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September 20, 2000
Pieter the Great rules; Hyman stuns O'NeillThe Rediff Team
Time to bury the cliche about not counting chickens before they are won -- after the first three finals of Wednesday afternoon in the International Acquatic Centre, that old chestnut gets its deserved burial and, from here on in, the line goes: Never count your gold medals before they are swum for.
For the last 24 hours, the media, the fans, the chatsites, the bars, have all been full of Susie O'Neill and Petria Thomas making it a 1-2 for Australia in the women's butterfly sprint, while Michael Klim is tipped to take at least the silver in the Men's 100m.
Susie O'Neill was upstaged by an American no one was even talking about, while Michael Klim, who briefly held the world record over the distance two days ago, came fourth in his event. So much for that mythical animal, the "sure thing."
By way of easing into the high-tension events, the evening kicked off with the Men's 200m Breaststroke final. Not a much-hyped event, if only because neither Australia nor America had any viable contenders here.
Domenico Fioravanti of Italy, who on day two of the Games had taken the 100m breaststroke, came into this event as the fastest of the qualifiers, with compatriot Davide Rummolo in second place. Johan Bernard of France, ranked first in the world, managed a mere fifth place.
Bernard led off, heading the field at the 50m turn, but by the halfway stage of the race, Fioravanti had moved into the lead. Having got it, the Italian kept it for the rest of the distance, touching down in 2:10.87. Terence Parkin of South Africa came in next, at 2:12.50, while Davide Rummolo touched home third in 2:12.73.
By way of keeping the suspense going, the programme was then interrupted with the semifinals of the men's 200m backstroke -- with the pre-race favourite, Lenny Krayzelburg -- the Ukranian now a US citizen -- waltzing through in a new Olympic Record time of 1:57.27.
And that set the stage for the big one -- the women's 200m butterfly. And the expected coronation of Madame Butterfly, Susan O'Neill.
O'Neill had pulled off a blinder the previous evening in the 200m freestyle, and inthe normal course, those exertions would have been expected to have taken a toll. But given the Aussie star's performances in the event, expert opinion was that tired or no, this race was a cakewalk for the local favourite. And that fellow Aussie Petria Thomas would be the one to run her close.
Unnoticed, in lane 6, was the American Misty Hyman. But it was Hyman who surged into the lead, with O'Neill behind her. Thomas then took over, leading the field at the 50m-split, but Hyman took it back again at the 100m mark. And from then on, it was the American all the way, despite a titanic effort by O'Neill to catch her. Building a lead of almost one bodylength, Hyman touched down in an Olympic record time of 2:05.88.
Susie O'Neill had been beaten in the 200m butterfly for the first time in 6 years. To a complete hush in the packed acquatic centre.
O'Neill came in second clocking 2:06.58 while Thomas, who for some time now has played bridesmaid to O'Neill, found herself moving down the social scale a further notch, to take the bronze in 2:07.12.
And then, the Men's 100m Freestyle -- the blue-riband event of the pool, to determine the fastest man in water. Starring the legendary Alexandre Popov, holder of the world record over the event coming in to Sydney. In Atlanta, he had equalled Johnny 'Tarzan' Weismuller's feat of successfully defending the 100m sprint gold. But less than 5 weeks later, he was fighting for his life after being stabbed on a Moscow street.
Emergency operations saved his live, but it was a while before he began racing again. When he was beaten in 1998 over the 50m freestyle in the Perth World Championships, it was his first defeat since 1990. But the legendary Russian came storming back earlier this year, setting a world record in the 50m freestyle. That swim was seen as a signal, that the king was back.
Next to him, his friend and training partner Michael Klim -- the man who broke Popov's record when he was lead swimmer in the men's 100x4 freestyle relay four days ago.
And next to Klim, the sleeper star of the Games thus far -- a man no one was talking about until, in one incredible swim, he upstaged Ian Thorpe in the latter's own home pool, beating the Aussie star to second place in the 200m freestyle. And then, by way of underlining his status of sprint king, became the first human being in history to swim the 100m in under 48 seconds, when he scorched the pool in the semifinal heat to a time of 47:84.
Klim was fastest off the blocks, and in the lead, by a very narrow margin, at the 50m turn -- but Popov and Hoogenband were both easing into the race in their own respective styles. Popov as silken smooth and ghostly as always, barely leaving a ripple to mark his passage through the water, while the Flying Dutchman with his trademark corkscrew style, arms pulling him smoothly through the water.
On the home stretch, it was like Klim was standing still -- first Hoogenband, then Popov, then Gary Hall Jr making an unexpectedly strong showing, overhauled the Aussie.
Popov, gold medallist over the distance in the two previous Olympics, did his damndest to catch Hoogenband -- but if there is one thing the Hoogie-Thorpe showdown the other day showed, it was that in a flat out sprint, you can't catch the Dutchman.
The three finished in the same order, van den Hoogenband touching home with a time of 48:30, Popov taking the silver with 48:69 and Gary Hall, looking rather delighted at the unexpected largesse, taking bronze with 48:73.
A king had been crowned -- while another prepared to pass quietly into the twilight.
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