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ATHENS 2004

Forlorn in the USA / Men's basketball team is routed by Puerto Rico, its first Olympic loss with pros, and Phelps' bid for eight gold medals ends with a third-place finish in relay

Bad Start Is Worst-Case Scenario for Swimmers / Ailing Crocker's slow first leg dooms 400 relay team, ensuring Spitz's record won't be broken.

August 16, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The magic number is down to seven.

Swimmer Michael Phelps' chance to pass Mark Spitz's record seven gold medals at one Olympics vanished here Sunday night, with accompanying controversy, as the U.S. men's 400-meter freestyle relay team finished third. It was the worst Olympic showing for the American men in this event.

South Africa won in world-record time and the Netherlands was second. The South Africans swam the race in 3 minutes 13.17 seconds, breaking the record of 3:13.67 set by Australia in 2000.

Phelps was always going to need help from his teammates in his Spitz campaign, but he got none. After a slow opening leg, the Americans finished in 3:14.62.

Visions of first place were gone well before Phelps hit the water for the second leg. An ailing Ian Crocker, who had been suffering from a sore throat the last few days, opened with a stunningly poor 50.05 seconds in the first 100, the slowest split in the eight-team field. He trailed Roland Schoeman of South Africa by almost two seconds and touched the wall in last place.

With a split of 48.74, Phelps did well to get the team back in medal contention, pulling back to sixth, and Neil Walker's stellar effort, 47.97, got it to third. The anchor, Jason Lezak, went 47.86, pulling to second at one point, then dropping back to third.

For Phelps, any breathing room is gone. He needs to win his remaining six events to match Spitz, who won seven gold medals in 1972.

The positive news is that his fate is in his own hands for his next event, the 200 freestyle. The flip side is that opponents in the race today include defending Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands and world-record holder Ian Thorpe of Australia.

The stage was set with two rounds Sunday, the preliminaries and the semifinals. In the semifinals, Van den Hoogenband had the fastest qualifying time, Thorpe was second and Phelps third. Phelps and Thorpe were in the same heat, swimming in adjoining lanes, and they bumped fists afterward in a sign of mutual respect.

Phelps' pleasure with his 200 effort was offset by his relay disappointment.

"This is only the second time in history we've ever been beaten," Phelps said. "We wanted to do better."

Said his personal coach, Bob Bowman, "A lot of this, he doesn't control. I couldn't be more pleased with what he is doing right now. I thought his 200 was exactly what he needed to do. He's in a good place in the final, in the top three, so he's in an inside lane. He was able to swim a credible time, once again, not showing all the cards."

The abrupt dip in performance by the relay team, however, stunned the American camp, according to Bowman, who said, "I thought the relay might pick us up, but it kind of continued the downward spiral."

The inclusion of Gary Hall Jr., who swam the anchor legs on the teams that won gold in 1996 and silver in 2000, might have prevented that from happening. Hall, as well as Lezak, had been vocal about not including Phelps on the relay team since he had not swum the 100 freestyle, the usual qualifier, in the trials.

The controversy kept right on going -- and probably picked up steam -- when U.S. men's Coach Eddie Reese selected Crocker, leaving Hall and his considerable Olympic experience on the shelf. Hall was dropped from the relay final when he swam 48.73 in the morning preliminaries. Reese had said Hall needed about a 48.2 to make the cut.

Hall did not attend the relay final. His manager, David Arluck, said Hall probably would not comment until after his final event, the 50 freestyle Friday.

"As a competitor, I'm sure he would have preferred to have swam tonight ... but life goes on and he has to get ready for his next race," Arluck said.

"I'm not angry," Arluck added. "I'm just really disappointed with the decision. I don't understand the rationale.

"That's just another factor -- to find out Ian's been sick. They've been talking about the fastest relay team possible.... You can't read someone's mind and say this is the reason why. All I know is, they made a hasty decision. How fast did they think Phelps was going to swim?

"Gary has gone underneath 48 seconds six or seven times. He's one of the greatest relay swimmers of all time."

The coaches had maintained all along that Phelps would be on the relay unless two of the swimmers in the preliminaries turned in low 48s.

While Reese and Lezak spoke with reporters, Crocker sat behind them, looking devastated, declining to take questions.

Said Reese, who also coached Crocker at the University of Texas: "If somebody had told me Ian Crocker would go that slow, there is no way I'd have believed it. He can't go that slow."

He had, though, and Reese said wryly of the race, "It made me a lot older."

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