Interesting duel on the cards

OLYMPIC swimming has come a long way since 1896. In fact, the history of the sport is laced with many interesting incidents that throw light on the struggle of the swimmers.

A. Vinod

In the backstroke, American Aaron Peirsol, the World No. 1 in 100m and 200m is a strong contender for the gold. — Pic. AP-

OLYMPIC swimming has come a long way since 1896. In fact, the history of the sport is laced with many interesting incidents that throw light on the struggle of the swimmers. Hungarian Alfred Hajos, the winner of the 1200m freestyle at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, said after he emerged from the icy waters: "My will to live completely overcame my desire to win."

The 2000 Sydney Olympics was known for the rivalry between the U. S. and Australia. Michael Klim of Australia — after upset win over the United States in the 400m freestyle relay in the first night of the competition — strummed an imaginary guitar. This act was in reference to Gary Hall Jr. who told the media, prior to the start of the race, that the Americans were going to "smash the Australians like a guitar." The United States has had some interesting rivalry with Australia over the last half century, and this will continue this time as well.

But as the Games return to the Greek capital, Athens, the focus will be on Ian Thorpe — the Aussie sensation who revelled in the Sydney Games, four years ago, with three gold medals — and the American phenom, Michael Phelps. The American swimmer will be eager to surpass Mark Spitz's record of seven golds won at single Games, in Munich 1972. Only gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin of Russia has won eight medals in a single Games so far, pocketing three golds, four silvers and a bronze in the 1980 Moscow Games.

Hectic schedule for Phelps

In Athens, the 19-year-old Phelps is expected to take the plunge into the Olympic pool at least 20 times over a period of eight days. He is competing in the 200m and 400m individual medley, 100m and 200m butterfly, 200m freestyle besides the three relays. The American is the favourite to win the two individual medleys and the longer distance in butterfly. He holds world records in these events. But will Phelps find a place in U.S 4 x 100m freestyle relay squad?

In the 200m freestyle for instance, Phelps is expected to face top swimmers like Australians Thorpe (the world-record holder), Grant Hackett and the defending champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of Holland. And in the 100m butterfly, Phelps faces compatriot and world-record holder Ian Crocker, who beat him at the 2003 World championships in Barcelona and again at the recent U.S. trials.

While Phelps's all-round ability should help him gain a place in the 800m freestyle and 400m medley relay squads, his non-participation in the 100m free at the U.S. trials could well deny him a spot in the 400m freestyle relay quartet as the Americans would be keyed up for a revenge against the Aussies.

Thorpe will also be gunning for his share of golds in Athens. Besides the 200m freestyle, the Aussie will also be figuring in the 100m freestyle alongside the in-form Hoogenband and the old warhorse Alexander Popov. He will be defending his 400m free as well, thanks to the noble gesture of Craig Stevens who gave his spot to Ian Thorpe. Apart from these three events, Thorpe is also certain to take part in all the three relays in an attempt to improve his overall medal haul.

Fourth Games

Popov, the Russian star, who won back-to-back sprint doubles in 1992 and 1996, will take part in his fourth Games. He will compete against Thorpe, Hoogenband and the American hope of Jason Lezak in the 100m and Lezak, Gary Hall Jr. and South African Roland Schoeman in the 50m free. Hall has the world's leading time — 21.91 achieved at the recent U.S. trials — in 2004. In the other freestyle event — 1500m — it should be a one-horse race as the world record holder since 2001, Grant Hackett, is tough to beat.

Inge de Bruijn on the podium after winning the 50m freestyle gold in the Sydney Olympics. The Netherlands swimmer is the hot favourite this time as well. — Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

In the backstroke, American Aaron Peirsol, the World No. 1 in both the 100m and 200m, will be matching wits with Australian Matt Welsh (in the 100m) and compatriot Lenny Krayzelburg, the winner of both the events in Sydney. The two world records established by Brendan Hansen (59.30 in the 100m and 2:09.04 in the 200m) at the U.S. trials should place the American as the favourite for both the breaststroke golds at stake, but it wouldn't be that easy for Hansen against Japanese Kosuke Kitajima, the old record-holder in both the events.

Also not to be overlooked completely in these events are Darren Mew (Great Britain) and Jim Piper (Australia), both competitors with proven record.

It may not be easy for the U. S.

The competition in the women's section is likely to see quite a few quality battles this time around, compared to the easy run for the Americans four years ago. Freestyle events, especially the 100m, will be keenly contested as the Dutch star Inge de Bruijn is in peak form in recent months. She will give her American and Australian rivals a run for their money. In fact, this race can turn out to be one of the heavy-weight races of the Games. Bruijn in her attempt to defend her Sydney gold will face a strong field including of Jenny Thompson of America (already a winner of eight Olympic golds but still chasing that elusive individual medal) and Natalie Coughlin, the Australian duo of Lisbeth `Libby' Lenton (the current world-record holder) and Jodie Henry and world champion Hanna-Maria Seppala of Finland among others.

Melanie Marshall (Great Britain) should be fancying her chances in the 200m, ahead of Otylia Jedrzejczak (Poland) and Franziska van Almsick (Germany). Camelia Potec (Romania) who leads the world's best time of 4:07.60 in the 400m will vie with Japan's Sachiko Yamada and Jedrzejczak. And in the 800m, it could well be Yamada. Her main rivals are the Americans Diana Munz and Kalyn Keller.

In the backstroke events, the 100m gold should go to Natalie Coughlin, who to date remains the only female swimmer to go over the distance in less than a minute, while in the American's absence in the 200m, it could well turn out to be a toss up between Reiko Nakamura of Japan and Russian Stanislava Komarova. Petria Thomas of Australia, given her dominant performances over the last couple of years, is likely to emerge with a golden double in the fly events. Yana Klochkova of Ukraine, though down in the current world rankings, would love to retain her grip over the two individual medley golds that she won in Sydney.

The two breaststroke events, 100m and 200m, on the other hand, are likely to be close affairs. Amanda Beard, who broke the 200m world record in the U. S. trials, Leisel Jones (Australia) and Hui Qi (China) will be matching wits.