By Steve Thomas
MELBOURNE, Aug. 24. RUSSIAN Alex Popov will race for the last time before the Sydney Olympics when he swims at the Melbourne Grand Prix meet this weekend.
The dual double gold Olympic medalist will be attempting to win the sprint double in the 50m and 100m freestyle for the third time in Sydney, to become the first male swimmer to win three consecutive gold medals. He will get the opportunity twice before Australia's Kieren Perkins gets his chance in the 1500m free on the final day. Perkins, who also won at the Barcelona and Atlanta Games, will swim at this meet.
Popov is ranked number one in the world this year
in both sprints and holds both world records, having recently broken American Tom Jager's ten-year-old 50m free mark at the Russian Trials (21.64). He still holds the 100m record he set in 1994 (48.21).
However, other sprinters are closing in. In the 50, Americans Gary Hall and Anthony Ervin clocked 21.76 and 21.80, respectively, at the US Trials last week–the second and third fastest times in history. In the 100, Popov went 48.27 at the Russian Trials, a time only he, himself, has bettered. But Holland's Pieter van den Hoogenband has swum 48.35 while American Neil Walker went 48.55 and his training partner, Michael Klim, clocked 48.56.
Two women have already achieved the feat of winning an event in three successive Olympiads. Australian legend, Dawn Fraser, was the first when she won the 100m free at the Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo Olympics. (Fraser might well have gone on to win a fourth and fifth title, had she not been given a 10-year suspension by Australian swimming authorities.) Then Hungarian dorsal specialist, Krisztina Egerszegi, matched her with wins in the 200m backstroke in Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta.
Popov, who has been based in Australia since 1993, will have a good look at some of his opposition in Melbourne, with Australian sprint trio Michael Klim,
Brett Hawke and Chris Fydler joining Algerian Salim Iles, and South African, Nick Folker in the 50m and 100m freestyle events. The meet will feature the full 44-strong Australian team plus some members of the teams from Great Britain, South Africa, Russia, Malaysia, Fiji and Singapore.
While some see the meet as a final hit out before the Olympic Games beginning in only three weeks, others are choosing not to show their cards at this stage of their preparation. Top South Africans breaststroker Penny Heyns, freestyler Ryk Neething and sprinters Brenden Dedekind and Roland Schoeman will be missing. However, Athens World Short Course breaststroke champion Sarah Poewe and the 200m breast and 400m IM silver medalist,Terence Parkin, both of South Africa, will compete. Poewe will clash with Aussie sprint duo Leisel Jones and Tarnee White over 100m and Rebecca Brown and Caroline Hildreth over 200m. The British team will field twenty-one members of its Olympic
squad, including, World Short Course champions, James Hickman and Karen Pickering.