I love the French. They were right about Iraq, they invented celery remoulade, they gave us Stendhal and they have upheld their lubricious reputation by injecting a much-needed sex scandal into the Olympics (more on that later). But after the most exciting event of the games so far, the men's 4x100 relay last night, I found myself screaming "Die, French surrender monkeys! Die!" as if I had been reincarnated as a headline writer for the Weekly Standard.
French 100-meter world-record holder Alain Bernard was the guy who sautéed my sang-froid when he boasted that the French team would "smash" the Americans. Perhaps Bernard should have recalled what happened the last time an Olympic swimmer used the s-word. In 2000 in Sydney, American Gary Hall said that the U.S. would "smash them [the Australians] like guitars." Whether Hall was referring to John Belushi's uncalled-for act of violence in "Animal House" or Who guitarist Pete Townshend's alarming onstage tendency to take the word "ax" literally is unknown, but the Aussies ended up turning the expensive U.S. dreadnought into matchsticks. The sight of those four blokes from Down Under mockingly playing air guitar by the pool after whupping on our lads is still burned into my memory.
Bernard had reason to be cocky. On form, the French were the faster team, and they had the powerful Bernard, the fastest freestyle swimmer in the world, anchoring. So when the final leg came and Bernard dove into the water more than half a body ahead of the American anchor, Jason Lezak, it looked like it was all over. Lezak, using Bernard's wash to his advantage, gained a little in the first 50 meters, but at the turn the Frenchman still was solidly ahead. All over America, you could sense people dejectedly preparing to eat cold platters of crow au vin. And then, halfway through the last length, you could almost feel this hydraulic jolt kick through Lezak. He started coming on like a shark, and Bernard seemed to be tightening up. I thought of what happened to American Katie Hoff in the 400-meter freestyle, when Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain overtook her in the last length. But was there enough pool left? Lezak was almost there, but there were only five meters to go. Lezak kept roaring along, taking fewer and more powerful strokes than Bernard. At the last instant, Lezak reached out at the perfect moment and out-touched Bernard by 8/100 of a second.
Up above Lezak, Michael Phelps was staring down into the water. The top of his suit was peeled down about as far as it could go without causing him to involuntarily join French swimmer Laure Manadou in that elite group of athletes whose unadorned physiques are posted on the Internets. He looked up at the scoreboard, waiting to see who had won. And then when he saw "U.S." come out first, he let out one of the most viciously satisfying primal screams anyone has ever seen, his mighty arms outstretched in sheer blind violent joy, his impossibly powerful chest as taut as iron as he set the world record for isometric exultation. It felt like Jimi Hendrix hitting the high note at the end of a monster solo. Teammate Garrett Webber-Cole came over, seized him by the waist and pumped his fist. It was like two demigods celebrating, and it inspired serious biceps envy across America.
It was a fabulous race, but the earlier women's 400 freestyle did have an element that race lacked: sex. Naturally, this also involved our baguette-eating friends. Before the race, NBC ran a solemnly titillating feature about the travails of the aforementioned Manadou. The babalicious swimmer became the toast of tout Paris after winning gold at Athens, but then her life fell into tabloid hell. She started dating an Italian swimmer, inspired controversy by leaving France to train in Italy, got fired by her Italian team, came back to France, and broke up with her boyfriend, who promptly started dating Manadou's archrival, the Italian champion Federica Pellegrini. To top it off, naked pictures of Manadou were posted online, which some blamed on her ex. (Do not click here if viewing naked French women with extremely low body-fat ratios is contrary to your religious beliefs.)
So the fact that Pellegrini and Manadou were both in the 400 freestyle finals was pretty ... interesting. Making up a probably bogus story in my head that she was The Woman Scorned, and giving her extra points for hotness (the dirty little secret of male viewers across the country), I was pulling for Manadou to beat Pellegrini. At the same I was nervously wondering what would happen if the two women finished one-two. Would there be a "Dynasty"-style catfight in the pool? Or good sportsmanship? A grand joint renunciation of the Italian lover boy? Alas, my cheesy imaginings went for naught. Manadou went out fast but faded and finished last, and Pellegrini didn't contend. Still, the Olympics are now firing on all cylinders. All hail the French -- big-mouthed, defeated and unclothed!