Michael Phelps competes in the men's 400m individual medley final… (Martin Bureau / AFP/Getty…)
LONDON — The torch wasn't exactly passed. The torch was fumbled and dropped and floating alongside the thrashing Michael Phelps before Ryan Lochte cradled it in his giant grip and sprinted to the wall.
Lochte became the best swimmer in the United States on Saturday night, but it didn't happen the way it was supposed to happen. He didn't steal the title in a dramatic duel with one of the greatest of Olympians. He casually picked it off the weary flotsam of a shrugging hero who seems less interested and more confused with every lap.
Ryan Lochte shined, but the bigger story was Michael Phelps' sinking.
In the prestigious 400-meter individual medley at London Aquatics Centre, Lochte splashed to an Olympic gold medal while Phelps paddled to a distant fourth place, and it wasn't that close. Lochte was strong for four minutes; Phelps faded after about 30 seconds. Lochte had a huge finishing kick while Phelps looked as if he'd just been kicked, his trademark strong freestyle laps ebbing away like a changing tide.
Lochte beat Phelps by more than four seconds, which felt like a week, which looked like an era's end. Afterward, Lochte flashed signs to his family and threw flowers in the stands while Phelps climbed dizzily out of the pool, shuffled past Lochte without congratulating him, then wandered through the interview area as if lost.
Acknowledged Phelps: "Just a crappy race."
Admitted Lochte: "It was weird not having Michael with me on the medal stand."
Weird? In the world of swimming, it wouldn't have been any stranger if Phelps had shown up with sparkles in his hair and a plug on his nose.
It was the first time in nearly eight years that Phelps entered an Olympic event without winning a gold medal. He had been involved in Olympic gold-medal victories in 13 consecutive events, including a record eight for eight at Beijing in 2008.
Nobody in Olympic history has won more than Phelps' 14 gold medals, and his 16 overall medals are two short of the Olympic record. And, oh yeah, his world record in the 400 IM has stood for nearly four years.
Phelps admittedly has never loved the physical stress of this event — he decided to train for it again only six months ago — and he almost didn't even enter it during the Olympic trials. But still, his losing so badly to his biggest rival, in this race, at these Games, is like Tiger Woods missing a cut at the Masters or Kobe Bryant getting benched in the playoffs.
"It's frustrating . . . it's pretty upsetting," said Phelps, who later congratulated Lochte in the warmup room and then tweeted it. "They swam a better race than me, a smarter race then me, they were more prepared, that's why they're on the medal stand."
He was right about all of it, especially the "prepared" part. Just listen to his coach.
"Ultimately, it was a fitness issue," Bob Bowman said.
Imagine that. The world's strongest swimmer called out for being too weak. Bowman was talking about how Phelps did little training for 21/2 years after Beijing, but he also could have been talking about Phelps right now. In recent months, his training habits have been questioned by a former teammate, and his work ethic has been questioned by himself during at least one national television interview in which he acted as if he no longer cared.
"He said it was horrible," Bowman said of Phelps' race. "It was an accurate assessment."
Phelps was horrible from the moment he dived into the pool Saturday. He barely made the final, qualifying eighth in the morning preliminaries only by the film of his goggles. And this was after missing the opening ceremony – where he could have been one of the biggest stars — because he said he needed his rest.
"He didn't try that hard, I didn't think," Bowman said of the prelims.
What does it say about an athlete when his coach thinks he does not try hard in anything at the Olympics? That's almost as damning as the words of Lochte when asked to evaluate Phelps' performance.
"He gave it everything he had, he gave 110%," Lochte said.
So if fourth place is Phelps at his best, what does that say about his chances in his other three individual events here? What are the odds that he can overcome Lochte in their other duel, in the 200 IM? How can he be Michael Phelps again?
"The biggest thing now is to get back to where I was before," Phelps said.
It may be too late for that. Phelps was showered with the biggest cheers when he took his place on the starting block Saturday, but when he walked away about 10 minutes later, it was so quiet you could hear his hair drip.
His greatness may have ended on those training mornings he didn't want to get out of bed. He and Lochte are both only 27, but one seems so young, while the other seems so old.
"A lot of people say Michael is inhuman . . . but you know, he's just like all of us," Lochte said.
Michael Phelps, just another swimmer? On the first full and fascinating day at the Olympics, perhaps a torch wasn't passed, but snuffed.