Swimming: The gifts of a grunge princess: A prodigious graduate of the old East German regime swims against a tide of controversy. Richard Williams reports from Rome

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SO NOW we know exactly what a gold medal is worth: a three- week holiday at the destination of your choice.

For Dagmar Hase, that will be the reward for pulling out of the final of the 200 metres freestyle event at the world swimming championships here last week, a decision allowing her compatriot Franziska Van Almsick to take her place in the eighth lane, from which she duly swam to a gold medal and a new world record.

Accident or design? Hase is 25 years old, and coming to the end of a career that began in an East German athletics programme whose unsparing rigours are etched in her face. Not even an Olympic gold medal could make her a household name. Van Almsick, on the other hand, is a pretty teenager who was nurtured in the same GDR programme but had the good luck to be only 11 years old when the wall that divided her home town came down. Her victory, by courtesy of Hase's withdrawal, was not merely a sporting achievement. More significantly, in many eyes, it justified the pounds 4.5m investment of eight major sponsors.

We will probably never know exactly what happened in the 30 minutes between the end of the last heat on Tuesday morning and the announcement of Hase's withdrawal, letting Van Almsick back into a race for which she had been the ante-post favourite. Immediately there were rumours of a deal struck between the respective coaches, Dieter Lindemann for Van Almsick and Bernd Henneberg for Hase, brokered by the German swimming federation, among whose dwindling assets Van Almsick stands supreme and unchallenged.

At 16, Van Almsick is the grunge princess of German sport. Last year she was voted the country's sportswoman of the year, ahead of Steffi Graf - whom she has replaced in Opel's marketing campaign, just as she has supplanted the supermodel Claudia Schiffer in ads for Nussini chocolate bars. A star since she began collecting medals at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Van Almsick had been expected to turn these championships into a week- long coronation. But her plans were thrown into confusion by the Chinese women's team, whose effect over the shorter distances here has been equal to that of Ma Junren's long-

distance women runners at the world athletics championships in Stuttgart last year. Equally disturbing, that is, and equally controversial.

When the swimming events began in the Foro Italico on Monday, Van Almsick was the first victim of the Chinese onslaught. In the 100m freestyle, one of the three events of which she is the reigning European champion, she could finish only third behind the 19-year-old Le Jingyi, who lowered the world record by the staggering margin of almost half a second over two lengths of the pool, and her team-mate Lu Bin.

The next morning, the German girl turned up for the heats of the 200m in two minds. Determined to do better over the longer distance, she was also mindful of her experience in Barcelona, when she swam too fast in the morning's first round and ran out of steam in the final. This time, however, she seemed to have got it wrong in a much bigger way, laying back so far that she finished in the ninth fastest time - a few hundredths of a second behind the slowest qualifier, Dagmar Hase.

At this point, with Van Almsick in tears, Lindemann and Henneberg were seen in conversation backstage at the Foro Italico. Half an hour later came the announcement of the substitution, greeted by whistles from the stands and rumours in the locker room. Now the tears were Hase's.

That evening Van Almsick took her place in lane eight and, out of the sightline of her chief rivals, streaked home ahead of Lu Bin, lowering the eight-year- old world record by almost four-fifths of a second. In isolation, it was a marvellous response to the Chinese challenge. But the rumours were growing. Had money changed hands? And did this mean that world championships were for sale? That, to be specific about it, a competitor could sandbag through a heat, conserving energy in the knowledge that a place secured by a compatriot would be handed over on demand?

Up on the podium with a gold medal around her neck, Van Almsick wept again. A few minutes later, at the medallists' press conference, she was asked if she had paid Hase to stand down. 'I deny it completely,' she said. 'It was decided by Dagmar and her coach. They gave me the opportunity to swim. For me, it's an example of our team spirit. Isn't there anyone here who believes that honesty still prevails in sport?'

And why had she cried as she received the medal?

'I was thinking of Dagmar, and how she had given me this chance. And I cried because I had achieved such a goal.'

A day later, by a dreadful irony, Hase herself finished ninth fastest in the heats of the 400 metres freestyle, the event of which she is the reigning Olympic champion. There was a German girl, Jana Henke, in eighth place, but no one mentioned a substitution.

Later, at a German federation press conference, the news of Hase's free holiday emerged. The gift, it appeared, had been offered by Lufthansa, the national airline, on behalf of a grateful populace. Officials of the German federation made clear their resentment of allegations that they had been manipulating the championship.

On Friday, still wet from finishing ninth yet again in the heats of the 800m freestyle, poor Hase decided to give her version of the story. 'I'm not someone who can be bought,' she insisted. 'The decision came from me. There was no pressure from anybody. But I really didn't feel well during the 200, so I took the chance to withdraw and prepare for the 400, where I thought I had a chance of the championship. But it didn't happen.' She had been suffering from bronchitis and an upset stomach, she said. Her time in the 200 heats had been quite good, but she didn't think she could do any better in the final. 'It wasn't an easy decision,' she observed, 'but I think it was the right one because it allowed Franziska Van Almsick to show that she is the real champion.'

It was hard to believe her explanation. The old East German regime got away with cheating for long enough to make any but the most gullible observer treat the testimony and the achievements of its graduates with scepticism. Even those of the grunge princess.

Born in the Treptow district of East Berlin, Franziska Van Almsick was five years old when she began to swim. Her mother, Jutta, whose name subsequently turned up in the Stasi files as an informer, was a coach of rhythmic gymnastics and ice skating. Her father, Bernd, an engineer, helped design and found the Werner Seelenbinder sports school.

Between the ages of six and eight, little Franzi had her wrists and ankles measured, and blood samples taken from her earlobes. The results persuaded those who judged such things on behalf of the Honecker regime that here was a child who might grow into the successor to Kornelia Ender and Kristin Otto, respectively the winners of four Olympic gold medals in Montreal and six in Seoul.

What the phrase 'grow into . . .' covers is known only to Dieter Lindemann and the now- dispersed army of GDR drug chemists. It is known, however, that the East Germans were in the habit of using not merely muscle-building steroids but also substances that promoted bone growth. And when, after unification, the German Sports Council instituted an inquiry to establish the extent of such practices, Lindemann kept shtumm.

Perhaps a refusal to testify ought properly have led to a suspension from coaching activities. Instead he was allowed to stay with Van Almsick, shepherding her through two silvers and a bronze in Barcelona, and six golds and a silver at the European championships in Sheffield last year. The training regime he has designed involves her in swimming a total of 45 kilometres a week; she spent the month before these championships in Mexico, where she swam 75km a week at an altitude of 2,600m. These figures make an interesting contrast with the testimony of He Cihong, the Chinese gold medallist in the 400 metres freestyle, who calmly explained that she swims 20km a day, from 8.30 in the morning until six o'clock in the evening, with a break for lessons at midday.

Franziska Van Almsick's appeal is that, despite her origins and the requirements of her sport, she is not a machine. Apart from being a perfectly balanced 5ft 10in and 9st 6lb, she is as ordinary a 16-year-old girl as you could find: she listens to Guns N' Roses and loves animals. But hers is the kind of transcendent ordinariness that turns into beauty when it is subjected to the scrutiny of the camera lens, and she could easily be a young girl in one of Eric Rohmer's movies: the Charlotte Gainsbourg type. Or perhaps, with her sulky, slightly pug-like features and corkscrewed brown hair, and the small tattoo on her shoulder, the young Maria Schneider.

This is the quality so diligently exploited by her agent, Werner Koster, a former tabloid journalist who signed her up at 14 and had secured half a million pounds' worth of endorsements within six months of her emergence at Barcelona. Now he is fighting them off.

Today she competes in the 50m freestyle, which means another effort to hold back the red tide of the Chinese superwomen. She has years of that ahead of her. For Dagmar Hase, the struggle is over. All she can do is decide where to take that unexpected holiday. Such a windfall, she said. Such a surprise. But plenty of time to think about it now.

(Photograph omitted)