Swimming: Hardcastle fails to lift British spirits

OLYMPIC GAMES
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The Independent Online
When you have become the first British woman for 12 years to reach an Olympic swimming final you are above criticism. Nevertheless Sarah Hardcastle would have loved a medal just to send the words of David Wilkie back from where they came, writes Guy Hodgson.

Hardcastle was well short of the top three places at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre last night, clocking 8min 41.75sec to finish eighth in the final of the 800 metres freestyle. Even so it marked a pretty satisfactory end to a career that began gloriously and turned sour in the middle.

For six years swimming turned off the little girl who won silver and bronze in Los Angeles in 1984 so much that she gave up the sport. Back as a woman who had discovered an old love, she swam her fastest time since the glory days of her teens.

Hardcastle is not the quickest of starters and she was last at the first turn. Normally, she would hope to be able to claw her way back and at 200 metres it appeared she would, but this time they were too fast, too good. The gold went to the 16-year-old American Brooke Bennett, who clocked 8:27.89 while silver and bronze were won by the Germans Dagmar Hase and Kirsten Vlieghuis of the Netherlands.

A Hardcastle medal would have been a well timed reply to Wilkie, who 20 years and a day since he became an Olym- pic gold medallist, laid into the efforts of the British swimming team in Atlanta. Commenting on the previous five days that had brought only Paul Palmer's silver, he said he felt ashamed.

"We are drowning out there and we have become a laughing stock," Wilkie, who won the 200m breaststroke in Montreal, said. "Our showing has become an embarrassment to the whole country and the swimmers have to take the blame. They don't seem to be performing with any pride. Don't they understand what it means to swim for your country at the Olympics?

"A lot of people have been badly let down. It could be 20 years before we are anywhere near the top again. They have simply made feeble excuses: the pool's too deep, it's too hot and there's no air-conditioning. It's the same for everyone. If countries like Ireland can win gold, then so should we."

This brought an instant response from Nick Gillingham, who finished fourth in Wilkie's event yesterday morning. "British swimming is really on the up," the silver and bronze medallist in Seoul and Barcelona said. "The British Swimming Federation are getting their act together and although I'm retiring I'm not going to be lost to the sport. I will be involved in some capacity or other."

Palmer, who yesterday failed to qualify for tonight's final of the 1500m, added: "We always knew we'd start slowly and hopefully build up to better results. Realistically I was the first medal hope so don't read too much into our results so far. There's strength to come with Graeme Smith and Adam Ruckwood."

Right on cue, Smith, a 20-year-old Scot, won Palmer's heat, clocking 15:14.81, and went into the final as the second-quickest qualifier.

If Mark Foster was not in David Wilkie's mind when he aimed his barrage, he probably would be now after he began the day as a potential medallist in the 50m freestyle but ended it excluded from the final. His time of 22.73sec was 0.3sec slower than his best and 0.05sec too slow for the top eight.

"I'm not a morning swimmer," he said, "but if you don't do it in the morning you can't do it in the evening. I was going well in training and looking forward to it. When I was in the water I felt I'd done enough. It was only when I saw the time I realised I'd miss out."

Joanne Deakins, from Coventry, also failed to match her best in the 200m women's backstroke, clocking 2:15.12.

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