Where Does Kosuke Kitajima Rank Historically? Other Notes From Olympics’ Opening Session

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Notes by John Lohn

LONDON, England, July 28. WHERE he stands in the pantheon of breaststrokers is more than solid. As the two-time defending Olympic champion in both the 100 breaststroke and 200 breaststroke, Kosuke Kitajima has earned his status as the best his event has seen. But a bigger question can be offered concerning Kitajima’s standing on an overall basis.

Is the Japanese star one of the 10 best performers in history, regardless of stroke and gender? Is he a top-five talent? With whom is Kitajima battling in order to move up the ranking ladder?

Here’s the deal. No matter what arguments, facts and statistics are provided in this debate, only one thing is certain: No consensus will be reached. The nature of sports is that healthy discussion is commonplace. One man will fight for his beliefs, while simultaneously attempting to discredit the feelings of others. Actually, that’s the beauty of athletics. From baseball to football to swimming, there’s plenty of room for back-and-forth chatter.

A polarizing figure in the sport (more on that later), Kitajima has the credentials to be considered high up our sport’s pecking order. After all, he has a chance – depending on what happens with Michael Phelps in the final of the 400 individual medley — to be the first man to three-peat in an Olympic event, in Kitajima’s case the 100 breaststroke.

But, where exactly does he stand? For argument’s sake, we’ll keep the conversation gender specific, therefore focusing on Kitajima’s male counterparts. It’s pretty clear that Phelps and Mark Spitz hold the top-two positions in history. After those stars, though, Kitajima immediately enters the mix. We’re talking about a guy who has four Olympic titles, is a multi-time world champion and has established five world records.

Then again, arguments can be made for Ian Thorpe, the freestyle ace from Australia. A push can be made for Tamas Darnyi, the Hungarian who repeated as Olympic titlist in the 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley. Heck, if he has the competition some expect, Ryan Lochte is in the debate, too. And don’t forget the likes of backstroke legend Roland Matthes. We weren’t joking. This isn’t easy.

One of the impressive aspects of Kitajima’s career is his ability to produce his best efforts on the Olympic stage, clearly the biggest platform in the sport. Sure, he has been less-than-stellar at some of the World Championships, but no one can deny what he’s done in Athens and Beijing. During his four Olympic-winning swims, Kitajima has bested the competition by a combined 3.06 seconds. His triumphs in the 200 breast have come by a combined 2.60 seconds.

What some will hold against Kitajima, however, is what shook out in the final of the 100 breast at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Not only was Kitajima seen using butterfly kicks (illegal at the time) off the start and turn to defeat American rival Brendan Hansen, his victory celebration, complete with primal screams, was viewed in poor taste. For these reasons, there is little middle ground on Kitajima. Fans of the sport tend to really appreciate his ability or vehemently dislike him.

The feeling here on Kitajima goes like this. If he prevails at the London Games in either the 100 breast or 200 breast, thus making history, he would be considered the third-finest male swimmer in history. Yep, he would be ahead of Thorpe and Darnyi, and some of the others under consideration. If he comes up short, slotting him fifth seems about right.

Some will agree. Others will shake their heads in disagreement. Let the debate begin.

**The mission of Dana Vollmer continues, and she may have put an end to an expected showdown with Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom. By producing an American and Olympic record of 56.25 in the prelims of the 100 butterfly, Vollmer qualified first for the semifinals by nearly a second. At least in the early going, she looks unbeatable.

Vollmer has never been one to ease off in prelims or semifinals, so it remains to be seen if she can go much faster. Meanwhile, we’ll have a better idea whether Sjostrom and Australian Alicia Coutts held back in their morning races. If nothing else, Vollmer has thrown down the gauntlet to her competition.

A 2004 Olympian, Vollmer missed qualifying for the Beijing Games. Since, she has been on a tear, capturing the world title in Shanghai last summer and looking sensational at the United States Trials in Omaha. Now, she’s taken the first step — and a critical one at that — toward nailing down her first individual Olympic gold medal.

**While Michael Phelps averted disaster in the preliminaries of the 400 individual medley by grabbing the eighth and final spot in the championship final, Hungarian Laszlo Cseh was not as fortunate. More, could the reigning silver medalist in the event from Beijing have misjudged his effort because he was racing next to a less-than-sizzling Phelps?

Cseh checked in with a time of 4:13.40, the ninth-fastest outing of the morning and one position shy of advancing to the final. Typically, an athlete staying neck-and-neck with Phelps would be in good shape, so one has to wonder if Cseh misgauged his swim. If that scenario is the case, it’s a major mistake at the wrong time.

**The schizophrenic career of Germany’s Paul Biedermann continues. Once pegged as a suit swimmer because of his world-record performances in the 200 and 400 freestyles during the tech-suit era, Biedermann redeemed himself at last year’s World Championships. There, the German medaled in both middle-distance freestyle events, proving himself worthy on the international stage without the help of polyurethane.

Then came Day One of the Olympics and an abysmal showing in the preliminaries of the 400 freestyle. Finishing fourth in his heat, Biedermann touched the wall in 3:48.50, which placed him 12th. Obviously, that was well off the pace needed to make the championship final. For Biedermann, it was a lost opportunity to solidify what he did in Shanghai.

**As disappointing as Biedermann was, at least his poor showing was due to a lack of physical acuity, not a mental mistake. The same could not be said for Korea’s Tae-Hwan Park, the defending Olympic champion in the 400 free. After apparently winning his heat, Park was disqualified for a false start. It’s an error which is inexcusable.

With Park out of the final of his specialty, the anticipated duel between Park and China’s Sun Yang will not materialize. Both men were expected to battle stroke for stroke while bidding to become the first athletes under 3:40 in the event. Now, it looks like Sun, who qualified first for the final, is headed for an easy gold medal.

**The way Elizabeth Beisel looked in the preliminaries of the 400 individual medley, there’s a good chance she’ll take down the world record of 4:29.45, set by Stephanie Rice en route to gold at the 2008 Games. Beisel blasted the field in the last prelim heat of the event, opening up a sizable lead on the breaststroke leg, then expanding it during freestyle. Better, it looked like there was more in her tank.

Barring a big drop in time from others, it appears Beisel and Chinese teenage star Ye Shiwen will battle for the gold medal. Ye, the reigning world champ in the 200 medley, qualified second in 4:31.73. The scary part about Ye is her closing ability on the freestyle leg, which is what landed her the world crown in the shorter medley.

Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn

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