Sunday night’s Shark Week finale left viewers lukewarm. The much-hyped race between Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and a great white shark was anticlimactic, since the man and fish did not actually race, as the channel suggested.
The “race” constituted Discovery Channel calculating the speed of a great white shark (over 100 meters) and superimposing shark footage over Phelps. The Olympian swam the the distance in the shark’s natural habitat, off the coast of South Africa in 56-degree waters.
Phelps clocked in at 38.1 seconds compared to 36.1 seconds for the great white shark. The Washington Post pointed out that both of those speeds are significantly faster than César Cielo’s 100-meter world record of 46.91 seconds set at the 2009 World Aquatics Championships, although Cielo obviously holds that record without the help of a wetsuit and monofin, which Phelps wore.
Regardless of Phelps’ abilities, Discovery’s perceived false advertising eclipsed viewers’ sentiments. After the race, comments like the following appeared to be the major takeaway:
Turns out “Michael Phelps races a shark” was really just “Michael Phelps swims alone and then compares his time to a shark’s time.”
— Gary Parrish (@GaryParrishCBS) July 24, 2017
Me pretending to be ok with Michael Phelps not racing a real shark pic.twitter.com/QnCF98NfBB
— Gabi Palamone (@Yo_Gabi_Gabi__) July 24, 2017
Michael Phelps not racing a real shark is like being sold Kanye tickets and then watching a Kanye hologram perform
— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) July 24, 2017
“All the promotion, interviews and the program itself made clear that the challenge wasn’t a side by side race,” said a spokesperson from Discovery to Rolling Stone. “During Michael’s pre-show promotion, as well as within the first 2 minutes of ‘Phelps vs. Shark,’ this message was clear.”
Prior to the race, Michael Phelps stated in numerous interviews (including on Good Morning America) that he was never actually in the water with his cold-blooded opponent. “Trying to get a [great] white, for example, to swim up to 25 MPH in a straight mile can be tough … You’ll see it in the video.”
While the race itself may not have lived up to the spectacle Discovery advertised, the episode gave interesting context for the speed of great white sharks (just check out this GIF of Phelps reacting to how easily a great white would win gold). Even though Phelps lost by a hair in this would-be race, to Phelps’ credit, he could take down a reef shark in a 50-meter race by 0.2 seconds.
“Rematch?” Phelps tweeted after “losing” to the ocean predator. But the real question: would anyone bother to watch?
~ Thomas Jefferson