By Craig Lord
HELSINKI, July 4. HE was not on the way to a medal, the race merely a semi-final among the many finals last night – but Alexander Popov set a mediocre European Championships alight today with a blistering 48.34sec time in the 100m freestyle – the third fastest ever.
The double Olympic champion from Russia split 23.44, just 0.11sec adrift from the split that took him to his world record of 48.21sec. Popov clocked 48.27sec at the Russian championships two weeks ago and now holds the fastest three times ever, ahead of the 48.35 sec Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands swam last December at the Dutch National Championships.
Beyond Popov, all seemed relatively sedate, though there were some impressive performances, not least of all that of another Russian, albeit competing for Spain. Nina Zhivanevskaya, 23, led from 25m to the end of the 200m backstroke and stopped the clock at 2mins 09.53sec, her best ever by two seconds and a Spanish record. The performance makes her the only woman
apart from the great Krizstina Egerszegi, of Hungary, to win the European title in under 2mins 10sec.
She said: "I'm very happy. This was the first time that I really prepared myself for this distance, but I didn't expect to be so fast." Behind her on 2:11.62 was Diana Mocanu of Romania, with Antje Buschschulte,
still tired from her German Olympic trials last week, third at 2:12.04.
David Ortega, just 21, brought the second backstroke title of the day to Spain. In a blanket finish in the 100m backstroke, Ortega, racing in lane 1, snatched victory by 0.06sec in 55.50sec, from Volodymyr Nikolaychuk, of Ukraine, on 55.64sec, with Turk Derya Buyukuncu third at 55.84sec.
Jere Hard, the 21-year-old from Jyvaskla, Finland, took a bow on the medal rostrum as the Finnish crowd chanted his name after he had won the 50m butterfly in 23.88sec ahead of Sweden's Lars Frolander (23.96) and
Britain's Mark Foster (24.02). The title holder, Van den Hoogenband, who won a record six titles at the 1999 European championships, was fifth in 24.22sec. Earlier in the day he had said that his trip to Helsinki was to "see how things are going" ahead of the only event that matters to him this year, the Olympic Games.
A beaming Hard said: "I was very nervous before the competition. It doesn't matter about the time – this was my best achievement so far."
Another Finn, Jarno Pihlava, 20, came close to giving the host nation its second gold medal of the day. However, his inexperience at the international level and the pressure of the occasion took their toll of him
in the closing 10 metres of the 100m breaststroke, and he was touched out by defending champion, Domenico Fioravanti, of Italy, 1:02.02 to 1:02.07. Dimitri Komornikov, of Russia, was third at 1:02.11. The little-known Finn is one to watch for the future; in the heats he clocked 1:01.11sec.
The Scandinavian theme continued with the successful defense of the 50m butterfly title by Anna-Karin Kammerling, 19, of Sweden. Her 26.40sec outclassed those European rivals present but was 0.74sec off the pace of the absent Inge de Bruijn's recently set world record. Kammerling said: "Its always good to win but I'm not pleased with my time." Second was Karen Egdal of Denmark in 26.97sec, just 0.01sec ahead of Martina Moravcova, of Slovakia, in third. Just four minutes before that final, Moravcova had raced in the 100m freestyle semi-final to qualify for the final second behind Sweden's Therese Alshammar, at 55.16sec, and Britain's Susan Rolph, at 55.46.
Romania provided a surprise in the 4 by 200m freestyle with an 8mins 03.17sec victory ahead of Italy and France, which made hay while the likes of Germany and Britain were away, not having entered teams at what is the last international championship before the Olympic Games. The best split of the relays came from Camelia Potec, who gave the Romanians an early lead with a lead-off leg of 1:59.69.