OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Americans are out of their depth: Swimming

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The Independent Online
THE Americans' estimation that they were bringing one of their best swimming teams to an Olympic Games is beginning to look a gross exaggeration. They failed to pick up an individual gold medal at all in the pool last night, which, on a day when Matt Biondi and Janet Evans were racing, was a shock to shake Montjuic itself.

Four years ago all eight US swimming golds were awarded to the pair, Biondi collecting five. Yesterday Evans had to step down to silver while the male half of the American dream ticket did not climb on to a rostrum at all. A winner of this race in 1984 and 1988, his ambition to become the first American swimmer to win in three Olympic Games was looking decidedly less likely.

But it was the defeat of Evans that dumbfounded the US party. It is six years since the 20-year-old last trailed in anyone's wake in the 400 metres freestyle and she was confidently expected to become the first woman to win the event in consecutive Games since her compatriot, Martha Norelius in 1924 and 1928. Instead she was pipped by Germany's Dagmar Hase.

The world record-holder at 400m and 800m began the race as if she would threaten her shorter mark and was two feet up at the first turn. The rest of the field was buckling under the pressure but Hase hung on, never allowing Evans to increase her advantage. In the final length the German attacked, drawing level with 20 metres to go and then touching first. Her time, 4min 07.18sec, was quicker by 0.19sec.

'The rest of the world has caught us up,' Evans said. 'They are ready to go as fast as us. I just took it out too fast and it hurt me in the end. I've still got the world record, what's a winning streak?' Her tears answered the question and her press conference fell away like her race when she became too uspset to speak and walked out.

Biondi's vulnerability was first hinted at in the heats, where he was only the fourth-quickest qualifier in the 100m freestyle. He has nine of the 10 fastest times in history, however, and a superb turn gave him a lead of a foot. That advantage was to prove vulnerable to virtually the whole field and in the cavalry charge for the line Alexandre Popov of the Unified Team won from Brazil's Gustavo Borges. The latter's silver was awarded only when television evidence was examined after the clock in his lane failed to stop. He had failed to hit the pressure pad with enough force. When he was found to tell him he had the silver, he was crying in the practice pool.

Biondi, who was fifth, said: 'The prospect of winning golds at three Games is what has got me up in the mornings. It's what has kept me training. I'm in a Catch-22 situation where people expect me to set a world record or win a medal every time I swim. It's not the end of the world. My dog will still lick my face whether I win or lose.'

It was difficult to put a gloss on the British performances yesterday. Eight swimmers were counted out of the preparation area but none was counted as a finalist when they came back in. More depressingly, there were no personal bests.

Mike Fibbens, considered a medal possibility in the 100m freestyle, was the most disappointed and disappointing, finishing sixth in his heat in 50.93sec, more than half a second outside his British record. That put him in 21st place, too slow even for the B final.

'It was one of those days when everything went wrong,' the 24-year-old from the Barnet Copthall club said. 'I felt great coming up to the turn but I couldn't move down the final leg. I've never felt like that before unless I was ill. I'm upset because I know I could have made the final. Perhaps I put too much pressure on myself without realising it.

'My parents and coach are here and I received 50 good luck cards and had the support of everybody at my club. I think I've let British swimming down and now I've got to consider whether to continue competing.'

The other British swimmers mulling over defeats yesterday were: Paul Howe (100m free); Samantha Foggo and Elizabeth Arnold (400m free); Joanne Deakins and Kathy Read (100m backstroke); Adam Ruckwood and Matthew O'Connor (200m backstroke).

While the British were subdued the Spanish were celebrating their first ever swimming gold medal, Martin Lopez-Zubero's in the 200m backstroke. Trailing Hajime Itoi and Vladimir Selkov for much of the race, Lopez-Zubero surged fown the final length to win by a foot in 1:58.47.

The Americans, too, had reason to smile at the end when their women's 4x100m freestyle team won the night's final race in a world-record 3:39.46. It merely dulled the pain a little. The US had anticipated taking 12 of the women's 15 gold medals; so far they have two out of seven.