Clash of the titans

HAMBURG, AUG. 1. The much-anticipated clash in the 200m freestyle between American swimmer Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe of Australia is almost certain to be the swimming highlight of the Athens Games.

Phelps aims to match Mark Spitz's seven gold medals from the 1972 Games and the 19-year-old could win eight golds in the pool from five individual events - 100m and 200m butterfly, 200m and 400m individual medleys and the 200m freestyle - and up to three relay starts.

At just 19 years of age, Phelps is already a four-time World champion after winning four gold and two silvers at last year's World championships in Barcelona, where he also set five world records.

Thorpe, meanwhile, already has three Olympic gold medals from the Sydney Games in the 400m freestyle, 4x200m freestyle relay and the 4x100m freestyle relay.

Hoogenband & Hackett

However, Thorpe and Phelps might not have it all their own way as Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband, who won the 100m and 200m freestyles in Sydney to become the first man since Mark Spitz to do so in the same Games, and Australia's Grant Hackett will also be competing in the 200m freestyle.

In fact, the 23-year-old Hackett is the only man to beat Thorpe over the distance since he lost to van den Hoogenband in the Olympic final when he beat the World record holder by nine-hundredths of a second at a Grand Prix meet in Brisbane in July.

The two Australians will also probably battle for the 400m freestyle gold medal on the opening night of the Olympic swimming programme on August 14.

Hackett will also be looking to win back-to-back gold in the 1,500m freestyle where he should prove too strong for U.S. swimmer Larsen Jensen.

Confident Americans

With six world records being set at the U.S. Olympic trials, the American team will be confident of exceeding the 14 gold medals won at Sydney and there are also other intriguing clashes such as Phelps taking on compatriot Ian Crocker in the 100m butterfly.

Phelps finished behind Crocker in the U.S. trials and also lost in the 200m backstroke to Aaron Peirsol, who set a world record time of 1 minute 54.74 seconds in the process.

Brendan Hansen claimed world record times in the 100m and 200m breaststroke at the U.S. Olympic trials but will face tough opposition from Darren Mew of Britain.

Meanwhile, American Jenny Thompson looks to raise her overall tally to nine Olympic gold medals after the 31-year-old qualified with a second-place finish in the 100m butterfly.

Amanda Beard was the only female swimmer to break a World record at the U.S. trials in the 200m breaststroke, while in the 4x200m freestyle relay the Americans will be up against defending Olympic champion Australia.

Another one to watch will be double Olympic champion and World record-holder Yana Klochkova of the Ukraine, who has been unbeaten in the 400m individual medley since the Sydney Games.

Klochkova will face a strong challenge from the improving young American Katie Hoff, a 15-year-old clubmate of Phelps at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

The diving competition consists of men and women's events in the 10m platform, 3m springboard event, synchronised diving from 10m platform and synchronised diving from 3m springboard.

The country to beat

China is the country to beat having become the first country to win five diving gold medals at a single Olympics in Sydney.

Tian Liang is expected to defend his Olympic gold in the 10m platform in Athens while China will also be strong favourite in the men's and women's synchronised diving events although it should face strong competition from Russia.

The synchronised swimming event, which is only contested by women, sees World and Olympic team and duet champion Russia up against the likes of Japan, the U.S., Spain and China.

In the water polo, Australia will be looking to defend the women's title although it will have to overcome world champion the United States, a team gunning for revenge after its 4-3 loss in the inaugural final four years ago.

The men's event is the longest running team event at the Olympics as it was introduced in 1900 with Hungary winning seven gold medals since then, the latest coming four years ago in Sydney. — DPA

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