Two-time 100 metres freestyle Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband retired from international swimming on Thursday after failing in his quest to win a third straight 100 freestyle gold medal in Beijing.
The 30-year-old Dutchman said it is time to hang up his goggles after he finished a credible fifth in the final behind Frenchman Alain Bernard, conceding defeat to a younger generation of sprinters vying.
"That was my last race," he said. "It's a new generation and now it's time to step aside."
Van den Hoogenband made his first Olympic final at Atlanta in 1996 when he was a teenager but the highlight of his career was at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when he won the 100 and 200 freestyle double, beating Ian Thorpe in the longer race, and setting world records for both.
He joined Duke Kahanamoku, Johnny Weissmuller and Alexander Popov as the only men to defend the Olympic 100 title when he won at Athens four years ago but finished second behind Thorpe in the 200 final in what was billed as the "race of the century".
Although he did not win the gold van den Hoogenband did at least manage to finish in front of Michael Phelps in a rare Olympic defeat for the American.
"I think he has been a tremendous sportsman and I respect him very much," said Phelps's coach Bob Bowman.
"I know Michael does too. Everyone loved watching him race."
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The odds were already stacked against van den Hoogenband winning gold in Beijing but his chances began to fade earlier this year when a new crop of swimmers stared attacking the world record of 47.84 he set in Sydney eight years ago.
Bernard set a new mark of 47.60 then lowered it to 47.50 a day later at the European championships before Australia's Eamon Sullivan dropped it to 47.24 during the relay at Beijing.
Bernard regained the record when he went 47.20 in the semi-finals but Sullivan snatched it back when he went 47.05, making van den Hoogenband's old mark seem almost pedestrian.
Despite being unable to keep up with the new guns and missing a place in the podium, van den Hoogenband was still able to go out in style, breaking 48 seconds three times in Beijing and recording a lifetime best of 47.68 in the semi-finals.
"For me personally it's a big achievement," he said.
"It's been a very long time, my fourth Olympics, my fourth 100 freestyle final...but I've swum my last race."
Despite winning three Olympic gold medals and a host of European titles, van den Hoogenband never won a world title but said he always wanted to save his best for the Olympics.
"The Olympics is very special to me. When I was 10 years old, watching Matt Biondi in Seoul, I was inspired and wanted to take part in the Olympics," he said.
"As a kid, winning the gold is a dream, and I did win the gold and I won it again in Athens. I thought...maybe it's possible to make history and try for a third, but no.