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‘Phelps vs. Shark’ Racing Controversy: Discovery Chief Says ‘I’d Do It Again’

TCA: "Sharks don't swim in a straight line," said Rich Ross. "There was no lane possible that we were going to put it in."

Michael Phelps, "Phelps vs. Shark"

Michael Phelps, “Phelps vs. Shark”


The Shark Week stunt with Michael Phelps racing a shark didn’t go quite swimmingly, as some viewers complained that they felt robbed of seeing man vs. fish in the flesh.

But Discovery Channel group president Rich Ross told IndieWire on Wednesday that the network made it clear several times that Phelps was not literally swimming next to a shark (that would be a bit dangerous, after all) and that he was a bit surprised by the controversy.

“Every Shark Week show is an experiment and everyone is handled as safely as we possibly can do it. So was this,” Ross said. “Certainly of a scale and a scope that was far bigger. People came away with it understanding more about him, more about the sharks, about how they work together. We would never put people’s life at risk.”

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On Sunday, the network aired “Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White” as a spotlight event to kick off its annual Shark Week programming. The gimmick was that 23-time gold medalist helps would take on a shark to see which was more suited for the water (and to see if a person could possibly survive by out-swimming a shark).

Neither Phelps nor the network ever claimed that he would race a live shark, and interviews made it clear that this would not be the case. Nevertheless viewers who tuned in expecting to see the Olympian to go head-to-hammerhead with the fearsome fish swimming in a lane next to him complained afterward on social media.

Instead, viewers watched what amounted to a simulation and complained that Discovery couldn’t wrangle a real shark to placidly “race” against Phelps. Here’s how it all went down: First, the times for various sharks — a hammerhead, a great reef shark, and a great white — were taken for a distance of 50 meters or 100 meters depending on the endurance of each to determine their relative speeds. Phelps then swam against the great white. Wearing a monofin for speed (and to presumably unleash his inner shark) and a thin 1 mm wetsuit, he swam in the ocean against the image of a shark that was digitally inserted to swim beside him.

“The very nature, which is told in the first two minutes, is sharks don’t swim in a straight line,” said Ross. “The idea of that needed to be figured out. There was no lane possible that we were going to put it in. And the idea that you would put a shark that can not be in fresh water, and put it in a pool? Michael Phelps was one of the best partners I’ve ever worked with. He’s a shark nerd, he watched Shark Week each year. We did a Facebook Live yesterday talking about it with fans because he said he was very proud of it and didn’t want people trolling this to undermine it.”

On Facebook Live, Phelps responded to fans, “Everybody wants to try to pick on something or say something or complain about something. I had fun racing a shark and seeing those animals up-close and personal,” he said. “If someone actually wants to get in the ocean and race a side-by-side with a great white, go ahead. You’re not going to get the shark to swim in a straight line, and it would be interesting to see. We’ll leave it at that.”

Ross added, “There are funny late night reactions to it. What were people thinking? We’ve been clearly supported for what we do. [Phelps] did ‘GMA,’ ‘The Tonight Show,’ he must have said it 100 times that he does not swim side-by-side with a shark. A small very loud group said, ‘He’s not swimming side by side with a shark!’

“I would do it again,” Ross concluded, “because the most important fact that came out of it, which people now know, is six people die of shark attacks while 100 million sharks are killed every year. People are calling us and asking, ‘How do so many sharks die?’ That means we’ve done our job.”

In case you’re didn’t tune in, watch the moment of truth of “Phelps vs. Shark” below:

As for Phelps, he wasn’t a sore loser, but he did have a word about the conditions:

Additional reporting by Michael Schneider. 

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