with a pool length to history, had six swimmers to surpass. The deficit and the competition, to anyone in the crowd, seemed impossible to overcome.
"If you're Phelps, it's not very difficult," Crocker argued afterward. "If you're me, it's very difficult. . . . His strength is coming back on the second 50, because he's not going to get tired, and other people do."
Phelps did not tire, but Cavic hardly slowed. After a week in which Phelps had seemingly led at every turn, he swam from behind. Then, at the final wall, Phelps lunged with that extra half rotation of his arms. In 2004, he won gold in this race over Crocker by four-hundredths of a second. Now, impossibly, he won it by a slimmer margin.
"If I had lost by a tenth of a second or two-tenths of a second, then I could probably be a lot cooler about this," Cavic said. "But with a hundredth of a second, gosh, I'll have a whole lot more people saying that you won that race."
Yet he did not. "I think if we got to do this again," Cavic said, "I would win it."
There is no chance to do it again. On Sunday, Phelps will move from Cavic to the final obstacle, surpassing Spitz. The last race of the meet is the 4x100-meter medley relay, on which Phelps will swim the butterfly leg. The only remaining questions: How could that race possibly top what has already happened, and how would Phelps react if it did? There is, after all, no precedent for what is transpiring here, no way to measure the margin by which Phelps wins or the magnitude of what he is accomplishing.