British prospects hold out promise

OLYMPIC GAMES: Le Jingyi is poised to lead the great haul of China in the swimming pool. Guy Hodgson reports from Atlanta
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The Independent Online
They used to laugh about Le Jingyi when she was young. A scrawny child, her thin frame and oversized head earned her the title "bean sprout". Twelve years on, her body now in proportion, she still operates under a nickname. Now she is known as the "human harpoon".

Le, 21, will possibly win the women's 100 metres swimming freestyle tonight but if the world record holder does not, the gold medal will still almost certainly belong to China as Shan Ying is the obvious alternative. It could be the start of a trend in Atlanta's Olympic pool.

Le spearheads the Chinese challenge - if she fails today she will surely prevail in the 50m freestyle on Friday - that threatens to swamp the women's swimming events. In Barcelona they won four golds; at the 1992 World Championships they took 12 of the 16 titles; a third of the top 25 places in the world rankings are filled by their women.

If Lu Bin and Yang Aihua had not been banned for taking anabolic steroids their dominance would be even more complete.

The Americans are desperate to see an end to the great haul of China. Historically the greatest swimming power, their men and women managed only two individual golds in the last two World Championships. The men will still be confronted by the old Eastern bloc countries but the women could fill any gaps left by the Chinese.

No one more so than Janet Evans, the world record holder in the 400m and 800m freestyle who is tantalisingly close to an unprecedented achievement. The 24-year-old Californian already has four gold medals and another one would equal the record of the speed skater Bonnie Blair as the most successful female American Olympian.

"I think our team will do well," she said, "because no one expects us to win any golds. If we win any it will be more than anticipated. These Games are going to surprise a lot of people."

Evans and Le will personify the themes of old glory and new power but the dominant personality in the pool is likely to be Tom Dolan. An asthma sufferer, he collapsed while practising at the American trials but wheezed and won his way into three events at Atlanta.

"It's not that America is falling," he said of the decelerating rate of medals, "it's that the others have caught up. It's great for the sport, there's nothing better than having a final with swimmers from eight different countries in it."

Britain would love to be among those eight but if you are looking for Olympic omens, the swimming team would prefer to disregard their trip to and arrival in Atlanta. It could be described as a shambles, except no one rated it that highly.

A burst tyre on their plane meant a four-hour delay for the flight from Tallahassee to the venue for the centennial Games and when they completed their trip the waiting was not over.

Getting accredited for Atlanta 96 can feel like a journey into deep space: you start as a boy and finish as a man. That is on a good day and Monday was not in that category as more people arrived at Harstfield Airport - 8,000 - than any other day. The team had to stand around for a further three hours.

As portents went it was not encouraging although there is reason to believe Britain will perform beyond the puny haul of just Nick Gillingham's bronze from Barcelona. There are a dozen swimmers who have times in the world's top 10 for 1996 and they all have chances of reaching finals.

Karen Pickering, who competes in the 100m freestyle today, has an outside chance of a medal in that and her other event, the 200m, while Sarah Hardcastle says she would not have returned to swimming after a six-year absence if she did not believe herself capable of getting at least a bronze. She swims in three events but her strongest is the 800m freestyle next Thursday.

It is the men who hold out most hope, however, particularly Gillingham who won a silver in Seoul and a bronze in Barcelona. At 28 his best time of 2min 11.29sec for the 200m breaststroke is four years behind him, but his event has gone backwards since and the world record holder, the American Mike Barrowman, has retired. He might just get a gold.

Just behind him is Graeme Smith who recorded the fastest time of the year for the 1500m freestyle with 15:03.43 during the trials at Sheffield. He was eighth in the World Championships in 1994 when, at 18, he was still growing. Two years on he has filled out, got faster and, taking 12 months away from his studies at Manchester University, has a real chance.

Also in with a chance is Paul Palmer who is swimming in three races, the 200m freestyle today, the 400m and the 1500m. The middle event looks his best and he might come away with a medal.

Add the slimmer mights and maybes of Mark Foster and Adam Ruckwood and British prospects are promising. After Barcelona, three medals of any variety would represent a fantastic result.

GREAT BRITAIN OLYMPIC SWIMMING TEAM: Men: 50m freestyle: M Foster. 100m freestyle: N Shackell. 200m freestyle: A Clayton, P Palmer. 400m freestyle: Palmer. 1500m freestyle: G Smith, Palmer. 100m backstroke: N Willey, M Harris. 200m backstroke: A Ruckwood, Harris. 100m breaststroke: R Maden. 200m breaststroke: N Gillingham. 100m butterfly: J Hickman. 200m butterfly: Hickman. Relays: M Fibbens, A Rapley, J Salter, M Stevens. Women: 50m freestyle: S Rolph. 100m freestyle: K Pickering, Rolph. 200m freestyle: Pickering. 400m freestyle: S Hardcastle. 800m freestyle: Hardcastle. 100m backstroke: H Slatter. 200m backstroke: J Deakins. 100m breaststroke: J King. 200m breaststroke: M Hardiman. 100m butterfly: C Foot. 200m individual medley: Rolph. 400m individual medley: Hardcastle. Relays: J Belton, V Horner, C Huddart, A Sheppard, C Willmott.