Lanes of glory

A flying Dutchwoman, an underdog Italian and the irrepressible Americans make swimming history at Sunday night's showdown in the water.

Published September 18, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

This is turning out to be the water Olympics. Saturday night one of the greatest swimming events in the history of the Olympics took place as the amazing Aussie Ian Thorpe, who had already set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle, came back in the last 50 meters to out-touch American sprint champion Gary Hall, end America's domination of the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay and send this town and country into an absolute frenzy. And Sunday night, the astonishing aquatic feats continued. If you had to choose one night and one place to be dropped to flounder in some swimming pool, Sunday at the Sydney Aquatic Centre was the time and place to choose. Three people would have swum to your aid faster than any human beings ever have before.

Four finals were contested: the women's 100-meter butterfly, the men's 100-meter breaststroke, the women's 400-meter freestyle and the men's 400-meter individual medley. By the end of the night, three world records had been set -- and one of those wasn't even in those finals, but in the semifinals of the men's 200-meter freestyle. An elegant flying Dutchwoman who was kicked off the team in Atlanta four years ago for being unmotivated stole the heart of the crowd with her swim and her incandescent presence on the stand. An Italian came out of nowhere, smashed an Olympic record, won his country's first-ever gold medal in swimming and unleashed tears of joy and screams of "Forza Italia" in every cafe from Rome to Taormina. And the mighty Americans, shrugging off their team's heartbreaking defeat in the relay, stormed back to dominate the night's medal haul with five magnificent performances. The ticket cost $455 Australian (about $260 U.S.), and it was worth every penny.

It became clear that it was going to be a special night right from the start, with the semifinal heats of the 200-meter freestyle. The great Dutchman, Pieter van den Hoogenband, blasted through the four laps in an astonishing 1:45.35, breaking Ian Thorpe's world record. After his swim he squinted up at the screen where the times were announced, an expression of amazed joy on his face. The packed arena erupted -- and that was nothing compared with the noise the crowd made in the next heat, when national hero Thorpe was announced. Thorpe powered through the water to the final touch, chasing van den Hoogenband's time as the crowd screamed. He touched at 1:45.37 -- two one-hundredths of a second behind the Dutchman. The final Monday night will be a barnburner; every TV in Australia will be turned to it. Van den Hoogenband shouldn't expect that world record to last too long.

Then it was time for 27-year-old Inge de Bruijn, who has set eight world records since May, to face a bigger challenge: winning Olympic gold. She was equal to it. Propelling her slender, powerful form through the water, outclassing the powerful field (American Dana Torres, at 33 the oldest female swimmer in the Olympics, took bronze), she smashed her own world record by 0.03 seconds. After she realized what she had done, her face lit up like a thousand candles. The faces of the older ones, the ones who have known defeat as well as victory, are the faces to watch.

The final in the men's 100-meter breaststroke had been billed as an epic showdown between the Russian world record holder, Roman Sloudnov, and American Ed Moses. But an Italian named Domenico Fioraventi had other ideas. Ranked only 14th in the world, he had the fastest qualifying heat but no one expected him to be a serious threat. Moses surged to an early lead and had a significant advantage at the turn. But halfway through the final 50 meters Fioravanti stormed on as Moses seemed to tie up slightly, and he beat the American by a third of a second, with Sloudnov coming on late for third.

The women's 400-meter freestyle featured one of the oddest physical contrasts you're likely to see in swimming, where physiques tend to be pretty identical. Costa Rican swimmer Claudia Poll, who won her country's first-ever gold medal in 1996, is a tall drink of water who towered almost comically over the little Americans, Brooke Bennett and Diana Munz. But the 20-year-old Bennett, whose strongest event is the grueling 800-meter freestyle (an event ruled for years by the great American Janet Evans), proved bigger in the water, seizing an early lead and slicing through the water to win the gold medal going away as the thousands of Americans in the stands urged her on. Poll held second going into the final length but Munz, with a tremendous, heart-stopping kick, overtook the Costa Rican in the final 20 meters to seize silver. The two young girls -- and that's just what they seem like, just slightly more grown-up than sweet, giggling kids you'd see slurping sodas outside a 7-Eleven -- embraced for a long time in the water, sharing a moment that comes only once, and that gives off such a glow that you can feel it from 200 yards away.

And then it was time for American Tom Dolan, the favorite in the 400-meter medley. Most swimmers have physiques you'd die for -- Dolan doesn't. He's lanky; he doesn't have the kind of muscular definition almost every other swimmer does. But he has a big ticker. Dolan suffers from asthma, but that didn't stop him from setting a world record in 1994 in his event, which showcases the sport's most versatile athletes. That record had stood for six years -- an eternity in athletics.

Somebody had to break it, and Dolan took care of that task himself. He took command right from the beginning, with the butterfly lap, and never let his rivals, fellow American Eric Vendt and Canadian Curtis Myden, challenge him. He touched at 4:11.20, breaking his own record by 0.54 seconds. When the time was announced, Dolan embraced Vendt, who came on strong for the silver, then got boisterous -- pumping his arms in the air and exhorting the crowd to salute his achievement with a pumped, almost angry, in-your-face expression. It was the night's biggest display of testosterone, recalling a similar display by Australia's Michael Klim after the epic relay win. Klim began playing air guitar, a taunt aimed at American 100-meter swimmer Gary Hall, who had boasted that the Americans would "smash the Australians like guitars." (Hall's remark had already led him to be subjected to an idiotic and intemperate slur by Australian '96 gold medalist Kieren Perkins, who snarled that he didn't take notice of "drug cheats" -- a reference to the fact that Hall once tested positive for that notorious performance-enhancing -- or isn't it supposed to be a "gateway"? -- drug, marijuana. Hall, who was already a favorite of mine both because of this countercultural factoid and because he has overcome Type A diabetes, proved his class yet again when he took both his defeat by Thorpe and the air-guitar taunt with good sportsmanship, saying of his rival, "I doff my swimming cap to the great Ian Thorpe," and of the guitar stunt, "That's a little bit of fun -- it's in good humor and no feelings were hurt."

So at least for one night, the Americans had stemmed the tide of Australian swimming dominance -- and that's a subject that's on a lot of people's minds here. Swimming is a national obsession, and beating the big, bad USA is goal No. 1. Case in point: a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald Monday morning that spun Fioravanti's victory in the breaststroke not primarily as Italy's first-ever gold, but as an event that "did [a] little bit for the Australian cause" by preventing Moses from winning. Maybe that's why the TV coverage I saw after the big meet Sunday night didn't deem the American victories, including Dolan's world record, as newsworthy as that monster event, Australia's defeat in baseball at the hands of the Netherlands. And maybe that's why thousands of Aussie fans streamed out of the Aquatic Arena before the medal ceremonies for Dolan and Vendt and Bennett and Munz. Not only were no Australians represented (aside from Thorpe's heroics in the semis, the Australian swimmers did zilch in the entire evening's events), but it was pretty much an all-American affair. And who wants to see that celebrated?

To which the most appropriate reaction may be a venerable Yank expression that may not have made it here yet: Payback is a bitch!

Actually, the crowds have shown fine sportsmanship throughout the games so far. They're wild for their athletes, of course, which is as it should be, but no more than Americans or any other host nation. As for the all-Aussie-all-the-time media, well, the shoe's simply on the other foot now -- we've been specializing in that for decades.

But the crowds who left early missed something worth seeing, something worth celebrating, no matter under what flag the feat was achieved. It's strange, seeing someone do something better than it has ever been done. It's unfamiliar territory. In our day-to-day life, the subject never comes up: We don't measure what we or others do against some unwavering standard. And even if we did, even if the most mundane details of our domestic routine were somehow magically elevated into Olympic events, complete with performance-enhancing drugs, corrupt IOC pooh-bahs and medal ceremonies, we still wouldn't break any world records. There is a person in Antigua who can do the dishes faster than you do, some gdoofus in Gdansk who can scrape the last bits of mayonnaise more thoroughly out of the jar, some otherwise uncelebrated citizen of Magnitogorsk who has never once made a wrong approach when parallel parking. It's not a happy thought, having even our dreams of paper-clip-straightening supremacy taken from us, but what can you do?

But of course, we never see any of those events (which is unfortunate, since mayonnaise-jar scraping would be every bit the scintillating spectator sport that curling is). Athletics and science are pretty much the only area where human advances can be absolutely measured. Some bozo can maintain that Rod McKuen was a far greater poet than Shakespeare and there is nothing you can do short of whacking him on the head with a brick that will shut him up, but you can't pretend to beat Michael Johnson to the corner store any more than you can pretend to solve Fermat's Theorem. And beating Michael Johnson is really, really hard to do. There are a few billion human beings on the earth, and if he wants a candy bar that is 400 meters away, not a single one of them can beat him to it.

So when someone does move the bar of human achievement higher, it's disconcerting: It just seems like a statistic at first. If it's an athletic achievement, it's tempting just to file it away in a minor bin -- "Track records." "Swimming records." Mere measurements that don't have anything to do with our unmeasured lives.

But measurements are deceptive: They are only the shadow of living deeds. And when we understand this, our sense of what it means to be human expands a little. The world becomes possible again, it falls back before us. Athletics may not be the most important thing in the world, but every world record in athletics is an occasion for all of humanity to celebrate. For the enemy defeated is not man, but those things larger than man: time and distance. Last night, at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre, two men and a woman expanded the human horizon a little more, made that circle of light a little larger. It was an honor to witness it.

But the most enduring image, the one that captured the grandeur of the moment, was the face of Inge de Bruijn. With her sturdy jaw line and determined mien, De Bruijn has a face that recalls the laughing peasants of Bruegel. But on the victory stand, her long hair streaming down and tears flowing from her eyes, she was bathed in a different, a golden light. She was pure Vermeer.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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