Frankly, the race was over after the first 100 meters. The only suspense was whether Michael Phelps would win a medal at all.
He didn't. In fact, he didn't come all that close. And now we must wait until Monday – for the heats of the 200-meter butterfly – to begin to answer the question no one was asking before these Games began.
What happened to Michael Phelps?
From start to finish, the 400-meter individual medley was Lochte's race. He could have swum with the gold medal already around his neck, and he still would have finished first. By a lot. Billed as a showdown between two of the greatest swimmers ever, Lochte swam against only invisible competition – the golden world-record line on TV that just beat him to the finish.
Slightly ahead of the field after 100 meters of butterfly, Lochte needed rearview mirrors to see it after the backstroke and breaststroke. By the time he finished, the swimmer in second place was three body-lengths behind. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the first stroke of the IM.]
And that swimmer was not Phelps. It was Brazilian Thiago Pereira, who summed up the evening nicely in stating, "I didn't expect this."
Nor was Phelps the next one to touch the wall. That was Japanese Kosuke Hagino, a 17-year-old who, last year, finished third in the world junior championships.
Then came Phelps, 0.34 seconds later.
Of all the sportsmen who walk this earth, Phelps is perhaps most deserving of a mulligan and a measure of patience from fans. Then again, the man laboring in Lane 8 didn't look remotely like Michael Phelps.
Brazilian Luca Martin got a good look from Lane 7 next door, and he didn't think it looked like Phelps, either.
"It's so strange to see Phelps like that," he said.
Phelps didn't disagree. "I was trying to find a gear that I couldn't find," he said. "I have swum better races, and I have been better prepared. It was a very frustrating finish."
It is that second-to-last sentence that must raise some doubts about Phelps's assumed victory lap in London. "Better prepared" could have been engraved into each of his 14 gold medals. Yes, Phelps has uncommon physical gifts, but his greatest gift is his mental strength – and that was founded upon his certainty that his rigorous training meant he never would have to utter, "I have been better prepared."
In May, when Phelps was still trying to prove that he could come back from several indifferent years of training, he told a media summit: "Hopefully, I didn't get too far behind that I can't make up the difference."
He appeared to dispel those doubts at Olympic trials, when he beat Lochte in three of four races – and while he lost to Lochte in the 400 IM then, too, he raced it in 4:07.89. Had he matched that Saturday, he would have taken silver by nearly a second.
So what happened?
Before the Games began, Phelps said how he was going to enjoy these Games. "I'm having fun," he said in a news conference. "It's a question of: How many toppings do I want on my sundae?"
Perhaps Phelps, the ultimate grinder, can't turn into a cherries-on-top sort of swimmer overnight.
Before the Games began, Phelps said he was going to have to manage his emotions in this, his last meet. "There are going to be the last competitive moments in my career," he added. "It's big."
Perhaps he's letting those emotions get the better of him.
Or perhaps he just had a bad day at the pool.
To be honest, we didn't know what a bad day at the Olympic pool looked like for Phelps before now. There had never been any.
So now we're left to wait, and wonder. Did that man in Lane 8 really kidnap Michael Phelps, or is Superman simply waiting in the phone booth?