Beijing’s Water Cube saw some of the most exciting action of the Olympic Games in 2008, no event more so than the men’s 100m freestyle relay when Michael Phelps’s hopes of eight gold medals hung agonisingly in the balance.
The pressure on Phelps going into the Games was immense. He was bidding to beat the record of seven golds from one Games set by fellow American Mark Spitz
in Munich 36 years earlier.
Of all the eight titles Phelps was aiming for in China
, the 100m freestyle relay was seen as the most vulnerable because of the unpredictability of relays, the lack of strength in depth in the event of the U.S. team and France
’s crack squad of sprinters.
Frenchman Alain Bernard had already won the blue riband event in the pool, the men’s 100m freestyle sprint, and the anxiety was clear to see as the swimmers prepared by the starting blocks.
Everyone knew what was at stake even though it was only the second gold on Phelps’s Games hitlist.
A matter of three minutes or so after the race start, Phelps would be celebrating like never before after one of his unsung team-mates produced possibly the greatest comeback in the history of Olympic swimming relays.
Phelps did his bit on the lead-out leg and was a mere 0.27secs off the lead as individual champion Eamon Sullivan blasted out a world record 47.24secs for Australia
. Garret-Weber Gale swam a storming second leg for the Americans to give them a 0.4secs lead over the French but a terrific third leg from Frederic Bousquet enabled Bernard to enter the fourth and final leg with a seemingly unassailable 0.6sec lead over Jason Lezak.
Lezak had won bronze in the 100m free final, finishing some 0.4secs behind Bernard. Surely the gap was too great. France was poised to decimate Phelps’s ambitions. Yet somehow, Lezak slowly reeled in Bernard and with the finish wall in reach Bernard and the American were neck and neck, it was all about the timing of the touch and the face of Phelps, watching in a state of growing excitement from the side, said it all.
Lezak miraculously touched home first and when Phelps and his team-mates saw the result on the scoreboard their joy was unrestrained. Phelps’s celebration pose, with every sinew of his body tightened with incredible definition, became one of the most iconic images of the whole Games.
His dream of eight golds was intact after Lezak swam an incredible last leg timed at 46.06secs which helped the Americans knock a scarcely believable four seconds off the world record.