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September 18, 2000

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Thorpe beaten in 200m final

The Rediff Team

It was billed as the race that would stop a nation.

As it turned out, it was the race that stopped a nation talking.

Ever since Pieter van den Hoogenband of The Netherlands broke Thorpe's world record with a stunning swim in the semis last evening, the media has been speculating that Thorpe would break it right back. He tried, but failed by 0.02 seconds, in his own semifinal heat.

And then, Ian Thorpe said something very prophetic: "It will take a world record to win this one," the 17-year-old said last night.

 Pieter van den HoogenbandHe was right -- a stunningly fast final produced -- or more accurately, equalled -- a world record. Only, it was Hoogenband who, refusing to be cowed down either by Thorpe's awesome reputation, or by a massive crowd in the Sydney Acquatic Stadium singing Thorpe's name like a kind of hyper Gregorian chant, blasted through the water to equal the mark he had set exactly 24 hours earlier.

For the race, the lineup read Grant Hackett in lane one, Rick Say of Canada in two, Massimiliano Rosoloni of Italy in three, Thorpe in four, Hoogenband in five, Josh Davis of America in six, James Salter and Paul Palmer of Britain in seven and eight respectively.

Off the blocks, it was Thorpe and Hoogenband neck to neck. But by the 100m mark, it seemed clear that unless the crowd favourite pulled off something remarkable, the Flying Dutchman could end up upstaging him in his own home pool. Hoogenband, at the halfway mark, was fractionally ahead at 50.85, with Thorpe 0.05 seconds behind at 50.90.

Thorpe put all he had into the second half of the raise and at the 150m, a titanic finish was on the cards with both swimmers locked on 1.18.21. Few races have ever been closer.

Pieter van den Hoogenband (L) and Ian Thorpe look at the clock after the men's 200m freestyle final. REUTERS/Mark Baker But over the final 50, where according to the pundits, Thorpe's superior reach and the push he would get from his flipper-feet was likely to make the difference, it was Hoogenband who produced the stunning burst, powering away to touch down in 1:45.35.

Thorpe managed 1:45.83 -- 0.48 seconds outside the new world record holder, and Olympic champion.

The Thorpedo had misfired.

Australia got the silver where it had looked a cert for gold. A tangential result is that this comes as a blow to Australian hopes of a gold haul in the pool today. Rosolino got the bronze with 1:46.65, while Hackett, of the host country, placed last in 1:49.46.

Perhaps the pundits should have seen this coming -- Hoogenband has been the dangerman in international swimming, over the distance, ever since the 1999 European Championships in Istanbul, when he burst into the spotlight with six gold medals: the 50-meter, 100-meter and 200-meter freestlyes; the 4x100-meter freestyle relay; the 4x100-meter medley relay; and the 50-meter butterfly, a non-Olympic event.

Van den Hoogenband was denied an unprecedented seventh European crown when the Dutch 4x200-meter freestyle relay team, having won the final by over five seconds, was disqualified because of a false start. Instead, he joined Germans Michael Gross (1985) and Franziska van Almsick (1993) as the only swimmers to earn six titles at a single European Championships.

But the race that was to establish his giant-killing reputation was yet to be swum. They came in the 1999 European Championships, where he went up against Alexander Popov of Russia.

In his eight-year international career, Popov had never lost a major 100-meter race until Istanbul, where he touched home 0.35 seconds behind van den Hoogenband. Popov's time of 48.82 was his best in two years, and quicker than all but one of his major wins (he went 48.74 at the 1996 Olympics). Yet, Hoogenband beat him handily, swimming a 48.47 that was the third-fastest 100 in history, behind only Popovís world record (48.21) and Matt Biondi's American record (48.42). Also in Istanbul, van den Hoogenband dealt Popov his second-ever defeat in a major 50-meter freestyle final.

By inclination, he is a giant-killer, unfazed by reputations, undaunted by accomplishments, uncaring of hype. Today, he reiterated that reputation, felling the biggest giant in international swimming.

Earlier in the women's 100m backstroke final which kicked off the afternoon's proceedings, Diana Mocanu of Romania, fastest qualifier in the heats, powered home in a start to finish performance, touching down in 1:00.21 -- an Olympic record.

Mai Nakamura of Japan came in second, with 1:00.55 while Spain's Nina Zhivanevskaya took the bronze with 1:00.89. Australia;s swimming hope, Diana Calub, managed only seventh in 1:01.61.

The previous Olympic record, of 1:00.68, was set in Barcelona by Hungarian Krisztina Egerszegi. The world record, 1:00.16, stands in the name of Cihong He of China, and was set in 1994.

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