Trash talk — good old nasty American-style basketball trash talk — seemed to set the tone of the battle between the U.S. and Australian swimmers last week. "We'll smash them like guitars," taunted American Gary Hall Jr. When the Australians upset the Americans in the 100-m freestyle relay on opening night, the Aussies strutted along the poolside mockingly playing air guitars.
With all this Yankee heat and Aussie hype, you'd be forgiven if you thought that only the U.S. and Australia were competing for swimming medals in Sydney. But when all the splashing and bashing were done, it was the Europeans — an unfancied, under-appreciated and commendably undemonstrative collection of athletes — who had the last trashy word. Europeans won 36 medals, including 14 gold, launching a number of new and bright European stars into the swimming firmament.
As expected, the Americans and the Australians did put in some amazing performances. The Americans won a total of 33 medals, including 14 golds. But aside from Lenny Krayzelburg, a brilliant backstroker who won the 100 m and 200 m plus a gold in the 4 x 100-m medley relay, the U.S. produced no new multigold-medal stars. Rather, the diverse — and very talented — group of U.S. swimmers picked off single medals in a wide variety of events. American butterflyer Misty Hyman, 21, shocked the home audience into silence by beating much-beloved swimming icon Susie O'Neill, a.k.a. Madame Butterfly, in the 200 m. The Australians had their share of victories, winning 18 medals but only five gold. Led by swimming phenomenon Ian Thorpe — he of the oversize feet and effortless stroke — the Australians won by a fingertip in the 100-m freestyle relay, an event the Americans had never lost in the Olympics. In the first two days of the meet, every time Thorpe entered the pool at the Sydney Aquatic Centre the roof would shake from crowd noise. His gold medal win in the 400-m freestyle was so commanding and effortless that he seemed unbeatable.
Until, that is, the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband, 22, showed up at poolside. The Dutchman promptly stripped Thorpe of both the Olympic and world records in the 200-m freestyle and took the gold medal which Thorpe had assumed he would hold. Thorpe, the man the Australians hoped would be their golden boy, had to settle for silver. When Van den Hoogenband broke another world record, becoming the first man ever to swim the 100-m freestyle in under 48 seconds, the Australian press graciously, if somewhat woefully, declared Van den Hoogenband the king of the pool.
The new queen was also from the Netherlands. Inge de Bruijn captured gold medals in both the 50-m and 100-m freestyle, as well as the 100-m butterfly, brushing aside challenges by U.S. women and sending world records tumbling in her wake. Since May De Bruijn has broken 12 world records. Unlike Van den Hoogenband, who is so respected and genuinely nice that an Australian sports columnist suggested the Dutchman is nearly an Aussie, De Bruijn generates controversy and suspicion. A gifted young swimmer, she faltered before the 1996 Olympics. She switched coaches and took up new forms of training like rope climbing and martial arts. Her comeback, filled with so many broken records, has been remarkable for a swimmer who is at the advanced age of 27.
But accusations of drug taking, coming primarily from the Americans, swirl around her. Other European winners, like Sweden's Therese Alshammar, who placed second to De Bruijn in both the 50-m and 100-m freestyle, have vigorously defended her. "Of course, she can set these records without drugs," says Alshammar. In victory De Bruijn is magnanimous. "The accusations don't matter any more," said the beaming winner. "I have a gold medal."
America and Australia found competition from surprising European sources. The Italian men, who had never won a gold medal in swimming, captured three. Massimiliano Rosolino of Italy beat Tom Dolan of the U.S. for the gold in the 200-m individual medley. His teammate Domenico Fioravanti won two golds in breaststroke.
Lars Frolander of Sweden shocked the Australian crowd at the Aquatic Centre when he beat world record holder Michael Klim in the 100-m butterfly. Ukraine's Yana Klochkova won two medley golds and one freestyle silver, while Romania's Diana Mocanu swept the women's backstroke.
European swimmers enjoyed watching the more high-profile competitors wage their war of words. "It helped a lot that we could just concentrate on our swimming while the Americans and Australians were busy arguing," said Rosolino. "Besides, since swimming is not so popular in Italy we were not pressured with the high expectations." That will change. Swimmers like Van den Hoogenband, De Bruijn and Rosolino have become popular figures back home. And with the Games in Athens in 2004, more will be expected of them and other European athletes. Surely no one will expect the contest to be a two-way battle between the U.S. and Australia. And so it is probably just a matter of time before European trash talk begins.