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ande
December 3rd, 2008, 06:45 AM
ThisClose to Phelps
Milorad Cavic is still coping with his one-hundredth-of-a-second loss

By Joe Posnanski

Illustration by Fred Harper

In crowded rooms over the last few months, I have asked for a show of hands. Milorad Cavic? Who can place the name? No one has yet raised a hand. A few have reflexively started to, then stopped -- and they all later said that they thought he was a soccer player or a military leader or had something to do with the United Nations.

Milorad Cavic should be remembered, though, because while we admire Michael Phelps, SI's 2008 Sportsman of the Year, we probably cannot understand what it means to win eight Olympic gold medals. But having a dream in sight and seeing it snatched away -- yes, that is something any of us can appreciate.

On Saturday morning, Aug. 16, in Beijing, Cavic and Michael Phelps crashed into the wall at the end of their mind-blowing Olympic 100-meter butterfly race. It was a race for the ages. Cavic was the fastest butterfly starter in the world, and as expected he led the first 80 meters. Phelps was the greatest finisher in the world, and as expected he closed hard. In the final five meters Cavic went low and stretched for the wall. Phelps found himself between strokes and lunged out of the water one last time. They hit the wall together.

No, not exactly. The electronic clock registered that Phelps touched one hundredth of a second sooner. What is one hundredth of a second? It is 30 times faster than the blink of an eye. It is 1/36 of the time it takes a 100-mph fastball to reach the plate. It is the blur of lightning striking. It is a flutter of time so minuscule that the mind cannot comprehend it, and yet that is what Milorad Cavic has left to comprehend.

"I'm pretty cool with the whole thing," Cavic says. This has been his defiant stance from the start -- he has insisted on being cool with it all. Even in the moments after the race, Cavic talked about how proud he was and said he had no wish to protest the results. He slept with his silver medal wrapped around his neck for several nights. He insisted that he would not trade it for gold.

But you wonder how cool he can be -- how cool anyone could be -- with falling one hundredth of a second short of international fame and Olympic glory.

Cavic, the son of Serbian parents who was born and raised in California (he has dual citizenship and represents Serbia), had been thinking about swimming that race in the Olympics just about all 24 years of his life. He claims to dream about swimming every night. When awake he visualizes going through his butterfly stroke as he walks, and when he gets to the door he reaches for it like it's the pool wall and he is about to make a turn. "I find myself doing some unusual things that might make me appear like I belong in a mental institution," he says.

Cavic brazenly came to Beijing to take out Phelps. That's what he said at the time, and he has never hidden his feelings. He was suspended at the European Championships in March for wearing a red T-shirt that had the words KOSOVO IS SERBIA written in Serbian Cyrillic. Kosovo had declared independence about a month earlier, and Cavic, a Cal alum, said he was trying to send some positive energy back to Serbia.

"It was a very Berkeley thing to do," he says.

In Beijing, the day before his big race, Cavic said this: "It would be good for the sport if Phelps lost." Phelps later said that those words "fired him up," but Cavic does not regret them. "I respect Michael," he says. "You have to -- he's just that good.... As hard as it is to believe, he's human too."

The ending of the 100-meter butterfly has been played and replayed on TV and the Internet over the past three months. Despite photo evidence to the contrary from SI senior staff photographer Heinz Kluetmeier, Cavic still believes he made contact with the wall first. But the winner is the person who triggers the touch pad, which takes three kilograms per square centimeter of force. Cavic concedes that was Phelps.

"I never really wanted to burden myself with the what-if questions," he says. And: "It's time to move on." And: "I'm really looking to the future now." (Specifically, he's got his eye on the world championships next summer, when he hopes to reclaim his 100 butterfly world record in a race that will most likely include Phelps.) But this week, he found himself talking about the past again when Phelps, appearing on 60 Minutes, said that Cavic made a crucial mistake in the final meter of the race. "So he's coming up and then trying to lift his head up before he touches the wall," Phelps said. "[My head] is in a straight streamline. So that's the difference in the race.... If his head is down there, he wins."

Phelps was simply stating a fact, not criticizing Cavic, but those comments still hit hard. "I'm not saying his analysis of what happened is incorrect," Cavic says in a rare moment of bitterness. "I'm just saying he failed to take into account the things in the other 99 meters of the race."

Cavic then reeled off a list of advantages that Phelps had -- a custom-made Speedo swimsuit, a ripple-free cap, a team of doctors, nutritionists, physicists and therapists at his disposal. He knows it sounds like sour grapes, but he can't help it. Come on, it was one hundredth of a second. How would any of us handle missing out on global glory by some infinitesimal distance? He would have been rich. He would have been famous. And Phelps still would have won seven gold medals. Phelps would have been just fine.

In the days after the race, Cavic enjoyed his own brief celebrity -- he received thousands of e-mails and letters congratulating him for pushing Phelps to the brink and handling his loss with dignity. In the months since, though, his name has been forgotten. Someone did pretend to be him on Facebook, but that was about the extent of his notoriety. He just became that guy, you know, the one Phelps beat at the wall.

"The winners always write history," Cavic says. Yes, they do.

Joe Posnanski is an SI.com special contributor and a columnist for The Kansas City Star.

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2008/magazine/specials/sportsman/2008/12/02/cavic/

Redbird Alum
December 3rd, 2008, 10:31 AM
If Cavic does take back the 100M fly record this year, I would think that will go a long way toward helping him "cope".

hofffam
December 3rd, 2008, 11:52 AM
That's a good story - but Cavic's talk about Phelps' advantages is extraordinarily silly. Never mind that Cavic swam prelims and semis before that 100 fly final. Cavic scratched his 100 free race to rest.

Wasn't the 100 fly final Phelps' 16th race? Including 2 400 IM races, 3 200 free races, 3 200 fly races? And intense media attention and demands on his time?

tjrpatt
December 3rd, 2008, 12:14 PM
Phelps needed those "advantages" to win those 8 golds. Plus, the 100 fly was Phelps's only sprint race. Cavic had the advantage of doing one event. In the end, it is all about who hits the touchpad first and Phelps did it. Cavic should be glad that people are still talking about that race and within the mainstream press. Cavic should have a good year next year. I was really impressed with some of his dryland techniques that I saw on youtube. He just needs to work on keeping his head down in the finish.

amswimmer
December 3rd, 2008, 12:22 PM
Phelps had a nutritionist???? That's a good one.

alphadog
December 3rd, 2008, 01:19 PM
Phelps had a nutritionist???? That's a good one.


It was Ronald McDonald, wasn't it?

KeithM
December 3rd, 2008, 04:54 PM
If Cavic does take back the 100M fly record this year, I would think that will go a long way toward helping him "cope".
Cavic never had the 100 fly record. Phelps only had it briefly five years ago.

tjrpatt
December 3rd, 2008, 08:15 PM
That Ian Crocker still has it. Well, I think that Cavic or Phelps will take over that record in 2009.

elixirnova
December 3rd, 2008, 10:53 PM
Cavic once had the SCM 100 fly record I believe.

Also on 60minutes they took a look at the 200fly goal time of 1:51 that phelps did not achieve and above that it also said 49.5 100Fly:afraid:23.5,26.0 splits! I bet when Phelps does come back that will be a high priority goal since being the first man under 50.00 is quite the landmark...

As for Cavic, I'm sure he realizes that he blew the finish and probably could be world record holder right now..haha...

Ya gotta find something to complain about, when you lose to someone racing like 7 times as many races as you during a meet.

ande
December 18th, 2008, 09:50 AM
this article makes an interesting point about touch pad pressure thresholds

Untouchable
Did Michael Phelps get a gold medal for a race he lost?
By William Saletan
Posted Monday, Aug. 25, 2008, at 8:19 AM ET

Michael Phelps celebrates his victory in the 100-meter butterfly
Did Michael Phelps really earn eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics?

In his next-to-last medal race, the 100-meter butterfly, Phelps trailed Milorad Cavic all the way to the wall. Nobody who saw the race in real time, including Phelps' mother, thought he had won. Yet the scoreboard showed him beating Cavic by one-hundredth of a second.

"The scoreboard said I got my hand on the wall first," Phelps declared afterward. The Boston Globe, like other American newspapers, agreed: "Phelps got his hand on the wall first." Cornel Marculescu, head of the world swimming federation, FINA, confirmed the verdict: "There is no doubt the first arrival was Michael Phelps." The race referee added: "There are no doubts. It was very clear that [Cavic] touched second."

Sorry, but none of these assurances holds water. The scoreboard doesn't tell you which swimmer arrived, touched, or got his hand on the wall first. It tells you which swimmer, in the milliseconds after touching the wall, applied enough force to trigger an electronic touch pad. As to whether Phelps touched first, there's plenty of unresolved doubt.

The human eye, in real time and basic video replay, suggests Cavic won. But that could be an optical illusion. Cavic takes one big stroke toward the wall, then glides to it with fingers extended. Phelps does the opposite: He shortens his stroke so he can squeeze in one more truncated stroke. He gambles that the speed he gets from the extra launch will make up for the additional time it requires. Cavic leads but closes the distance to the wall slowly; Phelps trails but closes the distance fast. In ultraslow-motion replays, it looks as though Cavic has reached the wall while Phelps is still closing. But these replays break down Cavic's glide to such short increments that you can't really tell whether he has stopped.

Marculescu says there's ''absolutely no doubt'' who won, because the clock registered Phelps' arrival first, and "the touch stops the clock.'' Not true. A touch doesn't stop the clock. The touch pad is designed to require a certain degree of force, because otherwise, slight pressure from the water would trigger it. "You can't just put your fingertips on the pad, you really have to push it," the race timekeeper explains. A FINA vice president says the crucial moment is "the instant of depression, of activation of the touch pad, not contact with the pad."

On Saturday, a week after the race, FINA tried to squelch the controversy by releasing four pairs of digital frames that track the two swimmers side by side as they reach the wall. "In the third set of images, with Phelps on the left, it is clear he is really pushing hard, while Cavic, on the right, is just arriving," the timekeeper told the Associated Press.

Again, not true. In the pictures, Cavic appears to have arrived by the second frame, if not the first—at a minimum, tying Phelps. (See for yourself.) And Phelps is moving so much faster and more forcefully that you have to wonder: Given the delay between contact and pressure, if the touch pad recorded Phelps' pressure only one-hundredth of a second before Cavic's, how likely is it that Cavic made initial contact before Phelps did?

Technically, the question of who touched first doesn't matter. FINA and the Olympics honchos agreed beforehand to use the touch pads; the touch pads require pressure; all swimmers and their coaches should know this. But that technical argument leaves two ugly, unresolved problems. One is that FINA, the timekeeper, the referee, and the media keep telling us, falsely, that Phelps "touched," "arrived," and "got his hand on the wall" first. "In our sport, it's who touches first," Marculescu told the AP on Saturday. Bull. It's not who touches first. It's who triggers the sensor first.

The other problem is that even FINA isn't sure how much pressure the touch pads require. On Saturday, Marculescu told the New York Times that the threshold was 3 kilograms per square centimeter. But in the same article, a FINA vice president said the threshold was 1.5 kilograms. If FINA's executives don't know the correct number, is it reasonable to expect Cavic to know it? And if he had realized how much pressure was required, would he have shortened his stroke as Phelps did, trying to trigger the sensor first, instead of trying to touch the wall first?

I'm not saying the touch-pad system is fishy. It beats the heck out of the old stopwatch method, not to mention the mysteries of judging gymnastics. It's the fairest, most precise system around. And that's the point: Even the most precise system leaves a gray area. In this case, it's the area between touching and pressing. Did Phelps beat Cavic to the wall? We'll never know.

Update Aug. 27: Many readers in the Fray point out that I overlooked better pictures in Sports Illustrated. I've addressed those pictures and amended my position in the Human Nature blog.

http://www.slate.com/id/2198502/

Speedo
December 18th, 2008, 02:41 PM
On Saturday, Marculescu told the New York Times that the threshold was 3 kilograms per square centimeter. But in the same article, a FINA vice president said the threshold was 1.5 kilograms. If FINA's executives don't know the correct number, is it reasonable to expect Cavic to know it?
In my opinion the touch vs. pressure thing is getting overanalyzed. Does anyone really think that Phelps or Cavic were timing the last 3 strokes of that race based on how sensitive they thought the pads were? Between the touch and the pressure threshold Phelps passed him. I don't think there is a debate about this, and I'm not sure finishing strategies, from the swimmer's point of view, will change an iota as a result of that race.:2cents:

gobears
December 18th, 2008, 03:07 PM
In my opinion the touch vs. pressure thing is getting overanalyzed. Does anyone really think that Phelps or Cavic were timing the last 3 strokes of that race based on how sensitive they thought the pads were? Between the touch and the pressure threshold Phelps passed him. I don't think there is a debate about this, and I'm not sure finishing strategies, from the swimmer's point of view, will change an iota as a result of that race.:2cents:

Yes, I'm not sure why, but this article kind of bothers me. Of course there is a pressure threshold. There has always been a pressure threshold. Every World Record has been set and every modern race has been won with a pressure threshold. We're now going to pretend it makes a difference???

BillS
December 18th, 2008, 04:10 PM
I'm not sure finishing strategies, from the swimmer's point of view, will change an iota as a result of that race.:2cents:

I agree that the touch pressure issue is nonsense, but I can guarantee that there will be quite a bit of coaching directed toward kicking all the way into the wall and not lifting the head as a result of that race.

hofffam
December 18th, 2008, 05:58 PM
What is interesting to me about the article Ande posted is that someone thought the touch pad pressure was interesting!

It is not an issue unless the pads varied significantly from one to another.

The writer of that article is wasting electrons writing about it. Phelps won because the Omega system said he did. Every swimmer knows you have to PUSH the pads to make them activate. Otherwise the waves would set them off all the time.

I'm almost certain Phelps hands/fingers hit the pad with more force than Cavic because Phelps' fingers were moving faster than his body. Cavic's fingers were moving at body speed since they were outstretched.

The people like Cavic's coach who say it was obvious Cavic won are delusional. No human could judge the two sets of hands two meters apart in real time through the water clearly enough to call it.

Allen Stark
December 18th, 2008, 06:50 PM
I have gone over the Sports Illustrated pictures and they leave no doubt to me that Phelps won fair and square.Look at head position,at the second to last picture(before the touch)Phelps' head passes Cavic's.