Two stories emerged from Istanbul during the 24th European Championships-one was about a champion being dethroned; the other was about the man (and his nation) who did it.
It's been done before and it will happen again. Janet Evans's streak in the women's 400 and 800 free eventually came to an end after years on top. First she lost her grasp on the 400, and shortly thereafter she was defeated in the 800. The same thing happened here in Istanbul. Alexander Popov, the tsar of sprint freestyle, lost his lock on the 100 after eight years of rule. We saw him lose the 50 last year, but when examined closely, he didn't really lose the 100-rather Pieter van den Hoogenband won it.
Pieter van den Hoogenband. The name is familiar; he got two fourths at the Olympics as a 19-year-old whom no one had heard of. They will remember him now, not just for the man who beat Popov, but for the country he now leads into Sydney. Although Germany may have won the most total medals, by winning nine gold to Germany's twelve, and with far fewer swimmers, the Dutch proved they have what it takes to be Europe's best.
Several other swimmers emerged as promising stars. Inge de Bruijn (NED), Jana Klochkova (UKR), Lars Frolander (SWE), Domenico Fioravanti (ITA) and Stephen Perrot (FRA) not only won but swam fast, producing the few top performances of the meet that were not done in the 50s.
Most swimmers agreed that they were happy to have practised the new semi-final format before next summer's Olympics, but few were pleased that it existed at all. Hurting the top swimmers, the new format exploits the best and does little to improve the quality of swimming as a whole. Many medal contenders scratched events to ready for other races, leaving empty lanes in many races. Although the eight-day Olympic format will give athletes more time to rest between efforts, only time will tell whether the mental and emotional stress of staying focused for eight days will hurt or help the sport of swimming.
From the first moment he dove in the pool, it was apparent that Pieter van den Hoogenband (NED) had come not only to win, but to swim fast as well. After swimming a 23.88 in the semi finals of the 50 fly, he anchored the winning Dutch 4x100 relay with a 47.31, the fastest relay split of all time. But that was only the beginning.
"I can always swim faster in a relay with my whole team supporting me," van den Hoogenband said. "I just went a best time for my 50 fly so I knew I would be fast in the relay." The Dutch win was a first for the nation, and their time of 3:16. 27 was also a championship record. Since winning the 400 IM at Short Course Worlds in Hong Kong, Jana Klochkova (UKR) continues to prove she is the one to beat heading into next summer's Olympics. Klochkova touched first in the 400 IM in a personal best of 4:38.14. This moved the 16-year-old into first place in the world this year and broke an 18-year-old GDR championship record in the process.
After the top qualifier, Inge de Bruijn (NED) scratched from the final of the 50 fly in order to prepare for the 100 free, Anna-Karin Kammering (SWE) once again lowered her 50 fly world record, this time to 26.29. De Bruijn had the record earlier this summer, but lost it within weeks when Kammerling broke it at Swedish nationals.
After winning the 50 fly in 23.89, van den Hoogenband won his semi-final heat in the 100 free, beating Alexander Popov (RUS) on the way. His time of 48.74 broke the old European meet record, held by Popov.
Performance under pressure is the true measure in sport. For Roxana Maracineanu (FRA), her 200 back win was a big step. Maracineanu's winning time was 2:11.94. "I did nearly the same time last year in Perth (2:11.26) when my gold medal was a surprise for everyone," she said. "Since then it has been a hard time for me as I am now the favourite for this event. This European gold means more to me than the world title. I have proved to everyone that I can stand the pressure."
In the men's 100 breast, Domenico Fioravanti (ITA) gradually moved into the lead to touch first in 1:01.34, bettering the Italian record of 1:01.71 from 1991. "I'm happy," Fioravanti said. "It is my first victory at a major championships. After the semi-finals I felt a little bit tired but I knew I could get this medal."
After last night's semi-finals, the eagerly awaited showdown between the challenger van den Hoogenband and the man who has owned this event during the 1990s, Popov, got the day's finals underway.
It was difficult to watch as the champion fell, but for those who have never even reigned for one day, it was easy to be happy for van den Hoogenband. He won the 100 free and beat Popov for the first time in a major international event. His time was fast enough for a new meet record, third place on the all-time list, and a chance to dethrone a Russian Tsar in style. Popov was not soft. He swam his second-fastest time ever, but van den Hoogenband did upset his plans to win five consecutive European titles in the 100 free.
The race went off with Popov winning the start and getting down the first length in 23.40. He came out of the turn still in the lead until the 75-metre mark, when van den Hoogenband, who turned in 23.60, moved into the lead and pulled ahead to touch in 48.47 to Popov's 48.72.
"A dream has come true for me. For the first time at a major event, I have beaten the great Alexander Popov," van den Hoogenband said. "Before the finals I was still afraid of him, as I expected him to greatly improve his times from the semi-finals."
There is a plan, Popov said. "On the way to the Olympics, sometimes you have to hold back in order to make a step forward. We tried to do some things differently this year, but they didn't seem to work. We have some other things we can try for next season. In any case, I didn't expect to have to swim 48.4 to win this year."
The Brits also celebrated as their gold medal drought finally came to an end. Sue Rolph won the 100 free and became the first British woman to win a European title since Anita Lonsbrough was victorious in 1962. She caught and passed de Bruijn with ten metres to go, touching in a 55.03. Both Rolph and de Bruijn scratched other events to prepare for the 100 free, and both were content with those decisions. "The semi-final format doesn't please me a lot," said Rolph. "But because the Olympics are spread over eight days, I should be able to swim everything that I want."
Agnes Kovacs' (HUN) win in the 100 breast did not look easy. She was strongly challenged by veteran Svitlana Bondarenko (UKR), who is 28 and 10 years her senior. Kovacs turned in 31.97, but her second length was ordinary as her final time of 1:08.75 was well off her best (1:08.08 from 1997) and slower than her semi-final time.
Kovacs has been hampered by illness and distracted by a recent high school graduation. "It was hard work to beat Svitlana, I only saw her at the turn" Kovacs said. "Yesterday in semis I thought I would be able to swim faster today, but I didn't as I was so nervous in defending my title."
Never one to give up, Bondarenko will be back. "This was my fifth consecutive silver medal since the 1991 Europeans in Athens. This time I thought I could get the gold. But I won't give up and will try again."
Using the semi-final format as a learning experience, Marcel Wouda (NED) defended his title from 1997 with a 2:01.43 in the 200 IM. Wouda admitted that he was glad he had a chance to swim in semis before the Olympics. "I am used to having a race in the morning, resting, then coming back and racing hard at night. This morning I slept in and had a massage. Tonight I felt very easy in the water, but it was not the right kind of easy feeling. I went out too fast and was really hurting on the last 50."
Although the Dutch had much more to celebrate in the coming days, the night belonged to France. The French swimmers won three of their twelve medals on day 4, and two of them were gold.
Franck Esposito set the stage by winning the 200 fly. His time was over a second off his best, set recently at the French Nationals. But, as with most of the swimmers competing here in Istanbul, it was the win that was most important. It was in 1991 that Esposito first won the 200 fly at Europeans. He was one of many medallists who has been able to maintain a high quality of swimming throughout much of the 1990s.
"It was important to win one year before the Olympics." Esposito said. "I've got my revenge over Denis for the race at the Worlds last year in Perth where I lost to him. I was never afraid during this race."
Esposito's countrymen took note in the 200 breaststroke, winning two medals, swimming two best times, and breaking one French national record. Stephan Perrot came away the victor with a 2:12.46. Dimitri Komornikov (RUS) was second and Yohan Bernard (FRA) was third.
"The last 10 metres were so hard," Perrot said. "I had hoped for a 2:12, but I felt tired after the first 100. The extra rounds of swimming are difficult. I swam three 100s and three 200s, but I'm happy with my time today. I have done a lot of mental training during the last months. I've always panicked at major meets in the past. I feel relaxed now, cool and mentally strong."