Michael Phelps races a great white shark (kind of)

Viewers were angry with the results of ‘Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs Great White’

Michael Phelps competing in US Olympic Swimming Team Trials in 2012. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images

For nearly 30 years, Shark Week has been a reliable way for the Discovery Channel to create buzz for itself once a year.

The public’s appetite for shark-based programming seems inexhaustible. And this year, the channel outdid itself.

The centrepiece was a match race between Michael Phelps and a great white shark.

Who would win? Would the shark stay in its lane, or head over to take a bite of the 23-time Olympic gold medalist? “Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs Great White” seemed to promise to answer those questions.


Anticipation was high. But then the race was broadcast on Sunday night, and the high hopes turned to disappointment. The programme seemed about as realistic as a sharknado.

First off, it wasn't exactly a race. Phelps swam alone, time trial style, in the waters off South Africa.

It also wasn’t exactly a shark. When the “race” was shown, Phelps was matched with a computer-generated image of a shark, supposedly simulating a real shark’s speed. The “shark” even leapt out of the water at the finish line for a conveniently spectacular visual.

The show also faced the problem that sharks and people are not comparable swimmers. Not even close.

Humans, even superhumans like Michael Phelps, swim no faster than 9.7km ( 6 miles) an hour.

Great white sharks hit 25 mph. Phelps was given a monofin, which let him swim faster than his world-record times. But he still wasn’t going to come anywhere near the shark’s top speed. This certainly seemed like a stumbling block for an interspecies race.

Earlier in the program, scientists lured a shark with a fake seal to time its speed over 100 metres in a straight line.

Conveniently, the time they came up with was in the range of Phelps’s speed.

“I think we did our best to try to make it as close as we could,” Phelps acknowledged to Entertainment Weekly.

As for the race format, it’s not clear if people expected to actually see a great white in the next lane over in an Olympic-size pool. But whatever they wanted, they didn’t get it.

The programme left people feeling cheated, at least the noisiest ones on social media.

"The whole point is to get people excited about sharks," Laurie Goldberg, a spokeswoman for the Discovery Channel, said. "The idea was, is it possible to get the world's greatest swimmer competitive with a shark?"

As for the shark’s speed, she said, “They are really good in bursts, but they don’t necessarily have endurance over a 100-metre race.”

And for those viewers who wanted closer contact between man and beast, “We’re not going to risk Michael Phelps’s life.”

She added: “In the first two minutes of the show, we make it clear we were not going to make it side by side.”

At least one Twitter user mocked those who expected Phelps to be in danger of being eaten.

Oh, the result? The shark “won” by two seconds. And Phelps demanded a rematch. Of course.