Chad le Clos was never the most prodigious reader of books growing up. But the one volume he proudly kept in his room at his parents’ home in Pinetown near Durban was a pictorial biography of boxer Muhammad Ali.
Of all Le Clos’ heroes, Ali was top of the pile, even though the former world heavyweight champion’s era had ended more than a decade before Le Clos was born in 1992. Both Ali and Le Clos made significant appearances at the London Olympics in 2012.
The former world champion attended the opening ceremony and, despite the ravages of age and Parkinson’s disease, was still recognisable as the once-vibrant, arrogant young man who won the Olympic light-heavyweight gold at Rome 1960. For Ali, that turned out to be his last Olympic Games.
Le Clos didn’t get to see the icon in the London Olympic stadium that night. He was at the nearby athletes’ village, lying in bed ahead of his first race and dreaming of what might be. He made his Olympic debut in the 400m individual medley the next day, ending fifth, just one position behind defending champion and world record holder Michael Phelps.
Phelps’ countryman, Ryan Lochte, won the race, but it wasn’t an upset because he’d already beaten Phelps at the United States trials earlier that month. Phelps, however, was expected to clean up in his remaining individual races. And then Le Clos happened.
Just like Ali stunned the world to dethrone Sonny Liston in February 1964, Le Clos downed Phelps in magnificent fashion, winning by just five one-hundredths of a second. Le Clos clocked 1:52.96, a massive improvement on the 1:54.43 African record he’d achieved in the semifinal the previous night.
Slaying the Phelp-sized dragon
Just 48 hours before Le Clos’ victory, compatriot Cameron van der Burgh had won South Africa’s first gold medal since the freestyle relay team starring Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling at Athens 2004. Van der Burgh had broken the world record, too, pulling the mark below 58.50 for the first time as he touched in at 58.46. His was a perfect swim, but it was Le Clos who won the greater fame.
Le Clos’ price for speaking engagements in the months after the Olympics was said to be in the region of R70 000. Van der Burgh’s price was R40 000 and the four rowers who won South Africa’s third gold medal of London – beating the Olympic and world champions in the final – had to share R30 000 between them for their bookings.
Le Clos was after all the one who had slain the dragon, he had tamed the greatest swimmer of all time. Four years earlier, Phelps had won eight Olympic gold medals in Beijing to surpass Mark Spitz’s haul of seven gold from Munich 1972.
Le Clos had executed his race plan to perfection, but he still needed an element of luck for his victory. His winning time was more than a second off Phelps’ 1:51.51 world record and almost a full second off the American legend’s 1:52.03 Olympic mark. Not only was Phelps slower than his best, he was sloppy in his finish, too, allowing Le Clos to out-touch him at the death. The stars aligned perfectly for Le Clos that night, although he still had a lot of work to do himself.
A few nights later, the South African took a share of silver behind Phelps in the 100m butterfly on the penultimate night of the gala – exactly a week after the opening ceremony. The then 20-year-old Le Clos had arrived on the world scene. Seven years later, he is still making podiums.
He’s become South Africa’s most decorated Olympian with four medals – one gold and three silvers – and he’s claimed four world titles from 2013 to 2017. But this year, for the first time since 2011, he failed to win a world title, taking two bronzes in the 100m and 200m butterfly at the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea.
The world is catching up
In the immediate wake of London, Le Clos enhanced his legacy. In 2013, he joined Phelps as the only man to win the butterfly double at a world championships. He was so dominant in the 200m butterfly that in one of his races he looked left and right at his opponents on a single stroke; that was described as his Ali shuffle.
The following year, he won seven Commonwealth Games medals at Glasgow 2014, although only two of those were gold. And then the world started catching up. In 2015, Hungarian veteran Laszlo Cseh deposed him as world champion in the 200m butterfly, although he retained his 100m crown a few days later.
Since then, Le Clos has been in a different realm, tasting defeat and having to fight for his triumphs. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, he added the 200m freestyle to his schedule and took silver. But the following night, in the 200m butterfly final, he lost his grudge match to Phelps.
Le Clos shadow boxing in front of Phelps in the call room before the 200m butterfly semifinals didn’t help him. The American, who retired for two years after London, reclaimed his old crown while Le Clos slipped to fourth spot. In 2017, Le Clos won back his 200m butterfly world title, but lost his 100m crown.
When analysing Le Clos’ career, the one stark statistic is that he has never been faster in the 200m butterfly than the night he beat Phelps in 2012. His 100m butterfly time has improved, from 51.44 in the 2012 final to a 50.56 African record in 2015; Phelps’ 51.21 winning time in London wouldn’t have won a medal at the recent world championships.
‘I will drag them to deep waters’
Butterfly is evolving, Le Clos said shortly before the Gwangju showpiece. But not even he could have predicted that world records would be smashed in two of his events. First Hungarian teenager Kristof Milak lowered Phelps’s 10-year mark in the 200m to 1:50.73 and then American Caeleb Dressel, 21, took Phelps’ 100m record, also from 2009, down to 49.50.
Can Le Clos still make the podium at the Tokyo Olympics next year or is the 27-year-old about to exceed his sell-by date? He has in his favour an irrepressible attitude. Unfazed by the times at the world championships, he has vowed to hit back next year.
“This is motivation for me, all these kids smashing these world records,” Le Clos said. “This changes me. They know I’m coming to hunt them, and they know they’re going to be in deep trouble next year because I will drag them to deep waters. They know that.”
Also in the credit column is that he had been diagnosed with an inguinal hernia just a few weeks before the gala. Le Clos has been hampered by a groin problem for almost all of his career, a mysterious injury that flared up particularly when he did the breaststroke kick.
As a swimmer, he started out doing breaststroke before turning to butterfly and freestyle, but the injury eventually forced him to drop the medley from his repertoire. For someone who ended fifth in the 400m individual medley and also made the top eight in the 200m individual medley at the 2012 Games, that was a pity. He never competed in those events at that level again.
Le Clos had lost count of the scans he’d had on his groin, but doctors never found anything. The old injury played up in the weeks before the world championships and when a doctor suggested a scan, the swimmer told him he’d be wasting his time. Except that this doctor found what nobody else had, a hernia on his right side. His old hero Ali suffered the same injury shortly before his rematch against Liston, forcing it to be delayed.
Le Clos has yet to decide whether to undergo surgery or press forward with rehabilitation through exercise, but either way he is confident he will be much stronger come Tokyo. It’s also worth remembering that only three men in history have returned to the Olympic podium in the 100m butterfly: Spitz, Phelps and Le Clos. That describes the South African’s class. But there are other worrying signs.
Le Clos’ 100m butterfly time hasn’t got faster since 2015 and his African mark in the 200m freestyle in 2016 hasn’t improved either, although in fairness his focus has been on the butterfly. Winning back his Olympic 200m crown has been his priority since Rio. He has changed coaches and moved abroad, and perhaps more importantly, narrowed his attention to the butterfly.
Odds stacked against a comeback
Ironically, more men have returned to the Olympic podium in the 200m butterfly than the 100m butterfly. The count stands at five and Le Clos isn’t one of them. Of the five, Phelps is the only one to have won medals spanning 12 years. No other swimmer has won medals spanning an eight-year bridge.
Le Clos is one of 13 Olympic champions who have not returned to the podium in that event. Missing out on the 200m butterfly in Rio hurt him that night, he was devastated. The usually media-friendly swimmer didn’t stop to talk to journalists after that race, rushing past without even acknowledging them. That’s the only time in his career that he’s done that.
But he fought back three nights later to take a three-way tie for 100m butterfly silver, alongside Phelps and Cseh, behind Joseph Schooling of Singapore, the winner in a 50.39 Olympic record. To come back from despair showed true grit. That self-belief is important. It’s difficult to imagine that Le Clos can break the 100m and 200m butterfly world records in Tokyo, but maybe he won’t have to. At least not to win a medal. History gives him a fighting chance in the 200m.
Only one person has produced a 200m butterfly world record at an Olympics in Le Clos’ lifetime, and that was Phelps at Beijing 2008, when Speedo’s LZR Racer suits were legal. They were outlawed after the 2009 world championships, considered technical doping because they offered swimmers a level of buoyancy among other advantages.
That said, there’s nothing to suggest Milak won’t go faster in Tokyo, given the ease with which he won in Gwangju. But the silver and bronze medal times will probably be within Le Clos’ reach if the gold isn’t. It’s worth remembering that any medal for Le Clos in Tokyo will fly in the face of history.
The 100m butterfly may be a greater challenge for him, especially with Milak getting faster at that distance. Le Clos is the fourth-fastest 200m butterfly swimmer in history and the third-fastest among active swimmers. In the 100m butterfly, he is seventh on the all-time list but also third in terms of active swimmers.
But one cannot judge Le Clos on time alone. His former coach, Graham Hill, has always described him as a racer. Le Clos doesn’t swim times in the competition pool, he races his rivals.
Few people gave Ali a chance against George Foreman in 1974, largely because of their different performances against Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Foreman had destroyed them, while the pair had each traded a win and a loss against Ali. But Le Clos, like Ali, refuses to give up or show fear. He will be in Tokyo with a fighting chance. Le Clos will be a contender.