The USA have won every single Olympic men’s 4x100m medley final, the blue-riband event of men’s swimming, and they did so again here in Tokyo, but only just. They were given an almighty fright by Adam Peaty in particular, who swam the fastest 100m breaststroke split ever, as Team GB took silver and Duncan Scott made history.
The exact same British quartet – Luke Greenbank on backstroke, Peaty on breast, James Guy on butterfly and Scott swimming freestyle – won this race at the 2019 Fina World Championships in sensational fashion when Scott powered past the American Nathan Adrian on the anchor leg in 46.1, the second fastest freestyle split ever recorded.
It was a sensational win and planted the serious ambition of dethroning America’s Olympic dominance too. An emotional Guy had even pulled out of the individual butterfly this week after a conversation with his coaches, giving up his personal medal hopes to prioritise this race.
Had Scott been able to locate those same super powers here, they might have done it. He entered the water with an almost identical scenario to the worlds, half a body-length back from the American freestyler, this time Zach Apple. But at the worlds he had picked up a tow from the US in the adjacent lane – here he was alone on the other side of the pool and couldn’t quite make up the ground, posting a 47.08 to finish only 0.73 off the pace as the Americans set a new world record of 3:26.78.
Scott could at least take solace in his own slice of history. The silver was his fourth medal of these Games, the most any British Olympian has won at a single Olympics. He is a crucial cog in Britain’s relay machine and has a stack of team medals, but an individual global title still eludes him, having been pipped to the wall by teammate Tom Dean in the 200m freestyle final.
“I’m very fortunate to be part of some excellent relay teams, this being one of them,” Scott said. “Initially, we were very disappointed but since 2015, when we first started coming together, we’ve got back-to-back Olympic silvers in this event and we’d have taken that all day. Looking at the splits, we all swam well. I’m slightly disappointed with mine but it’s been a tough week and we have to be happy with that.”
It had been a thrilling race. The fascinating thing about the show-closing medley is all the little rivalries over the week that play out once more. Greenbank and America’s Ryan Murphy were back in the pool against Evgeny Rylov after that spiky press conference when Russia’s state-sponsored doping came up in conversation. Peaty went up against USA’s Michael Andrew, who finished fourth in the 100m breaststroke final which Peaty won. Meanwhile Guy had the unenviable task of taking on America’s sprint king Caeleb Dressel.
Greenbank went out first. He won backstroke bronze in the 200m but is not so comfortable over half the distance, and handed over to Peaty in second-last with a 1.3 sec deficit to the US after Murphy had crushed his leg, perhaps wanting to make a statement.
Fortunately for Britain, Peaty is a phenomenon. By the time he’d kicked to the surface he had gone past China. Then Russia, Japan, Australia, Italy, and by the turn he was at the hip of Andrew, who had a glance across and knew he was being hunted. Peaty took the US too to clock an astonishing 56.53 – well below his own individual world record of 56.88, incredible even if times are massaged by anticipating your teammate touching the wall – and from seventh to first, Britain were in the lead.
They had to be, because Dressel came next. Earlier he had clinched his fourth gold medal of the Games with victory in the 50m freestyle final, underlining that he is quite simply the fastest swimmer around. Dressel overtook Guy with his own remarkable time of 47.09, well below the 49.45 world record he set in the butterfly final this week for the fastest fly split ever. He handed Apple a slight advantage over Scott, and the Americans clung on.
“I laid it all down,” said Peaty. “I knew I had to go in an extremely fast time and that was an extremely fast time. Unfortunately we didn’t do quite enough to get that gold but with the success we’ve had, sometimes you need a little bit of pain. People back home will say it’s Olympic silver and it shouldn’t be painful but that’s the standard we’re at now. We’re not looking at bronze, we’re not looking at silver, we’re looking at gold and that’s just the mindset.
“But we were close to the world record and you can’t ask for more. It’s my fifth medal in two Olympics, I’m happy.”
An even more tense encounter came a few minutes earlier when the two heavyweights of the pool went head to head: USA vs Australia. America led the women’s 4x100m medley throughout, but Australia gradually crept closer in a thrilling final freestyle leg, and Cate Campbell pipped the American Abbey Weitzeil to win gold and set an Olympic record with it.
There was more glory for Australia’s Emma McKeon earlier when she won the women’s 50m freestyle to clinch her third gold, adding to her three bronze medals – before that medley gold made it seven medals in total – making her the most successful Australian Olympian at a single Games.
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