Foster flies the flag for Britain's revived pool challengers

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A pipe and slippers, not an Olympic podium, is higher in the pecking order of pastimes for most 38-year-old swimmers but the evergreen Mark Foster is no ordinary swimmer. His longevity and popularity were rewarded last night when his peers on the British Olympic team voted for him to be Britain's flag-bearer at tomorrow night's opening ceremony for the Games.

"I was blown away when I was told, it was a big surprise and a huge honour," he said. "Some of the most wonderful names in British sport have been Olympic flag-bearers."

The last swimmer to carry the flag at an Olympic opening ceremony was Anita Lonsbrough in Tokyo in 1964, four years after she won her 200m breaststroke gold in Rome. More recent bearers include the rowing titans Matthew Pinsent in 2000 and Steve Redgrave in 1996.

"Making the Olympic Games this time around was fantastic in itself, but this has really topped it off, it's phenomenal," said Foster, who will swim in the 50m freestyle in his fifth Games since 1988.

He has reached two Olympic finals, set five world records, 19 British records and is among the most prolific medal winners in his sport, especially in short-course events, but he said recently any medal here would be the highlight of his career.

The only Games that Foster has missed in the past 20 years was Athens four years ago and that absence was controversial after he just failed to meet a tight qualifying time laid down by the then head of British swimming, Bill Sweetenham.

Foster and Sweetenham infamously never saw eye to eye, principally because the coach insisted on training his athletes virtually to breaking point. Foster adheres to the "less is more" mentality of the sprinter. He did not dwell yesterday on his rift with Sweetenham, who left his post last year and has since been replaced by another Australian, Michael Scott.

"I wouldn't say any bad things about Bill," Foster said. "I think he did good things for the British team at the grassroots level and I think we are getting some positive and good results off the back of that.

"But from my own personal feeling of those years where I was under Bill's reign, it's a lot more relaxed. I've found the team a lot more relaxed – there hasn't been any pack drills and that was my main concern when I was part of the team before."

For years British swimming was a laughing stock, hitting a low in 2000 with no medals at all in the Sydney pool. Sweetenham's regime led to two bronzes four years ago, but more significantly, the green shoots of recovery and genuine optimism of several medal chances here.

David Davies and Cassie Patten are capable of medals in the new 10km open water events, while Davies won bronze in the 1500m freestyle in Athens and can challenge again in that, too. Backstroker Liam Tancock, 23, and the teenage freestyler Rebecca Adlington both hold great promise and their fellow youngsters Jemma Lowe and Fran Halsall, both 18, can make a splash.

Scott was impressed by Britain's Olympic trials in April, when his athletes – 38 of whom qualified for these Games – smashed records in multiple events, leading to praise if not too much fear from the likes of America and Australia.

"We have to do our talking in the pool now," Scott said. "People were talking [our chances up] like that in 2004, talk is nice but performance is ultimate. It's good people have recognised the steps made by Britain's swimmers but we just haven't yet converted it."


*Name Mark Andrew Foster

*Born 12 May 1970, Billericay

*Height 198cm

*Weight 90kg

*Club University of Bath Swimming Club

*Event at 2008 Olympics 50m freestyle

*Personal best 50m Freestyle 21.96 (2008) (British record)

*Career highlights Four-time Olympian (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000); six-time World Short Course champion (2004, 2000 (twice) 1999(twice), 1993); twice Commonwealth champion (1994, 1998); was the flag-bearer for England at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur

*Career lowlights Never won an Olympic medal; not competing at 2004 Olympics

Who is set to follow in Eric the Eel's wake?

Nobody who saw Eric "The Eel" Moussambani flail to victory in a three-man 100m freestyle heat in Sydney eight years ago will ever forget it. The man from Equatorial Guinea almost drowned. He won his race only because his rivals were disqualified for false starts. Eric had never seen a 50m pool before Australia, practised in a croc-infested river and memorably said of his 1min 52.72sec swim (competent swimmers do it in under 50 seconds): "The last 15 metres was very difficult." This year's Eric may yet hail from Botswana, Malawi, Nepal, Burkina Faso, Azerbaijan or Rwanda, the six nations in 2008 that have received wild card places here, as Mousambani's nation did in 2000. Qualifying standards are waived to encourage developing countries. The wildcard event this year is the 50m freestyle.

"In Botswana, swimming is very new," said the national coach Alison La Grange. "Being at the Olympics is huge for us. We feel like we've snuck in. We keep saying 'We're here, we're here'. It's just a privilege to be part of something like this."

Malawi's Charlton Nyirenda has already had one disappointment. "I was hoping to meet Ian Thorpe because he's my hero," he said of the retired Australian. "But I don't think he's coming any more."

Nick H arris