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Poked Bear 1, Chad le Clos 0

2016-08-10 12:28
Michael Phelps (Getty Images)

Cape Town - It was brave, it was audacious ... but given the undesired big-picture outcome, history may forever recall it as a candidate for the gallery of significant South African sporting gaffes.

Team SA schedule: Wednesday, August 10 in Rio

When Chad le Clos did his much-revisited (you can do it at the mere click of a few buttons these days, over and over if you wish) pugilistic swaggering, smack in front of a dagger-eyed American swimming legend Michael Phelps, it is painfully clear now that all he did was poke a bear in the ribcage.

I have always shied from doing that myself, not being the most valiant of sorts in the wild or even in more urban settings, but hunters and intrepid explorers generally advise that it is not a good idea.

Le Clos, perhaps understandably still a little gung-ho from his above-expectation Olympic silver medal in the 200m freestyle, effectively overlooked that sage tip as he boogied and shadow-boxed before a bemused, seated Phelps - all the while knowing that their much-touted showdown in the 200m butterfly main event already loomed pretty large.

READ: Michael Phelps' reaction to Chad le Clos' shadow-boxing breaks the internet!

Records show starkly now that the defending champion of the event from London 2012 went from hero to well-nigh zero, really, in his favoured discipline by not even making it to the medals podium this time, ending a galling fourth as Phelps basked in the glory and gluttony of a 20th Olympic personal gold (later to become 21, too).

“There wasn’t a shot in hell I was losing that tonight,” said Phelps afterwards, a statement so obviously, albeit not overtly, laced with reference to Le Clos’s attempted psyche-him-out antics.

You almost sensed, too, that in bilateral terms it was a case of swaggering Uncle Sam putting the gobby little upstart South Africa firmly in its place.

Sportspeople from our shores and everywhere else, bless them, have tried such unsettling, testosterone-laced gestures when faced by a formidable foe - or foes - before.

Sometimes they pay off, of course ... and let’s never doubt that they are great for box-office appeal and pre-combat hype.

But it is when they bomb that onlookers’ perversely unforgiving appetite and memory for failure comes firmly into play.

I could not help sensing some connection, just hours after Le Clos’s relative agony early on Wednesday morning (SA time), when the world’s major cricket website Cricinfo tweeted a link to a major feature marking 40 years since the seminal - and hot in every respect - English summer of 1976, when a fast-emerging West Indies thrashed their establishment-giant hosts 3-0 in a five-Test series on their own pitches.

England’s South African-born captain Tony Greig placed his hand with infamous indelicacy into a hornets’ nest beforehand as he suggested England would make their opponents “grovel”.

For diplomacy, considering that it was the particularly repressive height of apartheid, Greig scored a notable zero, only providing a magnificently athletic array of black panthers, if you like, in the West Indies’ pace bowling attack with extra zeal to rock heads and smash deliveries into bodies - which they duly did, all summer long.

Albeit rather less politically charged by then, and an attempted lay-down-the-gauntlet event marked more by actions than words, Fanie de Villiers similarly ventured into high-risk territory on South Africa’s first post-isolation Test tour of the very England in 1994.

With the third and final encounter at The Oval on a knife edge and SA battling to preserve a 1-0 lead, “Vinnige Fanie” brazenly bypassed the (already fading, admittedly) etiquette of “thou shalt not bounce a tail-end bunny” by clattering a short-pitched delivery into the helmet of unpredictable England strike bowler Devon Malcolm.

Riled as much by the reported chirps from the South African close-in fielders immediately following it, Malcolm famously muttered his “you’re history, mon” threat ... and crucially devastated the SA second innings, claiming 9/57 in a positively frightening, match-tilting display of grievous bodily harm of his own.

In rugby terms, a major personal recollection of Springbok baiting-gone-pear-shaped occurred in the 2002 Tri-Nations clash with the arch-enemy All Blacks in Wellington.

Corne Krige’s visiting charges, in their wisdom, decided to counter the age-old Haka - it is more common practice for New Zealand opponents to “respect” it - by advancing provocatively on the All Blacks and using their own, albeit short-lived Asijiki (Xhosa for “no turning back”) war cry as a counter.

Alas, the Boks could not back up their bark with required amounts of bite, succumbing 41-20 and by five tries to two, and Asijiki was quietly returned to the cupboard.

Nice try in Rio, Chad, and you still have a firm place in our hearts, not least because of your still regular brilliance in your own, proudly South African right.

But ouch ... emphatically no cigar for that stunt.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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