No star was bigger at the 2008 Olympic Games than U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who set the all-time record for a single Olympics by winning eight gold medals. At the 2012 Games, however, Phelps has been dethroned, as fellow U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte became the star of the sport by winning the men’s 400-meter individual medley on Saturday, the first full day of competition in London.
Lochte dominated the field in the 400-meter individual medley final, with a winning time of 4 minutes, 5.18 seconds, 3.68 seconds better than the remainder of the competition.
Lochte’s performance came as no surprise. He won gold in the event at the 2011 World Aquatics Championships, and was the favorite going into the race. The big surprise from the event, however, was that Michael Phelps was not even in contention for the victory.
Lochte was victorious in the event at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, but in that final, Phelps stayed with Lochte until the end of the race, and finished just .83 seconds behind. On Saturday, Lochte immediately pulled away from Phelps, and Phelps never got back into the race.
Phelps did not even place well enough to earn a medal, finishing fourth. His time of 4:09.28 was 4.1 seconds behind Lochte’s winning time, and 5.64 seconds behind the world-record time he swam in the same event four years earlier in Beijing.
Had Phelps finished a close second to Lochte, it still would have signaled a changing of the guard among U.S. swimming stars, but would have whetted fans’ appetite for the rematch in the 200-meter IM final on Thursday. Finishing fourth, however, behind much lesser-known names in Brazil’s Thiago Pereira and Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, displayed that Phelps is not close to being the dominant swimmer he was in London four years ago.
Coming off of his first gold-medal victory, Lochte will be the favorite in all three of his remaining individual events, including the 200-meter IM rematch against Phelps. On the other hand, Phelps’ discouraging performance leaves serious questions as to how well Phelps will perform in the remainder of his events.
While Lochte is now clearly the favorite over Phelps in the 200-meter IM, Phelps remains a favorite to win gold in both the 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter fly. Phelps holds the world record in both events, won them at U.S. trials, and will not have to worry about competition from Lochte in either race.
Phelps’ potential for Olympic struggle, however, no longer revolves around how many golds he can win, and whether he can beat Lochte. Now, Phelps just needs to get back on the podium, whether that be by winning gold, silver or bronze.
It is too soon to jump to any severe conclusions about Phelps’ disappointing performance. He is still one of the world’s elite swimmers, and he is likely to win more gold medals both as an individual and as a member of the U.S. relay teams.
Phelps should still attain the record for most all-time medals in Olympic history. He only needs three more to break the record of 18 overall medals held by former Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, and he should be able to break that record with his participation in the three relays alone.
It does appear, however, that the rivalry between Lochte and Phelps may no longer be a very competitive one. Phelps was unable to keep up with the pace of the sport’s new star on Saturday, and he is going to need to swim significantly better to get one back from Lochte on Thursday.
How many gold medals will Michael Phelps win in this Olympics?
As a competitor, expect Phelps to give a stronger effort to catch Lochte, for he will not want to simply hand over his throne as swimming’s star. At least in part, however, Phelps already has.
The aura of dominance and invincibility that surrounded him in London has been shattered, not even by Lochte’s victory, but by Phelps’ inability to even make the race competitive, while losing to two other swimmers who lack worldwide recognition. Phelps can still rebound from this loss and win many medals, but if he wants his stardom to persist through London, he has to earn it back.
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Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and also a member of B/R’s 2012 Olympics Coverage Team. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.