Spaniards keep their word

IN Fukuoka, Japan, while making their bid two years ago, the Spaniards had promised that Barcelona would be unbelievable, ``Sera Incredible.'' And indeed, as the 10th World swimming championships came to a close on July 25 there was not a single dissenting voice when it was openly acknowledged that Barcelona 2003 was an overwhelming success and that the Spaniards had kept their word.

But then, as much as swimmers like Michael Phelps, Alexander Popov, Ian Thorpe and Hannah Stockbauer, who virtually set the pool on fire, it is a truth that the success of the fortnight-long event was shaped in equal measure by the Open water swimmers, the divers, the synchro specialists and the waterpolo players, who with the Russians in the lead, cornered all the attention during the first phase of the competition.

And like it occurred in the high-profile swimming competitions, these events too did bring about some outstanding efforts and a great deal of upsets, though the likes of Yuri Kudinov (Russia) and Viola Valli (Italy) emerged unscathed to continue with their own saga of being undisputed champions in their chosen discipline. This even as the entire world was left shocked by the rare defeat suffered by the peerless Dimitry Sautin at the hands of his training partner and understudy Alexander Dobrosok in the 3m springboard, an event in which the Russian legend was gunning for his third straight world title.

In the Open water swimming events, which FINA now wants to be included into the Olympic agenda by 2012, Kudinov won a fourth successive gold in the gruelling 25km race after being challenged closely by two of his immediate rivals, David Meca (Spain) and Peter Stoichov (Bulgaria). In fact, it was Meca and Stoichov who had led the field for most part of the marathon before the Russian outsprinted the two from 800m out to the finish. And in the end it did not matter much for Kudinov that only fourth-hundredths of a second separated him from the second-placed Meca (5:20.20.4) simply because the gold was his.

Kudinov's hard-fought win, by the way, was also to ensure a Russian clean sweep in the men's section (and the overall team title) as his compatriots, Eugeniy Kashkarov and Vladimir Diattchine, had earlier pocketed the 5km and 10km golds respectively. In the 5km race, Kashkarov, the winner of the 10km gold two years ago, also went for the title only towards the end being content to remain behind the earlier leader Marco Formentini (Italy) for most part of the competition. The Italian who had looked quite strong even with less than a kilometre remaining, however, failed to find a place in the podium as he was eventually overtaken by Kashkarov, Germany's Christian Hein and Diattchine in that order.

Kashkarov, 21, was timed at 53:11.9, exactly two seconds faster than Hein, as he took the gold while Diattchine garnered the bronze at 53:14.8. The bronze as it were was an added bonus to Diattchine who three days later had little difficulty in landing the 10km title. American Dan DeMarco was the early leader of this race enjoying a 10-second lead over the rest of the pack near the 5km-mark. Then, with still 2.5km remaining, it was the turn of Australians Mark Saliba and Grant Cleland to race ahead before Diattchine timed his move well and sprinted to finish ahead of Hein and Meca in 1:50.58.8.

In the women's section, Viola Valli brooked little opposition from her rivals as she once again finished with two golds. In Fukuoka, the Italian had won the 5km and 25km titles but this time around she took part only in the two shorter races thus leaving the 25km race wide open. In the 5km race, Valli preferred to attack the rest of the field only during the latter half of the event but this still was enough to win her gold in 57:01.2 ahead of Czech Republic's Jana Pechanova (57:03.9) and Germany's Britta Kamrau (57:06.4).

The 31-year-old hailing from Varese, a town north of Milan, thereafter left nothing to chance in the 10km race, which she led almost right from the start to finish. It was indeed an amazing show of endurance and stamina as the Italian came through to finish the race in 1:59.49.9, a good two seconds ahead of her German friend Angela Maurer and Edith van Dijk (Holland), who had finished only a poor eighth in the 5km race.

The Dutch woman, in the absence of Valli, however was able to finally land herself at the top of the podium later in the week as she took the 25km away from her German rivals, Kamrau and Maurer. Edith, a regular participant in the international arena since 1998, took her first major title as she led the gruelling race almost throughout and eventually stopped the clock at 5:35.43.5 even as Kamrau came through to pip Maurer close towards the finish.

The Chinese, though having missed the second-half of the hectic season following the outbreak of SARS, still proved their prowess in the diving events, winning four out of the ten golds at stake. The Asian behemoth's successful campaign was marked by a 1-2 finish by Xu Xiang and Wang Kenan in the men's 1m springboard and the women's 3m springboard gold collected by Guo Jingjing, the latter also retaining the 3m synchro gold in the company of Wu Mingxia. Besides these, the other gold which came China's way was through the 10m synchro pair of Lishi Lao and Li Ting who showed irrepressible form while demolishing the challenge from the Aussie pair of Loudy Tourky and Lynda Dackiw and the Russian combine of Evgenya Olshevskaya and Svetlana Timoshinina.

Still, the Chinese could have done better had they been able to stop two Canadians — Alexander Despatie and Emilie Heymans — from springing a surprise on the rest of the world in the men's and women's 10m platform events respectively. The other notable winner of the diving events was Russian-born Irina Laskho who helped her adopted country, Australia, to the gold in the women's 1m springboard much to the delight of the huge Aussie contingent which had earlier been treated to an equally impressive winning effort by the men's 10m synchro pair of Mathew Helm and Robert Newbery.

Sautin's surprise defeat at the hands of Dobrosok in the men's 3m springboard was undoubtedly the talking point during the diving competitions especially as it came after the senior Russian had all along been well on course to an emphatic victory. The duo had earlier helped Russia to an effortless win in the 3m synchro event and Sautin had looked confident as he eased into the final of the individual final ahead of the rest. However, the final belonged to Dobrosok, though he had been placed only fifth at the end of the semi-final stage.

Due to a back injury Sautin was forced to change one of his combinations from 3.5 reverse to a 2.5 reverse pike losing 0.5 in degree of difficulty from his final programme. This and a poor second dive, eventually, was to prove his Achilles' heel even though Sautin did earn 13 out of the total 33, 10s, that were awarded through the whole of the final round. Dobrosok yearning for a chance to defeat his mentor took control at the end of the fourth round and never looked back before he finally achieved a dream win over Sautin. Bo Peng of China added salt to the senior Russian's wounds by sneaking in to take the silver behind Dobrosok.

The Russian upsurge was also visible in the synchro swimming events which even otherwise drew a lot of attention due to the introduction of the free routine combination into the programme of the World championships for the first time. It was indeed a historical occasion and there was plenty to cheer as Japan, (without Miya Tachibana and Miho Takeda) coming up with a spectacular show marked by the execution of several aerial figures, drew a remarkable six 9.9s and easily carried away the gold. The United States and Spain were jointly placed second after the Americans used the "West Side Story'' theme to create favourable impressions and the Spaniards stirred the emotions of the home crowd with an electrifying show based on the immortal "Barcelona'' of Freddy Mercury and Monsterrat Caballe.

With such an excellent mood thus set for the traditional solo, duet and team events, the competitions thereafter created a special atmosphere of joy and complicity especially to Virginie Dedieu who took the solo gold with a classy performance. The French woman had for quite some time been waiting for this gold medal having been overcome by Russians Olga Sedakova in Perth (1998) and Olga Brusnikina in Fukuoka (2001). And as such this was a decisive opportunity to get the missing gold, the accomplishment of a lifetime.

Virginie, thankfully, did not let go such an opportunity as she displayed a programme based on the famous French sculptor Camile Claudel, which was rich in emotion and showed a very high artistic sense. It was an overwhelming presentation and her intention to show the judges something different also paid off when she collected three 10s and two 9.9s for technical merit and a perfect five 10s for artistic impression. The natural candidates to fill up the two vacancies on the podium were Miya Tachibana (Japan) and Anastasia Ermakova (Russia). While Ermakova finally won the silver, a Spanish surprise called Gemma Mengual was to create an upset as she stole the bronze from the Japanese, who had finished third at home in Fukuoka.

It was Russia on one side and the rest of the world on the other, during the remaining two events — duet and team. In duet, it was Anastasia Ermakova and Anastasia Davydova who were the runaway winners displaying a technical perfect programme and collecting an impressive tally of 99.084 points. The pair was followed by the reigning champions Miya Tachibana and Miho Takeda as they strode past the Spanish pair of Gemma Mengual and Paola Tirados, who understandably had been favoured by the home factor.

Russia continued its impressive domination over the team title as Olga Brusnikina, Maria Kisseleva, Anastasia Ermakova and Anastasia Davydova hardly gave any chance to the rest of the field. The Russian final programme was a summit in terms of artistic impression and unique in terms of synchronisation and precision. Japan followed Russia (99.500) with a tally of 98.333 while the United States (97.500) was third with a routine that stood out for its correctness.

In waterpolo, Hungary edged past two-time champion Italy to take the men's title after a gap of 30 years, while it was the United States which took home the women's gold. The men's final was a close affair as it went to extra-time with both Hungary and Italy tied at 8-all.

But the gold was finally sealed by the Hungarians (who had won the title in Belgrade during the inaugural World championships) by two quick golds in the extra period through Peter Biros though the Italians had been quick to equalise initially. Serbia and Montenegro claimed the bronze with a hard-fought 5-3 win over Greece in the losers' final.

The Italians were in for another reverse as they lost the women's final to the United States 8-6; the Americans being led to the gold by the scoring prowess of Ericka Lorenz and Ellen Estes. The Russians, who were pleasing all-week with dominant performances in the Open water swimming and synchro events, were the winner of the bronze with a 9-7 win over Canada in the losers' final. The immediate goal for the Russians should be to distract the world from the usual pool rivalry between the Americans and the Australians at the next year's Athens Olympics. That could happen if they repeat their brilliant show in Barcelona, which anyway was both an exhilarating and educative experience.

The results: Open water swimming:

Men: 5km: 1. Eugeniy Kashkarov (Rus), 53:11.9, 2. Christain Hein (Ger), 53:13.9, 3. Vladimir Diattchine (Rus), 53:14.8. 10km: 1. Vladimir Diattchine (Rus), 1:59.49.9, 2. Christian Hein (Ger), 1:59.51.1, 3. David Meca (Esp), 1:59.53.0. 25km: 1. Yuri Kudinov (Rus), 5:02.20.0, 2. David Meca (Esp), 5:02.20.4, 3. Petar Stoichov (Bul), 5:02.20.6.

Women: 5km: 1. Viola Valli (Ita), 57:01.2, 2. Jana Pechanova (Cze), 57:03.9, 3. Britta Kamrau (Ger), 57:06.4. 10km: 1. Viola Valli (Ita), 1:59.49.9, 2. Angela Mauer (Ger), 1:59.51.1, 3. Edith van Dijk (Hol), 1:59.53.0. 25km: 1. Edith van Dijk (Hol), 5:35.43.5, 2. Britta Kamrau (Ger), 5:35.46.1, 3. Angela Mauer (Ger), 5:35.46.5.

Diving: Men: 1m springboard: 1. Xu Xiang (Chn), 431.94 points, 2. Wang Kenan (Chn), 412.41, 3. Joona Puhakka (Fin), 391.26. 3m springboard: 1. Alexander Dobrosok (Rus), 788.37, 2. Bo Peng (Chn), 780.84, 3. Dimitry Sautin (Rus), 776.64. 10m platform: 1. Alexandre Despatie (Can), 716.91, 2. Mathew Helm (Aus), 697.74, 3. Liang Tian (Chn), 696.05.

Women: 1m springboard: 1. Irina Lashko (Aus), 299.97, 2. Conny Schmalfuss (Ger), 296.13, 3. Blythe Hartley (Can), 291.33. 3m springboard: 1. Guo Jingjing (Chn), 617.94, 2. Julia Pakhalina (Rus), 611.58, 3. Wu Mingxia (Chn), 589.60. 10m platform: 1. Emilie Heymans (Can), 597.45, 2. Lishi Lao (Chn), 595.56, 3. Li Na (Chn), 563.43.

Synchro diving: Men: 3m: 1. Alexander Dobrosok/Dimitry Sautin (Rus), 369.18, 2. Wang Tianling/Wang Feng (Chn), 343.29, 3. Andreas Wels/Tobias Schellenberg (Ger), 334.44. 10m: 1. Mathew Helm/Robert Newbery (Aus), 384.60, 2. Roman Volodkov/Anton Zakharov (Ukr), 372.60, 3. Liang Tian/Hu Jia (Chn), 367.14.

Women: 3m: 1. Wu Mingxia/Guo Jingjing (Chn), 357.30, 2. Julia Pakhalia/Vera Ilyina (Rus), 321.24, 3. Paola Espinosa/Laura Sanchez (Mex), 299.64. 10m: 1. Lishi Lao/Li Ting (Chn), 344.58, 2. Loudy Tourky/Lynda Dackiw (Aus), 323.34, 3. Evgenya Olshevskaya/Svetlana Timoshinina (Rus), 300.12.

Synchro swimming: Solo: 1. Virginie Dedieu (Fra), 99.251, 2. Anastasia Ermakova (Rus), 97.417, 3. Gemma Mengual (Esp), 97.334. Duet: 1. Anastasia Davydova/Anastasia Ermakova (Rus), 99.084, 2. Miya Tachibana/Miho Takeda (Jpn), 98.084, 3. Gemma Mengual/Paola Triados (Esp), 96.667. Free Routine Combination: 1. Japan, 98.500, 2. United States & Spain, 97.333. Team: 1. Russia, 98.500, 2. Japan 98.333, 3. United States, 97.500.

Waterpolo: Men (final): Hungary 11 (Peter Biros 3, Norbert Madaras 3, Gergely Kiss 2, Tamas Moinar, Tamas Kasas, Barnabas Steinmetz) bt Italy 9 (Goran Fiorentini 4, Francesco Postiglione 2, Bogdan Rath 2, Carlo Silipo). Losers' final: Serbia and Montenegro 5 (Danilo Ikodinovic 2, Vladimir Vujasinovic, Predrag Jokic, Vanja Udovicic) bt Greece 3 (Theodoros Chatzitheodorou, Ioannis Thomakos, Antonios Vlontakis).

Women (final): United States 8 (Ericka Lorenz 4, Ellen Estes 3, Robin Beauregard) bt Italy 6 (Martina Miceli 3, Giusy Malato 2, Melania Greco 1). Losers' final: Russia 9 (Olga Turova 2, Svetlana Bogdanova 2, Ekaterina Salimova 2, Sofia Konoukh, Elena Smurova, Natalia Shepelina) bt Canada 7 (Valerie Dionne 3, Jana Salat, Marie-Luc Arpin, Cora Lee Campbell, Susan Gardiner).