BEIJING – The Serbian officials, steaming and skeptical, filed into what they call the "Omega Timing Room" here at the Water Cube.
FINA, the governing body of swimming, has a video monitor in there that blows any HD plasma out of the water. It is part of a video-timing system, two of them actually, trained so precisely on the arrival of a swimmer to the touch pad at the end of a race that it runs to the ten-thousandth of a second, a moment in time too small to comparatively describe.
The best we can say is the flapping of a fly's wings would be considered glacial.
The Serbians were upset. Their guy, Milorad Cavic, who actually hails from California, had just been defeated by American Michael Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly by one-hundredth of a second, 50.58 to 50.59.
Phelps had won his seventh gold medal, tying Mark Spitz for most in a single Olympics. Sunday morning in Beijing, he goes for a record eight in the 4x100 medley relay.
To the live human eye, no one knew who won the race, only that Phelps had come from seventh place at the split to deliver a heart-pound finish.
"I didn't breathe the final eight meters," even he declared.
When Cavic and Phelps hit the wall, all eyes, including the swimmers', spun to the giant television screen on one wall of the Water Cube. The pool was silent for a couple of seconds, fans hanging on edge.
It declared Phelps had won.
He pumped his fist and screamed. Cavic slapped the water in disappointment. They didn't even know how close it really was.
On television replays, it kind of looked like Cavic got in there. He had been in the lead and was "gliding" to the wall. Phelps was midstroke or "chopping," which is normally a poor strategy.
As the replay was slowed, some thought Phelps made it first. Others thought Cavic. The Serbian media were part of the latter. Cavic's own coach hugged him after and declared, "You won." All over the Water Cube fans debated it, reenacted it, questioned it and basked in the fact they just witnessed what might go down as the most famous and greatest race in swimming history.
Serbia, meanwhile, filed a protest.
Could the Omega system, which no one ever recalls malfunctioning, have been wrong?
"The Omega system was in perfect condition, perfect order," said race official Ben Ekumbo of Kenya.
FINA had brought this in starting in the 2000 Sydney Olympics to end any and all controversies. If these were the old days, the controversy over who won likely would've ended in gun play. Omega had solved that.
"There is no doubt about the capacity of the system," said Cornel Marculescu, FINA's executive director.
But was this a grand conspiracy? Had FINA figured out how to somehow, someway, fix the race and keep the dream of Phelps alive? Can you even fix a race? Doesn't Phelps endorse Omega watches?
"This is not a casino," said Alexander Popov, the four-time gold medal winning Russian swimming legend who watched in awe and trusted the timing system. "You don't win with luck. If it says Michael Phelps won, then Michael Phelps won."
What if swimming officials caught up in Phelps' quest that had drawn fans around the globe to their sport had allowed their bias to cloud their judgment when they watched the official, fractional replay? Maybe they were seeing what they wanted to see in that Omega Timing Room.
Didn't Marculescu foolishly feed conspiracy theories by gushing about Phelps and declaring he "was the greatest we've ever had"?
FINA knew it needed to let the Serbs see it for themselves, even if it was against protocol.
"We did not want them to go sleeping thinking something was lost," Ekumbo said.
So the Serbians and the FINA judges watched the replay. They watched it a few times. Watched it from both systems – one powered by cable, one by battery.
"It was very clear the Serbian swimmer touched second after Michael Phelps," Ekumbo said.
Clear to whom? The Serbs?
Indeed, even the Serbs. As incredible as it sounds, they all agreed there was no doubt. The question wasn't even that Phelps touched first; it was if Cavic had managed to get there at the same time and share gold. The Serbs conceded. The protest was withdrawn.
Cavic, for his part, so trusted the timing device he had declared Phelps the winner even before the protest. "I'm not fighting this." He did add a little trash talk, though.
"Is Michael Phelps the gold medal winner?" Cavic asked. "I think if we had to do this again, I'd win."
They aren't doing it again, though. This was it. Phelps, according to the greatest, most precise, most picture perfect video timing system yet invented had become the greatest, most precise, most picture perfect swimmer yet invented.
By the slimmest of margins; quicker than a fly swatting his wings; less than a centimeter, the difference between "maybe shaving your finger," Cavic offered.
"The smallest margin of victory in our sport," Phelps said.
He smiled big at the very thought of such a thing.
"It's pretty cool."
- Michael Phelps