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You’ve probably seen or heard hype for this cuckoo summertime TV stunt: starting July 23, as part of its “Shark Week” tradition, the Discovery channel will pit the all-time Olympic men’s swimmer versus the magnificent beast of the sea. It’s a bizarre gimmick that could only be cooked up in a room full of TV producers, or a sandbox full of juice-box-drunk 4-year-olds, which I guess is the same thing.
It’s so silly, but I kind of love it. Between Phelps vs. Shark, the inane Mayweather vs. McGregor fight, and the Home Run Derby being 600 times more exciting than baseball’s dreary All-Star Game, it’s shaping up to be the Summer of the Shameless Stunt.
And there’s nothing wrong with a little shamelessness in sports. What’s to be so sacred about? Jesse Owens sprinted against horses. Cyclists chased speeding trains. The Jets play the Patriots twice a year.
I’ll admit that on paper, Phelps vs. Shark is a grotesque mismatch. The all-time gold medal leader has a stable case as our greatest waterborne human, but even at his Olympic peak, Phelps averaged only five or six miles per hour in the pool. Officials are letting him compete against the shark using a “monofin”—think state-of-the-art mermaid tail—but even Phelps acknowledges the monofin is only going to add a few miles per hour more.
A Great White, on the other hand, can easily hit 20 mph or more when it’s in predatorial mode.
Good grief. This thing is going to be a rout. Phelps is going to have to hope the shark has an off day. Maybe the shark falls down a staircase the night before. Maybe the shark stays out all night with Ryan Lochte.
We don’t know a lot about the parameters of this competition (which apparently—spoiler alert—has already been performed in South Africa). It isn’t going to be the two of them side-by-side in an Olympic-sized pool, which is a little disappointing. Phelps did not force the Great White to swim the individual medley, which would have been phenomenal.
We also don’t know much about the shark opponent. Is it a young, aggressive shark? An older, more contemplative shark? Has the shark put on a few pounds? Why do I know 50 bazillion things about Lonzo Ball, who hasn’t played a single NBA game, and absolutely nothing about the Great White Shark that Michael Phelps is going to swim against?
What is the shark’s name? Jerry? Eloise? Sally? Rufus? Mindy? Steve?
Phelps recently gave an interview to Time magazine in which he talked about the competition—and hinted it might be narrower than expected.
“[The monofin] helped make the race a bit closer,” he said. “When the Great White bursts at the surface, that’s their mechanism for obviously attacking and getting food, so that’s not a normal speed that they swim at. [The scientists] were calculating the speed they could potentially swim in a straight line.”
OK. So he’s throwing out a little intrigue there: the shark isn’t going to be giving the Full Shark.
Still, I am going with the Great White.
I’m not the only one who’s unsold on Phelps’s chances. You can actually bet Phelps against the Shark on the online bookmaker Bovada. A $1,000 bet on the shark will net $100 in a shark victory. A hundred on Phelps will get you $550 if Phelps wins. That’s only mildly worse odds than Conor McGregor’s!
Lochte—Phelps’ longtime Olympic teammate and the celebrated Rio de Janeiro service station Yelp reviewer—does not feel his colleague has the goods.
“Hell no,” Lochte told TMZ when asked if Phelps would beat the shark.
Of course, we’re not hearing what they’re talking about on the shark side. Are they nervous? This is Michael Phelps, after all. Or are the sharks offended? What are they saying on Shark TMZ? Or on Shark Sports Radio?
Let’s go to Bam Bam, who’s calling from off the coast of Cape Cod. Bam Bam, you’re on the air.
Yeah, I just want to say I think this whole Phelps vs. Shark competition is a disgrace to our entire species. Ooo! I just saw a paddleboarder. I’ll hang up and listen.
One merciful element to this event is that it appears to be pure pleasure for Phelps, who is rich and a legend and isn’t depressingly coming out of retirement to race a shark because he lost money buying crystal skulls or on a restaurant deal gone bad. The dude just loves sharks. He told Time the chance to do Shark Week represented “a dream come true.”
“The biggest thing is to get the message across that they don’t want to eat us,” Phelps said. “They’re out here surviving just like we are on land.”
Isn’t that the truth? Sounds good. I’m in.
And if Phelps can’t pull it off, let’s send Katie Ledecky.