|Icon: Michael Phelps in action during the August London Olympics’ 200m IM event. The American capped probably his last Games by winning four golds and two silvers. — AFP|
LOS ANGELES: Missy Franklin, Ye Shiwen, Sun Yang and Yannick Agnel were part of a youth movement in the 2012 Olympic pool that signalled swimming has plenty to look forward to after Michael Phelps.
Phelps put the finishing touches on an epic Olympic career in London as exciting young swimmers from around the world promised to carry the sport through Rio 2016.
Franklin, just 17 at her first Olympics, left London with four gold medals and two world records.
She helped propel the United States to their familiar spot atop the Olympic swimming medals table with 16 gold, 8 silver and 6 bronze for a total of 30.
World record-breaking performances by teenager Shiwen and Sun Yang saw China confirm their arrival as an Olympic swimming power with five gold medals and 10 overall.
Right behind China, France claimed a superb four golds, with Agnel delivering a scintillating 4x100m free relay gold ahead of the United States before a dominant victory in the 200m freestyle that left American Ryan Lochte trailing in his wake.
France’s four golds were one more than they had claimed in all prior Games, and Agnel said he had no intention of letting up before Rio.
Traditional power Australia, meanwhile, floundered in London after big guns James Magnussen and James Roberts failed to fire in the freestyle sprints.
Australia’s tally of one gold, six silver and three bronze in London was their lowest since 1992, and they were without an individual gold medallist for the first time since 1976.
The flop prompted Swimming Australia to back an independent probe into the debacle, with federation chief executive Kevin Neil stepping down in November.
That’s the same month that mining billionaire Gina Rinehart promised US$10.4mil to support the country’s leading swimmers.
That was good news for talented swimmers like Magnussen, who at 21 still has time to regroup and head to Rio.
The cocky young Aussie came away from his first Olympics even more impressed with what Phelps had accomplished in four Olympic campaigns that yielded a record 22 medals – 18 of them gold.
“I have a lot more respect for guys like Michael Phelps who can come to the Olympics and back it up under that pressure,” Magnussen said.
Phelps certainly was under pressure in London, if not to match his eight-gold exploits of Beijing in 2008 then to avoid a large-scale failure that would, for some, taint that achievement.
After a stuttering start Phelps finished with four gold medals and two silvers, shattering the record for total medals in a career.
In fact, his 18 career gold matched the prior record for total medals amassed by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.
Chad le Clos, who became the first South African man to win individual Olympic swimming gold, unabashedly admitted his entire career was modelled on that of Phelps.
His reward was to become the first in a decade to vanquish Phelps in a major international 200m butterfly final.
Le Clos, 20, was among the raft of young swimmers revealed in London, who can be expected to shine at the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona and – if all goes well for them – in Rio.
Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte became the first 15-year-old Olympic swimming champion for 40 years as she powered to the 100m breaststroke gold – then 15-year-old Katie Ledecky of the United States won the women’s 800m free in the second-fastest time in history.
Japanese 18-year-old Akihiro Yamaguchi, who missed out on an Olympic berth, set a world record in the men’s 200m breaststroke in September as he signalled his intent to take his place on the global stage.
Phelps said he was fascinated to see what the youngsters would do in a sport where swimmers have begun making inroads on the incredible times of the polyurethane “supersuit” era.
Nine world records fell in London. It was hardly the record rush of Beijing’s 25 – or the ridiculous 43 of the 2009 Rome world championships – but it was a start.
US national team director Frank Busch wasn’t surprised.
“Never underestimate an athlete when the bar has been raised,” Busch said. — AFP