Swimming / European Swimming Championships: Hair's breadth separates pain and perfection: Bravery is an integral part of a springboard diver's make-up. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
THERE was something that set Boris Lietzow apart even before he began diving yesterday. The Adonis-like body you took for granted, even the courage that requires a man to spin and fall fractions of inches from a hard wooden board is lost and half forgotten in the jungle of angles and expertise.

But Lietzow stood out. Not for his brilliance - he finished seventh in the three-metre final - but for something more basic, not to say natural. The German was a man apart in the European Swimming Championships yesterday because he sported a beard. On an England cricketer it would have been exhibit one in a case for indiscipline; at Ponds Forge Pool it was a hairy, and unique, celebration of masculinity.

When man first saw a lake-locked rock and invited challengers to reach it first, no doubt there was not a clean-shaven man in sight (not one that did not invite comment anyway). Beards were de rigueur. Now they stand out from a crowd of oh-so-smooth skins like a pimple. Hair is not just frowned upon in international swimming it is positively disadvantageous.

A ritual every top competitor undertakes before a major swimming meeting is shaving. Not just the chin but every stubbly pore of the body that is not streamlined by a bathing costume. Adrian Moorhouse estimates it can knock a second off a 100 metres breaststroke swim, the difference between his eighth place in the last Olympic final and a successive gold medal. It is a ritual, a last acknowledgement that you are ready.

Which put Lietzow apart yesterday. He took the hirsute, 15 days' five-o-clock shadow, route to Sheffield while others clung to the cult of the razor: Sweden's Joakim Andersson, tattooed arm and all, looked like a Scandinavian skinhead, Gilles Dousse, of France, had the coiffure that suggested his hairdresser had been hired from his country's foreign legion.

Of course a diver does not need the baby-like complexion that aids a crawl through water but you would think it would have aerodynamic implications. Lietzow, who won a bronze medal in the one-metre competition on Saturday, appeared not to give a damn.

He stroked his chin as he prepared to dive, he sponged it lovingly when he came out of the water. No one knew whether he was the world's most boring man but he looked a character just because he was different and the spectators loved him for it. Every time he took to the boards he was received with as huge a roar as the small crowd could muster. Perhaps Ponds Forge was largely populated by Germans yesterday, but I doubt it.

It was not only Lietzow's beard that set the divers apart yesterday, however. Their bodies do not bulge at the shoulders after a thousand dawns of aquatic endurance work but have a more even distribution of muscle.

In terms of bulk they look like a Chippendales Second XI but they can contort and bend with near-unnatural agility. Their spins would leave the rest us not knowing which day we were in but they enter the water a paper-thin gap from perfection.

The old joke is that they are failed freestylers who were more suited to belly-flopping into the water than powering through but it no longer applies. They are bracketed with swimmers but their soul mates are gymnasts.

'The moves are the same,' Jeff Cook, a judge yesterday and one of the competition's organisers, said, 'except you land in the water rather than on a hard mat. In the past swimmers who were not quite good enough used to drift into diving but now they are a breed apart. Most of their training is done in gyms or on trampolines.'

It is a reflection on society that some sports gain recognition not for their excellence but for their disasters. Diving is one of them. Shuwei Sun, the highboard Olympic champion, is probably not a household name in his own home given the Chinese inclination to snatch aspiring medallists from their mother's bosom but mention diving in public and Greg Louganis will crop up.

Not for the peerless majesty of his work in preceding Shuwei as Olympic champion but for miscalculating so much in Seoul he crashed his head against the three-metre board. Like racing drivers in chassis-distorting crashes or jockeys who are projected headlong from their horses, the American took the painful route into the greater consciousness.

'Bravery is an integral part,' Cook said. 'The attraction of the sport is the athleticism mixed with the element of danger. Just fall off the 10-metre board and you hit the water at 30 miles per hour. But if you have jumped up and gone into a spin you're going to be entering at around 50 miles per hour. Make a mistake and it hurts. Badly.'

Thankfully there was no head banging yesterday but there was a competition that created temple-aching tension. The lead fluctuated with every dive, the advantage slipping between Andersson, Russia's Smitri Sautin and Jan Hempel, of Germany. Even Lietzow threatened to thrust his stubbly chin into the medal positions but declined towards the end.

With two dives to go, Sutin appeared to have opened a conclusive gap but it requires just one mistake in a world where a fall from grace is marked in fractions. A substantial splash announced his miscalculation and he received 44.10 marks where his rivals were in the 60s and 70s.

That gave Hempel his chance and with dives earning 72.96 and 78.21 he edged ahead to add a gold medal to the two silvers he won in the 10-metre event in 1987 and 1989. In the end his margin of victory was a difference of a misplaced arm or 10 degrees over-rotation in a spin.

A hair's breadth.

(Photograph omitted)

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