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September 20, 2000
Popov faces the Hoogie bogieJulian Linden
Alexander Popov's dream of becoming the first male swimmer to win the 100 metres freestyle at three Olympics is suddenly looking a little nightmarish.
Two top rivals broke his six-year-old world record in the lead-up to Wednesday's final, setting the scene for one of the most eagerly awaited races in the sport's history.
Popov won the 50 metres and 100 metres freestyle double at both the 1992 and 1996 Atlanta Olympics and was the early favourite for Sydney until Michael Klim and Pieter Van den Hoogenband raised the bar to new heights at the Games.
Klim shaved 0.03 seconds off Popov's world record of 48.21 as the lead-off swimmer in Saturday's 4x100 relay only for 22-year-old Van den Hoogenband to hack another 0.34 off the new mark in Tuesday's second semifinal to set a new standard of 47.84.
"It's amazing, even I can't fathom how fast that is," said Van den Hoogenband, who is striving for his second gold of the Games after beating Ian Thorpe in Monday's 200 final. "I just hope I can swim a little faster in the final."
Klim qualified second fastest after winning the first semifinal in 48.80 but said he had been conserving his energy for Tuesday night's 4x200 relay. Australia won that event to give Klim his second gold in Sydney.
Popov was third quickest with 48.84. He said he was not concerned at losing his world record but admitted he would have a hard time catching the flying Dutchman. "It's interesting, but hard," the Russian said.
Gary Hall Jnr of the United States was sixth. He was dismissive of his own chances but predicted Wednesday's final would be the race of the new millennium.
"I don't know if anyone can catch (Van den Hoogenband) but anything can happen in an Olympic final. If you get a ticket, you should be there."
Susan O'Neill's prospects of becoming the first swimmer, male or female, to successfully defend a butterfly title was looking as bright as ever after she qualified fastest for Wednesday's final.
O'Neill, 27, has not been beaten in the event since finishing third behind two Chinese at the 1994 world championships in Rome and holds the world record after breaking Mary T. Meagher's 18-year-old mark at the Australian trials in May.
Incredibly, she still managed to clock the fastest qualifying time of 2:07.57 in Tuesday's semifinals despite having to swim less than hour after she had won the 200 freestyle gold.
"I still felt pretty good after the 200 free although I'm a bit tired now," O'Neill said.
O'Neill's teammate Petria Thomas, who finished second in Atlanta, was second fastest overall with 2:07.63 with American Misty Hyman third in 2:07.81. Both O'Neill and Thomas will also compete in Wednesday's 4x200 freestyle relay, the fourth final of the night.
"It's going to be a great race," Hyman said. "It's really an honour to race Susie and Petria because they're such great flyers."
Italy's hopes of a second gold medal in the pool were looking strong after Domenico Fioravanti topped the qualifiers for the men's 200 breaststroke.
Fioravanti, who became Italy's first Olympic swimming champion following his earlier victory in the 100 breaststroke, stopped the clock at 2:12.37 with his teammate Davide Rummolo second fastest in 2:13.23.
"Hopefully I can get some sleep... but I'll just go out there do my best," Fioravanti said.
A total of 18 gold medals will be up for grabs at the Games on Wednesday.
Apart from the four swimming events, there will be golds in the women's 50-metre rifle, men's double trap, men's canoeing doubles, women's weightlifting 75 kg, men's individual archery, men's kayak singles, men's individual foil, women's cycling sprint, men's cycling sprint, men's weightlifting 69 kg, men's cycling points race, women's judo 70kg, men's judo 90 kg and men's gymnastics individual allround.
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