In Barcelona, there's no one louder than the rabid French fans... And there's no one they like baiting more than the mighty Americans... "A-mer-ica! A-mer-ica!" went the chant. The four Frenchmen stood behind the blocks, ripped with arms raised, victorious again in the men's 4 x 100 free relay. The four Americans stood a lane away, stunned. None more so than Jimmy Feigen, the anchor who'd just dropped an underachieving split on the end and relinquished a four-tenth lead over the final leg. Somewhere in the stands, with a boot attached to his right foot, Michael Phelps was not smiling.
Before the race, NBC ran a feature about this relay of relays. Ever since 2008, and maybe well before that, it's been the marquee event of every Olympics and World Championships. The feature included sound bytes from Nathan Adrian and Ryan Lochte and Matt Grevers, all feeding the frenzy of anticipation. Maybe it's because this is the one relay that the Americans don't have a stranglehold on, or maybe it's just because every 4 x 100 free relay turns out to be so epic.
Whatever it is, this is the race that the biggest of the big boys want to win the most. And now the French have both Olympic and World Champ bragging rights. They're not shy about it.
Never a nation known for its humility or self-awareness, the French fans in Barcelona are sinking their teeth into every opportunity to taunt their American rivals. It's a short trip south to Spain, and they're out in full force, dominating the atmosphere with their support of their aquatic countrymen and women.
While the Americans aren't exactly known for those humble, self-aware qualities either, they can be forgiven for maybe being just a bit baffled by the big talking French. Much as I hate the nationalism it implies, take a look at the current medal counts. It's a two-horse race between the Americans and the Chinese, with the rest of the world well back from those two superpowers. France currently sits in 8th in total medals, with a grand total of 6 -- that relay; Yannick Agnel's 200 free; and four bronze, one of which was in the men's 50 fly, which isn't really an event, despite its unfortunate inclusion at Worlds.
But do the totals really matter? As those 50s of the strokes prove, all events are not created equal, and France is stepping up in the ones that receive top billing above the marquee. First, there's that 4 x 100 free relay. Then there's Agnel in the 200 free. You can debate it all you like, but I've always been of the opinion that the best swimmer in the pool is the one who wins the 200 free. This is true for both men and women. Whether you're talking about Missy Franklin or Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte or Ian Thorpe -- the 200 free is the domain of superstars. I'm not sure you can be considered truly great until you've got that one on your event card. So, score that one for Team France too.
And then there's the 50 free. It doesn't get any more elemental than that. Who's the fastest human being in water? The man who wins the 50 free. Tomorrow it will be decided in the fastest field in history. The Americans and the French own four of the top five seeds. In the middle, tied for 3rd in the semis with Nathan Adrian, is Brazil's Cesar Cielo, the world record holder.
Even without the Yank vs. Franc rivalry, this is going to be 21 seconds of pure swimming joy tomorrow. In one corner, wearing red, white, and blue, it's defending Olympic champion Florent Manadou and his former brother-in-law, Fred Bousquet, who also happens to be the former world record holder. In the other corner, also in red, white, and blue, but with a dash of stars and stripes, it's the greatest story in swimming, 32-year-old Anthony Ervin and his Cal teammate, and defending Olympic champ in the 100 fee, Nathan Adrian. And then there's Cielo, the fastest man ever, and Russia's Vlad Morozov, USC's NCAA sprint king... all of whom could race to gold.
Whew. You got all that? Good luck to the folks at NBC, trying to untangle those story lines in a thirty second tease before tomorrow's race. But why complicate it with a Brazilian champion or a speedy upstart Russian? Why not distill the race down to its base level nationalistic drama?
The French, ever arrogant, ever proud, now proving their big talk with big time performances in the biggest races... Versus the Americans, forever the world's standard of excellence in the swimming pool. It's up to two men, Anthony Ervin and Nathan Adrian, a pair of Berkeley-bred definitions of the American Dream, to silence those frenzied French fans... or be drowned out again with those chants: