A return to the old pattern

Keen battle... Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte (left) at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.-AP Keen battle... Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte (left) at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.

Although they will only meet in two races, the battle between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte is already breathlessly anticipated. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

Unlike at the 2008 Olympics, when organisers conducted the finals in the morning so that Michael Phelps’s historic eight-medal quest could be on primetime American TV, the swimming events in the London Games will see a return to the old pattern.

The heats will be held in the day and the finals in the evening — morning or afternoon in the States depending on where one lives. Yet, there is little doubt that swimming will attract huge TV audiences in America again; recently held trials alone drew record numbers of close to seven million each night, up over 250% from four years ago.

This popularity is not without basis. The USA’s dominance in swimming is absolute — with twice as many medals as the nearest rival nation, Australia — and new stars have emerged to join the old.

Although they will only meet in two races, the battle between Phelps and Ryan Lochte is already breathlessly anticipated. The buzz began at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai when Lochte, hitherto living in his compatriot’s shadow, stunned him in the 200m freestyle and the 200m IM, breaking the world record in the latter. He finished with five golds, one more than Phelps; Lochte was now a direct challenger.

Their rivalry was the number one topic of discussion at the Olympic trials in Omaha. Although neither posted great times, they ran each other awfully close, Phelps winning three of their four duels and Lochte the other.

“To watch some of the things he’s done and receive the defeats he has given me has definitely motivated me, just because I hate to lose,” Phelps said. “He brings every drop that I have out of my system.” The two will go head to head in the 200 and 400 IMs, races likely to be watched as keenly as any other event in London.

Phelps, though, continues to remain the overarching figure. He pulled out of the 200m freestyle despite winning the trials and opted instead to race only in seven events, the burden of chasing Mark Spitz’s record now off his back. Besides the medleys, he will race in two other individual events, the 100 and 200m butterfly; his other three events will be the relays.

The 27-year-old admitted after Beijing that he was losing his drive to compete, and has indicated that 2012 will be his last Games.

But while Phelps is on his way out, another American swimmer looks on the path to stardom.

The 17-year-old Melissa ‘Missy’ Franklin won five medals at the Worlds last year, set a world record in the 200m backstroke (short course), and is now set to participate in seven events (four individual and three relays); she could, commentators are already saying, become her country’s greatest female swimmer.

Traditionally, Australia has been the USA’s closest challenger, but that could change this time.

At the World Championships last July, China hauled in a remarkable 14 medals (5G, 2S, 7B) to climb to second in the table, its best performance at a global swimming event since the Worlds of 1994 (when its 12 golds in Rome were sullied by widespread accusations of doping).

At Shanghai, the 20-year-old Sun Yang emerged as the golden boy of Chinese swimming, erasing Grant Hackett’s 10-year-old world record in the 1500m freestyle.

He comfortably won the 800m and was denied a third gold by South Korea’s Park Tae Hwan in the 400.

Yang is set to become his country’s first male Olympic champion in the sport.

The Chinese women, however, have always done better than their men counterparts. Liu Zige (Olympic champion, 200 butterfly), Jiao Liuyang, Zhao Jing, and Ye Shiwen (world champions, 200 butterfly, 100 backstroke and 200 IM respectively), will all hope to be on the podium in London.

China’s coach Yao Zhengjie, however, has sought to play down expectations, instead targeting four golds. “London will not be like the Shanghai world championships; they are different, not comparable,” he had said last year. “This time, we are at home, and we have everything going for us. In London, we will be facing many difficulties; we must work hard and not be complacent.”

The Australian contingent, meanwhile, will be headlined by the exciting James Magnussen, the country’s first world champion in the men’s 100m. The 20-year-old swam a blistering 47.10 at the Australian trials in March — the year’s fastest time — and has set his sights on breaking Cesar Cielo’s world record of 46.91 (established in a now-outlawed bodysuit).

Magnussen and Australia are also favourites to win the men’s 4x100 relay — one of the Games’ blue-riband events. France and the U.S. have fiercely strong relay teams, and alongside Germany and Italy will also be contenders for the 4x200 freestyle.

Also in London will be other familiar medal candidates: Japan’s breaststroke specialist Kosuke Kitajima; Britain’s Rebecca Adlington, who will be carrying the hopes of the host in the women’s 400 and 800 freestyles; Holland’s Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who, besides individual success in the 50 and 100 freestyles, will also seek to defend her 4x100 relay title; and the American breaststroker Rebecca Soni.

DIVING

At the Beijing Games, China won seven of the eight golds on offer, and at last year’s World Championships in Shanghai, went one better and managed a complete sweep. America’s David Boudia, the home favourite Tom Daley, Australia’s Matt Mitcham (the only non-Chinese winner in Beijing), and the German Sascha Klein will challenge this hegemony in London, but the odds will be on China — led by the 10m platform and synchro world champion Qiu Bo — to reign again.