For the past several days, we’ve been hearing about the edge-of-your-seat race that was to be held between Michael Phelps, who’s worn more Olympic medals than anyone in history, and a great white shark, who might wear medals if it had been given shoulders. Well, if you haven’t heard, Michael lost. But did anyone expect him to win? Obviously, a great white, and any species of shark, can swim faster than a human, contrary to any Saturday-morning cartoons we may have seen. So, why was this race even promoted? To build interest in Shark Week. But can interest be built with a contest with an obvious outcome?
To make the race fair, Michael was allowed to wear a special wetsuit that mimicked shark skin, thus helping to make him more hydrodynamic. Also, he wore a spring-assisted fin made in the fashion of a porpoise flipper that would increase his thrust dramatically. However, these two apparati made the race no more fair than special footwear would even the race between Usain Bolt and a cheetah (if that race takes place, I can now claim credit for the idea). Interestingly, Phelps lost by only two seconds, which is a much smaller margin than I would have predicted. But still, even with the suit and flipper, did anyone really think Michael had a chance? Did they really tune in to see if he could pull it off? I don’t think so.
If you’ve read any of the news articles surrounding this race, you’ll quickly notice that viewers are pretty angry- not so much with his loss, but with the fact that he raced a CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) shark. Viewers expected Phelps to race a shark in live-time, possibly even in some manner of pool. I’ll admit, when I envisioned the race, I imagined the shark and Phelps in a pool with a solid divider between the lanes. For whatever reason, the producers didn’t follow this procedure, but instead studied shark swim-speed and developed a CGI shark to place in the water with him. One reason for using CGI is that sharks don’t typically swim in a straight line for very long; a second reason is that the shark may have chosen to leisurely swim down the lane as opposed to going for the gold. But even with these two valid reasons, viewers were unhappy, which may just illustrate the reason people so anticipated this race: the danger in which Phelps’ life would have been if he had raced the shark in pool lanes.
This proves to be most interesting. Michael Phelps is a type of national hero; he’s well represented the US against other nations in several Olympics. However, for some peculiar reason, we desire our hero to jump into a pool with a huge, carnivorous animal for a race. It seems that maybe we’re not interested in racing, but in the potential for harm. If this seems far-fetched, perform a web search for animal attacks- there are thousands of videos classified by the type of animal. Shark attacks, bear attacks, tiger attacks, and even ant attacks. We, simply, are intrigued by the horrific.
And this illustrates what may be the most important outcome of this race: we need to perform some self-reflection. Do we lead such sedentary, boring lives that we need to find excitement in others’ misfortune? Maybe we need to add some excitement to our own lives so that we don’t seek that fulfillment at the price of someone else. And keep in mind, excitement often entails risk: bungee jumping, mountain climbing, or whitewater rafting, for example. Maybe you can’t, or won’t, attempt those today, but you can take other risks. Go run an errand today and leave your phone at home; you may have a flat and have to walk for help. Strike up a conversation with that rough looking guy who’s having a bad day. Spend time with your family when you get home instead of continuing your workday there; you run the risk of losing a sale or two. Instead of throwing our heroes to the sharks, let’s perform some small, heroic act today. Forget the obvious; live unexpectedly.