The event everyone was looking forward to at the Rio Olympics on Tuesday night was the men’s 200 meter butterfly final. It pitted Michael Phelps – the greatest Olympian of all-time and the gold medal winner in the event at the 2008 Olympics – against Chad le Clos of South Africa, who beat Phelps in the race at the 2012 Games by 0.05 seconds and took home the gold medal. In the end, Phelps bested Le Clos, as the American took home the gold while the South African didn’t even medal.
The seeds for this rivalry have been planted over the last few years. It all started after Le Clos bested Phelps in London and Phelps retired shortly thereafter. Phelps decided to un-retire in 2014, and the rivalry went to a new level in 2015, after Le Clos said this about Phelps after the South African won the 100 butterfly at the World Championships:
“Michael Phelps has been talking about how slow the butterfly events have been recently. I just did a time he hasn’t done in four years. So he can keep quiet now.”
There are a number of other examples of the two lobbing bombs at each other in the media. Even Le Clos’ dad decided to get in on the fun, because every rivalry between athletes is more fun when a dad is involved.
However, this rivalry never really came into the eye of non-swimming fans until Monday night, when Le Clos and Phelps tried to get in each others’ heads before the semifinals of the 200 meter fly. Prior to the race, Phelps stared Le Clos down while Le Clos pretended to box directly in front of him. The internet reacted by making thousands of jokes about the moment, but Phelps’ intensity stemmed from a place of hatred for his biggest rival.
The semifinal wasn’t anything special, as Phelps came in second and Le Clos came in third. But from the moment that NBC’s cameras caught Phelps and Le Clos in the warm up area, all anyone could talk about was the desire to happen on Tuesday night. In the end, Phelps came out on top, winning his 20th Olympic gold medal and sending a message to everyone who doubted him, especially a certain smack-talking butterfly specialist from South Africa.
There’s a chance that Phelps and Le Clos square off again later in these Games during the 100 meter butterfly. Odds are that will be the last time these two face off if Phelps retires after Rio, so make sure you tune in, because that may be the final chapter of swimming’s best rivalry.