Michael Phelps’s quest for gold and glory is just one bid for Olympic history that will unfold in Beijing’s futuristic Water Cube Olympic aquatic centre.
The 23-year-old United States swimming star says he is stronger both physically and mentally as he prepares for another assault on Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals at one Games.
He fell short of that goal in Athens four years ago, coming away with a still impressive six gold medals and two bronze, but insists those who say eight golds are impossible — including Aussie great Ian Thorpe — are wrong.
”If you think about doing the unthinkable, you have a good chance of doing that,” says Phelps, who is qualified to swim five individual events and three relays in Beijing.
Phelps will spearhead the US challenge in what is certain to be another pitched pool battle with perennial powerhouse Australia.
Both nations face an ever-increasing challenge from a raft of superb swimmers from around the globe.
”We try not to focus just on Australia, because the challenges are coming from everywhere,” US women’s head coach Jack Bauerle said.
All will have to find a way to cope with an unfamiliar format of morning finals and evening heats in the National Aquatics Centre, dubbed the Water Cube, where the 32 swimming events, diving and synchronised swimming will be held.
The high-tech building, sheathed in a Teflon-like outer membrane that resembles water bubbles, will provide a fitting backdrop for a controversial new piece of swimming technology — Speedo’s LZR Racer swimsuit.
Swimmers wearing the form-fitting bodysuit set more than 40 world records (long course and short course) in the first four months since its release in February.
While the manufacturer insists it is impossible to confirm reports that it reduces times by up to 2%, the feeling that the LZR offers a clear competitive advantage sparked a stream of defections from other suppliers by swimming medal hopefuls and a race by rival manufacturers to come up with a similar product.
One of the high-profile converts to the LZR is Japan’s double Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima, who said he would wear the suit in Beijing after the Japanese Swimming Federation dropped a requirement to wear domestic products.
Kitajima, who will defend the 100m and 200m breaststroke titles he won in Athens, shattered the 200m breast world record when trying out the Speedo suit.
While debate raged over whether the swimsuits offer an unfair advantage to those who wear them, American Natalie Coughlin insisted the pre-Olympic spate of records was not a mere triumph of technology but a sign of the spectacle that the world’s top swimmers were preparing to deliver in Beijing.
”That’s pretty typical of the time before the Olympic Games,” Coughlin said. ”It’s going way too fast to be just the suit. We have no engines — swimmers are the potential speed.”
The omnipresent Phelps will be a focus of attention throughout the nine days of swimming competition. But he won’t be the only swimmer chasing history.
Australian Grant Hackett and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband arrive in Beijing with a chance to do what no male swimmer has done before, win the same individual event for a third time.
Van den Hoogenband will be aiming for a third straight gold in the prestigious 100m freestyle. His rivals will include France’s Alain Bernard, who twice lowered the 100m free world record at the European Championships in March, and two-time World Champion Filippo Magnini of Italy.
Hackett will try to accomplish the feat in the 1 500m freestyle, in which he has held the world record of 14:34,56 since 2001.
However, the world has gained on Hackett, and for the first time, all eight swimmers in the Beijing 1 500m final are likely to swim under 15 minutes.
Hackett also comes under additional pressure, now that Thorpe has retired, as the standard bearer of the highly scrutinised Australian team.
As always, Australia ride a wave of success into the Games, bringing a 42-strong squad that includes seven individual long-course world record holders.
Eight world records were set at their trials in March, headed by Eamon Sullivan and Libby Trickett, whose 50m freestyle world records make them the sport’s current fastest male and female swimmers.
Australian Olympic Committee chief John Coates believes the team is on track to improve on their record medal haul from Athens.
One relative mystery remains in the expectations of the host country.
Chinese swimmers competed sparingly in international competition in the wake of the Athens Games, where they one just one gold medal. They captured just one silver and one bronze medal at last year’s world championships in Melbourne.
While some in the Western swimming community have speculated China were developing a group of super-swimmers to spring on the world in Beijing, China’s head coach said in April the reality was far different.
”We have the confidence to do our best, but we really have no specific event that will be able to produce a gold medal at the Beijing Games,” coach Zhang Yadong predicted. — Sapa-AFP