ATLANTA — Russia's Alexander Popov and American Gary Hall Jr. cornered the charisma--in and out of the water--and staged their second magnificent stroke-for-stroke Olympic duel in the pool, this time in the 50-meter freestyle.
Hall's vaunted explosion off the blocks wasn't quite there Thursday, and Popov came up in the lead and retained it with his textbook strokes, winning in 22.13 seconds. It was his second individual gold medal of these Games, and the second consecutive time he has won the 50 and 100 at the Olympics.
"The start is usually my strong point," Hall said. "It could have been the difference right there. But to be on the medal stand, in the fastest race in the history of the sport of swimming, to be in the middle of it is quite an achievement."
Said Popov: "If you win first Olympics, you become famous. If you win second Olympics, you become probably great. If you win third Olympics, you become history."
For Hall, second place in terrific races is becoming a pattern. In the 50, he went a personal-best 22.26 seconds to win the silver. Monday, he finished second to Popov in the 100 freestyle, but took the twin defeats in typical laid-back Hall retro-style, revealing he listened in the prerace ready room to a compact disc of the '80s group Blondie.
"I won a little bit of money, I'm actually a little more excited about the dough," said Hall, who could earn as much as $25,000 after U.S. Swimming divides the pool of award money. "I think I'm going to buy a motorcycle. I've been looking at a couple and drooling in the window like a kid in a puppy dog store."
On this day, other than Hall, the American men were on the outside looking in. David Fox finished sixth in the 50 in 22.68, just off his second-place time of 22.50 at the Olympic trials.
The other men's race, the 200 individual medley, was also a surprise. American Tom Dolan, the winner of 400 IM, was expected to be a gold-medal contender but finished seventh in 2:03.89, which was also well behind his winning trials time of 2:00.03.
After winning the 400 IM in convincing fashion, Dolan faltered. He failed to make the finals of the 400 freestyle and came away with one medal. The other American in the 200 IM, Greg Burgess, finished sixth in 2:02.56.
The surprise winner of the event was Attila Czene of Hungary, who took the gold from the lightly regarded Lane 1. His winning time was 1:59.91, beating the favored Jani Sievinen of Finland, who won the silver in 2:00.13.
Czene looked stunned by his success.
"I just couldn't believe it," he said. "I can't believe it right now. I don't know what to say. I didn't see anything, you know, in the first lane."
Sievinen was classy during the medal ceremony, walking around to the front of the stand and kissing his close rival, Czene, on both cheeks before receiving the silver.
Hall and Popov, once caustic rivals, didn't go to that extent but exchanged friendly words in the pool and during their news conference. Hall, the 21-year-old from Phoenix, has been criticized for his lax workout habits and Popov was asked how he would coach Hall.
Popov, 24, who is often a thoughtful brooder, paused, thought for a while, then laughed.
"Well, well--that is an interesting question," he said. "He would probably come to Australia and train with me. And do a lot of swimming."
He was asked how to explain his prodigious talent and ability to absorb a workout schedule designed for distance swimmers.
"It's probably a gift from God--you should probably ask him," Popov said. "That's why I can't tell you. I'm normal."
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Medalists / Swimming
Men's 50 Freestyle
Gold: Alexander Popov, Russia
Silver: Gary Hall Jr., United States
Bronze: Fernando Scherer, Brazil
Men's 200 Individual Medley
Gold: Attlia Czene, Hungary
Silver: Jani Sievinen, Finland
Bronze: Curtis Myden, Canada
Women's 800 Freestyle
Gold: Brooke Bennett, United States Silver: Dagmar Hase, Germany
Bronze: Kristen Vieghuis, Netherlands
Women's 200 Backstroke
Gold: Krisztina Egerzegi, Hungary
Silver: Whitney Hedgepeth, U.S.
Bronze: Cathleen Rund, Germany
Women's 800 Freestyle Relay
Gold: United States