“In ‘Phelps vs Shark’ we enlisted world class scientists to take up the challenge of making the world’s greatest swimmer competitive with a Great White,” Discovery said in a statement to Variety. “The show took smart science and technology to make the challenge more accessible and fun. All the promotion, interviews and the program itself made clear that the challenge wasn’t a side by side race. During Michael’s pre-show promotion, as well as within the first 2 minutes of ‘Phelps vs Shark,’ this message was clear and we are thrilled with the audience and the engagement around the world.”
In the special–which kicked off Discovery’s annual week of shark-themed programming–scientists determined the top swimming speed of a great white, and then showed Phelps swimming against a CGI shark based on the data collected. Phelps lost the race by just two seconds.
Viewers were upset, believing that Phelps was going to get into the water with a real shark. CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish wrote on Twitter, “Turns out ‘Michael Phelps races a shark’ was really just ‘Michael Phelps swims alone and then compares his time to a shark’s time.'” Others chimed in as well, saying they felt “robbed” or misled about the special.
Phelps requested a rematch shortly after the special aired.