By Craig Lord
Istanbul, Turkey – Alexander Popov, the Russian Rocket, was defeated in the 100m freestyle for the first time in eight years at a major international championship – by a medical student from Maastricht that commentators are referring to as the Flying Dutchman.
Little wonder. His name is Pieter van den Hoogenband and he clocked the fastest championship victory ever, 48.47, to defeat the reigning Olympic, World and European champion. It was the fastest time in over six years.
Popov, now 27, won his first title in his debut for Russia at the European Championships in 1991. He flew in last Friday from the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, where he is coached by Gennadi Touretski, on a mission to become the only swimmer ever to win five European titles in the same event.
Alas, it was not to be, as Van den Hoogenband, 21, out-classed the world record holder. It marked the third fastest time ever, behind Popov’s 48.21, set in June 1994, and the 48.42 at which the world record had stood to American Matt Biondi, winner of five gold medals at the Seoul Olympic Games, before the Russian.
Popov professed to be pleased with his 48.82, which was only 0.08 slower than he has ever raced to win a title, 48.74 bringing him his historic Olympic victory in Atlanta, where he became the first to retain the 100m freestyle title since Johnny “Tarzan” Weismuller in 1928. In Atlanta, American Gary Hall made that race the first in which two men had swum below 49 seconds. Yesterday’s duel was the second.
Van den Hoogenband, who has a sunken chest which he says is handy when it comes to resting a pint on your chest when floating on your back in the pool, said: “It felt like a dream. Alex is the greatest swimmer ever and has done everything a swimmer can do so I feel ecstatic.” Popov, who won his last world title in 1998 just 16 months after being stabbed in the stomach, merely confirmed that he would be in Sydney 2000, where “anything can happen”.
Marcel Wouda, winner of the 200m individual medley in 2:01.43, gave the Dutch team a little more Turkish delight but the other gold medal of the night that they had expected, from Inge de Bruijn in the 100m freestyle, went instead Britain’s way as Sue Rolph became the first British women to win a European title since 1962.
Rolph’s 55.03, a Commonwealth record, came off a second 50m split that was faster than that which swept China’s Le Jingyi to the world record of 54.01 in 1994 and helped the Commonwealth champion to pass de Bruijn and Germany’s Olympic silver medaist, Sandra Voelker, in the closing 10 meters of the race. De Bruijn was runner-up in 55.24, with Voelker third at 55.36.
Agnes Kovacs, of Hungary, won the only other title of the day, retaining her 100m breaststroke crown in 1:08.75. Second was Ukraine’s Svetlana Bondarenko; she has now won the silver medal in that event at five successive European championships. Consolation indeed for Popov! Belgium’s Brigitte Becue was third, as the medalists reprised their finish of 1997.
Craig Lord is Swimming World’s European correspondent.