Swimming: Thank Lezak, thank the French, love the Olympics

I suppose the question now is: Whom do we love more, Michael Phelps or Jason Lezak?

Or the whole French relay team?

The men’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay today was one of those events to make NBC think spending $894 million to broadcast the Beijing Games was a bargain. The French relay team had said they would “smash” the Americans. And they so nearly did.

Until anchor Lezak made that final turn.

Can a single man save the Olympics? That’s a silly thing to say. But for about 60 seconds, as Frederick Bousquet put inch after inch between himself and Cullen Jones in the third leg of the men’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay, the revelation was like a lead weight on Jones’ ankle:

If the US finished second – if Michael Phelps’ phenomenal quest had ended virtually before it had begun – the entire American Olympics would have been diminished. Hardly ruined, of course. Not nearly.

But if the men’s 4 x 100 relay told us anything, it was that we live for drama and suspense.

I can only imagine what the French nation thought as US anchor Lezak closed in on Alain Bernard, one of the best swimmers in the world, in the last leg. With five feet to go, Bernard still had the lead.

Even after they came to the wall, there must still have been the hope in Paris: The Americans beaten, the overlooked French the spoilers of Phelps’ grandest hopes. It would have been an Olympic moment to rival any other, an event to make countryman and Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin smile – the triumph of competition.

But the Olympic moment was the Americans'. Was there a muscle in Michael Phelps’ body that was not flexed? In that instant, I am convinced, he could have lifted a jumbo jet.

But thank the French. The Australians, always America’s great swimming counterweight, were well beaten. It took a would-have-been world-record race from the French to create the drama we crave from the Olympics.

In the past two Olympics, the tables had been turned against the US, which finished second in the relay in Sydney and third in Athens. Lezak had been on both teams – giving the unenviable distinction of swimming on the only two American 4 x 100 freestyle relay teams in Olympic history not to win gold.

At the last turn, his first thought was that it would be three. After the meet, he confessed that he didn’t think he could make up the difference on former world-record holder Bernard in the last 50 meters.

“But then I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. This is the Olympics.’ ”

Indeed. Just a few minutes before, Briton Rebecca Adlington had done virtually the same thing to American Katie Hoff, coming from behind to touch the wall 0.07 seconds ahead of Hoff in the women’s 400 meter freestyle.

Perhaps the tables will be turned again tomorrow on Phelps himself. He finished third in his own heat for the 200 meter freestyle today. If nothing else, today showed the thread-thin margins on which Phelps is swimming.

Yet, for another day at least, the suspense remains.

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