Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting! I thought I was in for something like Cool Runnings but with a gold medal at the end. South African Chad Le Clos faced numerous obstacles on his journey to the London Olympics including the third-rate pool (“freezing in winter, boiling in summer”) where he did the majority of his training and his mother’s cancer diagnosis in 2010. It’s also certainly the case that Chad’s victory over Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly in the 2012 Olympics was one of the most unexpected victories of the Games. Phelps had dominated the event for 10 years and had a clear lead at 150m in the Olympic final, but Le Clos snatched victory by a finger nail, or 0.05s.
That is part of the story but ‘Unbelievable’ really picks up where it could have naturally ended. For while the London Olympics made a swimming star out of Chad, they made a television sensation out of his father Bert, following his emotional outpouring of pride and love in an interview with Clare Balding after Chad’s win, when he kept repeating the word: “unbelievable”.
Since then, Chad has added to his medal record with victories in world championships and the Commonwealth Games. Meanwhile, Phelps retired from swimming only to announce a comeback in 2014, which was swiftly followed by a ban from competition following a drink-driving conviction. This meant Phelps missed the 2015 world championships, where Chad won gold in the 100m and silver in the 200m butterfly. Having now served his ban and won his key events at the US trials, the stage is set for a rematch in the 200m butterfly at Rio. The speculation is that one of the factors motivating Phelps is the desire to race and beat Chad.
It’s possible that this rivalry could have been the centre piece of the story but during filming, two events shook Chad’s world. Firstly, his father, Bert, developed prostate cancer and secondly his mother Geraldine (Gerry) discovered her breast cancer had returned. She opted to undergo a double mastectomy and his now receiving chemotherapy. The family insisted that filming continue during treatment.
Chad’s parents, and particularly Bert, have been fundamental to his success, and the relationship is incredibly close. After London, Chad surely could have gone anywhere in the world to train yet he chose to remain at home. The lead in to Rio has therefore, in Chad’s words, “been the toughest time of my life.” While both Gerry and Bert insist they will be in Brazil to watch Chad line up with Phelps in the 100m and 200m butterfly (on 8 and 12 August), it’s not clear their health will allow it.
The question is, will the worries over his parents’ health destroy his Olympic hopes or inspire another gold winning performance? While Chad is the defending champion over 200m, his circumstances potentially make him the underdog in this showdown. The race will certainly be one to watch, as is this film.
Unbelievable: The Chad Le Clos Story is a #OneToWatch production directed by Sir Matthew Pinsent (four time Olympic Gold medallist and BBC broadcaster). It will air on SuperSport in Africa, Chad’s official website and The OneToWatch YouTube channel on 24 July at 6pm. It will also be screened on Eurosport in Europe on 25 July and Eurosport UK at noon and 7pm on 26 July.