Are you not entertained? Get me Russell Crowe on the line. Bring on the gladiators. Lions at the ready. Rome awaited a swimming hero - and it got two. Michael Phelps, 14 Olympic gold medals in tow, rocked the history of his sport in a raw display of pugilistic aggression to crack the 50sec barrier over 100m butterfly and drag his Serbian rival into uncharted waters with him.
It has been 33 years and 7 days since Jim Montgomery of the US sent a Montreal Olympics crowd into a frenzy with the first sub-50sec 100m freestyle swim. He wore nylon briefs at a Games that introduced goggles and vision to Olympic waters and witnessed what had remained a record of world records ever since, on 29. In Rome, there have been 39 so far.
In what will go down as the ultimate battle of the bodysuits before the performance-enhancing equipment is banned from January 1 next year, Phelps and Milorad Cavic surfed on a tide of strategy and raw score-to-settle aggression.
It was Mikey Maximus but hardly Milo Minimus.
Three other world records fell last night to take the total to 39, 10 more than the previous record of records was set back in Montreal when with one day left at the final meet for high-tech bodysuits.
Cavic, 0.01sec behind Phelps in Beijing last year, is the hare, a bolter from the blocks, a man with a best time over 50m a second faster than Phelps. A man who had said on Friday that he would buy Phelps a better suit if he felt that his wasn’t up to the job of beating him. Unwise, perhaps. But fun, too.
Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman calls his pupil “the motivation machine ... he feeds off anything you throw at him”. They worked out that Phelpss had to be no more than 0.7sec behind the Serbian at the turn. The gap was 0.67sec.
It looked like an impossible task, but with 20m remaining, Phelps surged, clawing back inches with every passing, almost technically perfect, stroke. He nailed the finish with a punch. The clock screamed: 49.84 WR - and a 49.95 for Cavic, not as close as the 0.01sec, but just as sensational. It was a boiling, toiling effort from both men. A rolling killer-whale of a finish by Phelps.
Phelps, defending champion, spun round, saw the Nos “1” and “49” by his name and exploded. He leapt on the lane rope separating him and Cavic, thrashed the water and threw up his arms and tugged on his suit.
The rivals finally shook hands. Cavic said: “You're the man." Phelps said nothing, his actions having spoken louder than words. Later, the American said that the race and aftermath was like “two boxers staring each other down ... I think that’s great for the sport.” Bowman, who was interrupted in his interview in the media mixed zone by Cavic, who wanted to shake the coaches’ hand, said that it was “compelling". "Great entertainment," someone mumbled. Bob nodded.
"I knew I had a strategy to follow and if it went like that I could win. It did and that's not down to suits, its a matter of training," said Phelps. “It’ll be cool in 2010 when we can get back to talking about swimming not suits.” Cavic looked at the result sheet and said: "This is just a testament to Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps does what Michael Phelps can do. And he did!" said Cavic, coached by Andrea di Nino in Italy.
In one of the most memorable events of the Beijing Olympics, Phelps pulled out an improbable victory on his final half-stroke to beat Cavic by the narrowest possible margin. Without that win, Phelps would not have broken Mark Spitz's record with eight gold medals in a single games.
Cavic has mulled over the loss ever since, as any sensible competitor would. Some quote him as saying he believed he touched first but he also makes clear that he “didn't put as much pressure on the touchpad” as Phelps, who came crashing into the wall at a much faster finishing speed that Cavic’s glide without an X.
Cavic set a world record of 50.01 in semi-finals on Friday, 0.21sec inside Phelps’s previous mark. I watched what happened next: Phelps and Bowman stayed behind for quite some time, the swimmer paddling, stretching, flexing in the diving pool. No rush, no stress, just doing what they had to do and what they knew worked well, many times over.
Cavic tried to mess with Phelps' head, saying it was the American's own fault for being wedded to his LZR when he could have raced in a speedboat or something like the arena X-Glide, made in response to the first wave of what should never have made it into the race pool last year.
But Cavic was playing with fire, of course, when he offered to get Phelps an X-Glide "within the hour," or buy him another rubber bullet from his own purse. Cavic said he would really prefer to race Phelps wearing nothing but briefs. He will get his wish, or at least close to it, sometime soon. Cavic has been painted as a villain in some quarters. He's anything but. He has an edge. He's a competitor, a terrific one at that. He also made a point of being a good sport in defeat.
Phelps said he would do his talking in the pool, but he had a fair bit to say for himself too, and that was also entertaining. Of the ribbing he said: "How can it not motivate you? When there are things that are said, the only thing it does for me is fire me up. It does nothing but literally motivate me to no end, and I love it." That much was obvious, in the smile, the body language that left no room for doubt: Phelps is in his element. He will be in his element in 2010 to 2012 too, on his amazing journey as the poster boy to the symphony of support that plays on behind each curtain call.
A footnote to the race. The battle of the bodysuits was almost called off: Phelps collided with Aussie sprinter Cate Campbell in warm-up. His goggles cracked in two and his shoulder was hurt. Bowman thought he might have to withdraw his athlete. Phelps would have none of it. He had a show to put on.
Are you not entertained? Surely we are. But I look forward to seeing the first sub-50sec 100 'fly in a textile suit that does not overshadow what is an amazing achievement, that does not cast doubt on a single swimmer or performance in a world-title line-up. That allows us to return home entertained and glowing in the knowledge that what we saw was as real as it gets on the scale of human endeavour.
Phelps’s victory granted him a fourth gold medal (not forgetting that motivational silver behind Herr Biedermann) of the championships. He is likely to win a fifth gold, in the medley relay today, if all goes well for Team USA in heats ...