The dreggish performances of the Chinese were once again raising eyebrows. Ranked number three in the world in the 400 freestyle, 17-year-old Luna Wang posted a dismal 4:25.7 in the heats to finish 30 out of a field of 34.
As it turns out, it was merely a foreshadowing of bigger scandal to come (no...not again!!). All hell broke loose midway through the evening's finals when the news of four Chinese positives came out. After complaints from FINA that the media had been too focussed on doping and not enough on swimming, it was hardly about to change, despite brilliant performances by Gennadi Touretski-protŽgŽs Alexander Popov and Michael Klim.
Claudia Poll (CRC) had the early lead but soon fell back as Brooke Bennett (USA) moved into the lead, turning first at the 100 in 1:00.01, with Poll close behind in 1:00.37. Yan Chen (CHN) moved into contention after the 150, but Bennett held the lead at the 200 with 2:02.40 to Chen's 2:02.66. Dagmar Hase (GER) now moved to third. Poll was more than a body length behind the leaders and gradually fading out of the race. Bennett held a small lead throughout the third 100, splitting 3:04.98 to Chen's 3:05.02, with Hase in third. But Chen, ranked first in the world in this event, finished strongly, lengthening her stroke to touch first in 4:06.72. Bennett was second in 4:07.07, a two second improvement over her previous best. Dagmar Hase, always in the medals, placed third with 4:08.82.
"I am happy with my performance," Chen said. "The other competitors made it very difficult to win." Although she swam slightly faster (4:05.00) last October, it was her second gold after her 400 IM win from the first day of the championships.
"Yes, it's a personal best," Brooke Bennett said. "I'm really happy. I tried to stay with Yan Chen all the way, but she got away from me at the end. The silver medal will look really good around my neck when I'm celebrating tonight."
Veteran Hase said, "I couldn't see anyone else except the Chinese swimmer, so I just stuck to my own tactics. I tried to stay with her...I'm very happy with the medal."
It was a showdown between Australia's own Michael Klim and the adopted Russian, Alexander Popov. Number one and number two in the world...the order was reversed for the brief period between heats and finals with Klim in lane 4 after posting 49.33. Not for long. Popov was beside him in lane 5 (49.57 morning swim), knowing that somehow, the "walls" of his adopted home would help him.
They did not fail him. While Popov was not first off the block, he still surfaced marginally ahead of the field. The Olympic champion took no chances, controlling the race from the outset. He led at the 25 and was first into the turn in 23.56, ahead of Pieter van den Hoogenband (NED) who split 23.58. Klim was close in 23.63. The Swede Lars Frolander was also in contention for a minor medal, splitting in 24.05. Heading home, Popov demonstrated his Tsar qualities, dominating the field with his superior effortless technique. Klim's straight-armed and muscular stroke was no match. Popov claimed his second world 100 crown, dipping below the 49 second mark to clock 48.93, a new championship record. After having suffered a nearly fatal stab wound in August of 1996, it was some incredible feat.
The younger Klim had to bow to his training partner but still performed well with a 49.20, holding off a fast-finishing Frolander who touched for third in 49.53, van den Hoogenband was fourth in 49.59.
"Every win has a different feeling because you are competing in different countries and different events, and hopefully getting better every time," said Popov. "After the race I said to Michael I think I lost a half a second in the last ten metres. I couldn't feel anything in my body anymore. Of course that won't happen in the next race...because it will only be 50 metres."
Klim said, "I was really only concentrating on myself, and not on Alex so I didn't see him. It's his event and he really deserves it. I might have to wait for the next generation."
Frolander was thrilled, saying, "I am so happy...I thought it would be really hard to beat either Popov or Klim so I was really racing for the bronze."
Lea Maurer (USA) had reason to give it 100%. After missing the 1996 Olympic team she wanted another chance at a gold. She posted her personal best in the prelims with 1:00.77 and was ready and focussed. She took the lead from the first strokes, turning first at the 50 in 29.78, with Sandra Všlker (GER) in second (29.87) and Mai Nakamura (JPN) third (29.88).
On the second length she held her lead as Mai Nakamura moved up to second. With 15 metres to go, Maurer picked up her stroke rate and clinched the gold.
She had prepared perfectly for this day, not an easy task for someone aged 26, and holding down a full-time teaching job.
Mission accomplished for Maurer. "I knew it would be nerve-wracking tonight, and that it would be a close finish. Nakamura is a very good competitior so I knew I had to remain calm and come home aggressively. The Chinese girl (world record-holder Cihong He) was always a threat but she was in lane eight and I couldn't see what she was doing. I knew if I just posted a fast time the win would take care of itself."
"I really couldn't see very much except the Japanese girl next to me," bronze medal winner Všlker said. "I swam by my own feeling. I wasn't expecting to get a backstroke medal, because I was concentrating more on freestyle, but this is great."
The beginning of the race was marred when one of the favourites, Australia's own Scott Goodman, jumped on the start and was disqualified. He tried briefly to ignore the call, before stepping down to kick a chair and stalk angrily away.
After posting his first sub-1:57 swim in the heats and smashing his own French record (1:56.32), European champion Frank Esposito of France went for broke again to lead through the first 50 (25.75) , with Denis Silantiev (UKR) close behind in 25.88. James Hickman (GBR) was swimming in third in 26.48. Esposito, having had his first world championships experience in this pool in 1991, looked strong and continued to lead in the second 50, turning in 55.45, ahead of Silantiev (55.80) and Hickman (56.34). Close behind Hickman was Tom Malchow (USA) in 56.54.
The American challenged on the third 50 and turned behind Esposito (1:25.82) and Silantiev (1:26.23) in 1:26.68. But it was the Ukranian swimmer who succeeded in bringing it home, as Esposito faded over the last 15 metres. Silantiev won in 1:56.61, with Esposito just off his morning performance in 1:56.77. Malchow held off newcomer Takashi Yamamoto (JPN) to take the bronze in 1:57.26.
That elusive gold was not to be, but Esposito's heat swim put him in fourth spot on the All Time list. "I had a little trouble finishing and my arms hurt a bit, maybe because I went so fast this morning," he said, both excited and disappointed. "But it doesn't matter. I'm just happy to be here and be in this race. I didn't think I would go that fast this morning, so I feel great."
Malchow said, "It was a close race, but I couldn't see what Denis was doing. I beat both of them at the Olympics but this is another race. It will give me more incentive to come back and beat them in 2000. This was my best time so I can't complain at all."
Germany and the Netherlands battled for the lead on the first 100 with Sandra Všlker (GER) touching first in 55.68 and Inge de Bruijn (NED) just behind in 55.85.
On the second leg Amy van Dyken (USA) moved the Americans into second with a 54.94 split. Germany held a slight lead as Franziska van Almsick, in Perth only for relays, split 55.95.
On the third leg Susie O'Neill (AUS) moved the Aussies into the lead with her 55.40 split. The USA was second and Germany third.
Then 100 freestyle world champion Jenny Thompson (USA) anchored the Americans to a full body-length victory with her 54.14 split, the fastest leg of the competition. Their final time was 3:42.11.
"It was great," said van Dyken afterward, bubbling over with her usual enthusiasm. "The girls did great this morning to set us up. Before the final we did our traditional good luck cheer and went into the race with a lot of confidence that we could show that the US can sprint."
Germany took second with a final time of 3:43.11 and Australia was third in 3:43.71. Katrin Meissner commented, "It was pretty clear that the Americans would have their fastest swimmer on the end so we were not surprised. We're happy to get the silver because we didn't expect better than a bronze."