Swimming: British pair disqualified

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THE MEN'S 50 metres freestyle, one of Britain's best hopes of a medal at the European Championships, ended in near farce yesterday when both home finalists were among three swimmers disqualified.

Mark Foster, the world short- course champion, finished fourth in the pool but at least he got to race. Mike Fibbens, the British champion and bronze medallist last time, was disqualified after the starter, from Belgium, ruled he had gone so early at the first time of asking he merited being pulled out of the event.

'It's a total joke,' Fibbens said. 'I've spent six months training to do this and then some amateur official does that to you. Now my world ranking disappears and my sponsorship is in danger. I wanted to kill him but you have to keep your temper. I didn't want to put Mark off.' As it happened, the 25- year-old from Barnet could have ranted to his heart's content as Foster followed him into oblivion seconds later.

Not that he knew it immediately. The race took place, with Foster, also a Barnet swimmer, finishing behind the winner and Olympic champion Alexander Popov in a time that was clocked as 22.59sec. His disappointment then was at missing a medal, but after video evidence had been examined he too was disqualified along with the Ukraine's Vladimir Tkachenko, the 1989 champion.

The 50m is a reflex action as much as a race. A bad start and your chances are over as a deficit as little as two feet can be impossible to make up. A 100m sprinter can be slow off the blocks and still make amends; a swimming sprinter takes twice as long to go half the distance but rarely has that luxury.

Which makes the moments before a race particularly tense. False starts are a probability rather than a novelty, but swimmers are hardly ever disqualified in major championships. To have three participants disqualified in an eight-strong final makes a mockery of the event.

'Your muscles are twitching and it's not easy to stand on the starting block,' Fibbens said. 'The pool was noisy and I heard a noise which I thought was the gun. You want a fast start but you don't deliberately go too quickly. Once you react you can't stop yourself.

'I'm gutted. It was my last individual event and I was going for a medal. Now all I've got is the relay and I'll have to wait until next year's Commonwealth Games (in Victoria, Canada) before I get a chance to make up for it.'

Foster said: 'I didn't think I had a flier. I've had complaints before in races; I've heard the crowd gasp when I've got away first. But I'm a fast starter. I'm disappointed but not as much as I would have been if I'd been in the medal positions.'

In comparison with that any British achievement would have the gilt removed from it but at least there were two medals to applaud. Martin Harris broke the domestic record to win bronze in the men's 100m backstroke and the women's 4x100m medley relay team also finished third.

Harris, 24, from Waltham Forest, clocked 55.75sec to make inroads of 0.15sec into a record he had set in the morning heats. At the halfway point he was fractionally ahead of Germany's Tino Weber but improved over the final length and was denied the silver only by inches. The race was won by Martin Lopez-Zubero, of Spain, who completed a hat-trick of victories in this event.

Karen Pickering collected her third bronze of the Championships by anchoring the relay team, although anchor seemed an inappropriate term for her time of 55.30sec for the freestyle leg. When she entered the water Britain were in sixth place and it was a monumental effort to drag the team into the medal position.

Britain have now won eight swimming medals and there was briefly a prospect of another as Lucy Findlay swam her fastest 200m individual medley by more than a second, but her 2min 17.78sec left her in fifth place.

(Photograph omitted)