The race sometimes seems to be an American invention. Fifty meters. Freestyle. Race you to the end of the pool! There is no need for strategy or conservation of energy. No turns. No nonsense. This is swimming's version of a drag race, flat-out speed and froth.
Added to international competition only in 1986, the men's 50 was dominated until recently by two Americans, Tom Jager and Matt Biondi. In the first international 50 ever held, at the '86 world championships in Madrid, they finished first and third, respectively. From then on they were seldom separated. Jager and Biondi. Biondi and Jager. One and two. They seemed to race only against each other, friends and rivals, the rest of the competitors left in their furious wake.
Biondi set the world record of 22.14 seconds at the '88 Olympics in Seoul, where he won the gold medal and Jager took the silver. Jager broke the record and set the current standard of 21.81 in Nashville in 1990, beating Biondi by .04 of a second. Between them, they held 24 of the 25 fastest times in the event's short history.
"You breathe twice, maybe three times," Jager says, explaining the race. "Before Matt and I started swimming the 50, everyone went out and just thrashed in the water. But I tried to bring some control to my stroke, and Matt brought even more control."
A year ago a newcomer suddenly appeared. Biondi arrived at a small meet in Santa Clara, Calif., to find a young Russian named Aleksandr Popov in the field. A converted backstroker. Popov? Never heard of him. Popov won the race. It wasn't a championship event, with everyone shaved and ready for records, and yet...Popov?
When the 50 final was held last week at the Bernat Picornell pool in Barcelona, the 20-year-old Popov was back, the fastest qualifier, in lane 4, between the 27-year-old Jager and the 26-year-old Biondi. In 21.91 seconds an era ended. Biondi was second in 22.09, Jager third in 22.30. The shortest event of the entire Olympics had a new king.
"He probably has one of the longest underwater strokes I've ever seen," Biondi said. "He has a very long, powerful stroke. And he obviously has the courage to stand up to Matt Biondi and Tom Jager and take 'em down. We haven't see that since the event was invented."
A few hours after the race, a reporter asked Jager if he had noticed any difference between his race in this Olympics and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. "Yeah," Jager said. "That time I was second. This time I was third."