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OPINION: Phelps vs Le Clos - The rivalry that never really was

As Chad le Clos marched his way through the media mixed zone in the bowels of the Olympics Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro he looked devastated, journalists left in his wake and a press attaché desperately trying to get him to stop. No dice.

The 200m butterfly title, his focus for the Games, had been ripped away from him by Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer to over slap on a pair of goggles and shimmy into a pair of self-styled MP swimming jammers.

Le Clos declining to speak to the media wasn't from where I was standing a slight at all in the moment, or a sign of unsportsmanlike behaviour, but most of my colleagues disagree. He had been stunned and was upset, there were clearly no words and perhaps just tears later. The world's not been kind to him as a result.

The bigger picture dictated that he should have given the world's media a few words, the occasion warranted it; the nature of his performance and result demanded it.

Phelps lapped it up, laughing on the medal dais - apparently in reaction to friends of his in the crowd singing a particular version of the Star Spangled Banner peculiar to fans of the Baltimore Orioles - the minor detail that crystalised the significance of Le Clos's missing out was the presence of Sam Ramsamy, the IOC member from South Africa, who was there to present the medals for the event. A singular honour as South Africa was nailed on for a medal.

And then the record-breaking American sat in his post-race press conference slumped over with two helpings of what looked like McDonald's on the side, he highlighted how much losing in London had hurt and that since his return to the sport after retiring that it was the one race he desperately wanted to win back. Le Clos and co were made to pay in Rio.

"The kid's got talent" was how Phelps responded to a question about the so-called rivalry between himself and le Clos, a subtle, barbed put-down of an Olympic champion.

Of course, all of the pre-final hype had been around their clash; the shadow-boxing, the death stare and the #PhelpsFace - it was box-office - and along with Lily King's comments about Yulia Efimova gave swimming the red-top headlines it craved.

But the notion of a 200m butterfly rivalry between the two was and is in reality simply nothing of the sort. After his victory that stunned the world in 2012 le Clos and Phelps have traded in well-documented trans-Atlantic barbs but haven't met in the water until the semi-finals here in Rio.

That race went to Phelps although le Clos had just won 200m freestyle silver, in a tough day in the water for him. The talk ahead of the final from le Clos was positive and provided huge optimism that he could repeat what he achieved in London, although he was at pains to point out the quality of the field extended beyond just the two of them. How prophetic that turned out to be.

The final itself now hardly needs replaying: le Clos poised exactly where he wanted to be in the final 50m but when firing the afterburners his body had no response as his stroke became clawingly short. That's a world of pain taking him to the wall and his bravery was admirable. Fourth place is a dark place to be for an Olympian.

As former Olympic champion Ryk Neethling, who is poolside in Rio, pointed out on Twitter, he expects le Clos to drop the 200 metre butterfly and focus on the freestyle and 100m butterfly with his enormous pace there for all to see.

There was a feeling that perhaps he'd checked out of the event some time ago, what with the big improvement of his freestyle in particular, and is part of his evolution from an individual medley swimmer.

Phelps v le Clos in the 200m butterfly lasted just three races in four years then: 21 gold medals versus 1 gold.

Not much of a rivalry then, was it?

Jean Smyth is EWN Sport's Editor and is in Rio de Janeiro covering the Olympic Games. You can follow him on Twitter @JeanSmyth.