Swimming: Phelps lives up to the hype and promises more

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The pool at the Palau Sant Jordi may be temporary, but the impact of the 18-year-old American Michael Phelps is guaranteed to leave a permanent mark on the sport.

The teenage sensation arrived at these championships with one world title to his name, and a whirlwind of hype from across the pond proclaiming him as the man who will take over from Australian Ian Thorpe as the world's greatest swimmer. As first Thorpe and then Alex Popov stole the headlines early in the week, the world waited patiently for Phelps to deliver. And when he did, he left a world aghast at his systematic destruction of one world record after another.

His statistics stand at four world records and two golds, with two more individual events and one relay still to swim. The hysteria on poolside hit fever pitch on Friday night when Phelps created history by becoming the first man ever to set two world records in two different events on the same day.

Not just the same day, though: the American did it in the space of 50 minutes. And in the second of those swims, the 200 metres individual medley, he made Thorpe look second-rate as he lopped a staggering one-and-a half seconds off his own record.

The question stirring the interest of a global marketplace is whether Thorpe or Phelps can win seven gold medals at the Athens Olympics next year. Mark Spitz achieved it in 1972, and it has stood as the ultimate achievement in the sport.

It is unlikely that Thorpe will be able to do it, but there is buzz around the poolside that Phelps just might. The man from Baltimore will be favourite for four individual titles, and the question will be whether the American relay teams have the strength and depth to win him three relay golds.

If they do, the name of Michael Phelps will echo through the swimming world for the next 50 years. But the fact is, in footballing terms, if Phelps is Zidane, it is Thorpe, with his multi-million-dollar contracts and film and fashion premiers with the stars, who still stirs the interest of a Beckham.

Today will mark the final day of competition, and British hopes rest with a quartet of swimmers, two of whom won medals in Japan two years ago. Graeme Smith won silver in the 1500m in Fukuoka and is second fastest into today's final.

The Scot is joined by Welshman David Davies, who swam a controlled heat to qualify in fourth place. Smith was disappointed to finish fourth in the 800m earlier in the week, and both Britons will have to swim under 15 minutes to win a medal. Only 12 men in history have ever done it.

Zoë Baker won bronze two years ago and came to Barcelona as the world record-holder in the 50m breaststroke. Baker will hope to join James Gibson as world champion in this event, and to create history by becoming the first women's world champion from Britain. The problem for both is that the 50m breaststroke is not an Olympic event, and they will have to step up to the 100m if they are to be as successful next year.

Baker is a sprint specialist, but with his bronze in the 100m, Gibson has already made the adjustment that, with another year's work, may take him to the rostrum in Athens.

He knows that he will have to break the minute mark to do so, and also knows that only two men have done that. With Ian Edmond's silver medal in the 200m, it is the breaststrokers who will again carry British hopes into an Olympics, to continue a long tradition of success in the stroke which has delivered four Olympic gold medals.

The Scot Alison Sheppard also has her sights set on the medal rostrum in the 50m freestyle, where she will renew rivalry with Inge de Bruin.

Britain started last night's finals with four medals, and came to Barcelona with the intention of surpassing the seven the team brought back from Fukuoka two years ago. As most of the medallists in Athens 2004 will come from the medal winners here, it is essential for Britain that they do better than the last tally.

The Brit awards: Three who shook the world

James Gibson (breaststroke)

Just the two medals then, James? A bronze in the 100m, where he tugged the field along at world-record pace before fading inside the last 15m in the stroke's fastest two-lapper ever swum, was followed by a gold in the 50m. Yes, gold, Britain's first since 1975, five years before Gibbo was a wink in dad's eye. Gibson is aware 50m is not an Olympic race; expect him to double all efforts into 100m domination.

Ian Edmond (breaststroke)

The pools are alive with British breaststrokers. Gibson and Darren Mew are the sprinters, Edmond is the benchmark in the 200m. On the night only Kosuke Kitajima was able to beat this 25-year-old, but his 2:10.69 lowered Nick Gillingham's 11-year-old British record. This puts the Scot in with a shout in Athens. The omens are good: Britain's three gold medallists since the war have been breaststrokers.

Katy Sexton (backstroke)

Guess the word the 21-year-old Portsmouth lass used to describe silver in the 100m. "Disappointing." Which is an example of the standards she sets herself. Swimming far too conservatively, only picking up her stroke late to tie for second behind Antjie Büschschulte. But there were no such mistakes in the 200m, where she added a shiny gold to her collection. That's our girl.

By Gary Lemke