Have you heard the news? Michael Phelps raced a Great White shark to kick off Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week” in style. Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White aired Sunday night after months of anticipation, and it settled the question that I guess someone maybe thought of at some point: Could the greatest living male human swimmer defeat an aquatic marvel honed by centuries of evolution to barrel through the ocean and gnash on seals at high speeds?
We’ll never know, because the only thing Phelps raced was a computer simulation of a Great White shark. He admitted in interviews leading up to the broadcast that he did not get in the water with a shark and then race it, which would have been insanely dangerous, and the show told viewers that the blocky simulated shark was in fact not a fins-and-blood shark. Still, the “race,” complete with starting gun and dramatic music, was treated as if it was actually happening and it made for some embarrassing television.
“At the 25-meter mark, the Great White accelerates and takes the lead for the first time.” No shit, that’s what you programmed it to do. This is a spruced-up version of one of those videos they play between innings in baseball stadiums where three helmets race and one section gets free pizza if their helmet wins, only with a fake shark and a few dudes playing the whole affair way too straight. At least make it goofy, since, you know, you’re having a guy pretend to race a shark.
The producers decided to keep things dramatic until the end, when the “shark” “surged ahead of” Phelps and “won” “the race.” As a post-swim Phelps eagerly told cameras after he had just finished not racing a shark, “You really see the speed that the animal has, how many different gears they can switch into when they really need to.” No you don’t.
The shark never deviates from a straight line or takes a lunge at Phelps, which, in an actual race against an actual shark, would be the only things that could make it a close finish. This may be putting too much thinking into what is a false spectacle, but the interesting thing about a human racing a shark is them avoiding or not avoiding the hundreds of obsidian-sharp teeth in a shark’s grill, not who has better straight-line speed. Why not just have CGI peak Michael Phelps race against CGI peak Mark Spitz or something?
Phelps hosted an hour-long rambling Facebook Live this morning, saying “I had fun racing a shark” (which he didn’t do) and insisting it was not his fault if viewers were hoodwinked into thinking he was racing a shark (perhaps by Discovery blurbs that promised “The Great White Shark meets the Greatest of All Time.”)
“You can believe whatever you want. Everything was either presented on-air during multiple interviews that I did throughout Shark Week or the beginning of the show,” he said, getting snippy in response to another comment. “Sorry you feel that way. For me, this is something I’ve always wanted to do and I was honored to be able to do it. I’m sorry that you feel that way, I feel very different.
Some people just decide not to listen to some of the things we do and that’s not my fault that you don’t do that. It’s pretty easy to open up your ears and listen to either what TV is saying, what announcers are saying or what I’m saying in interviews.”
Here is my super cool proposal for the Discovery Channel: Have Phelps race a live shark, just give him a head start and put some sort of safe haven on the other end. Account for high-end shark speed and assume Phelps will have a bad day, thus ensuring that he probably won’t get eaten if he swims at a decent pace even if the shark goes hog wild and heads straight to dine on Phelps’s world-class muscles. Put them in separate lanes if lawyers object. Cover him in seal blood if this sounds too tame, and there you have the makings of a worthy spectacle.