Facts going into the race:
Impact of morning finals:
Or make that impact of evening heats, which have turned prelims into moments of critical importance across the board in Beijing. The Phelps's of the world, who can cruise faster than some can sprint at full tilt, can afford to play a little. Most can't. Two women swam slower in the final than in the heats and one was just about the same. The medallists were all distinctly faster, including Pellegrini, who said she had not practiced for morning finals after missing a medal in the 400m. Two days on, she takes gold in a world record. I guess it was a quick catch up on that practice that did the trick.
What it took to make the semis:
Notes from the race:
In heats, Pang Jiaying (CHN) cracked Heike Friedrich's Olympic record set for the GDR in 1988 at 1:57.65, in a 1:57.37, then Sara Isakovic (SLO) lowered the mark to 1:55.86 before Federica Pellegrini (ITA), who wore two suits in the final and probably in the rounds too, settled the matter with a world recortd of 1:55.45. The suit underneath the bodysuit was more beach-wear/training suit than race suit. It was there for two reasons: in case her bodysuit split and all would be revealed; and because neoprene makes her skin blotchy so she wanted a barrier to her bodysuit. None of those distractions stopped Pellegrini from learning fast from her mistake in the 400m final, in which she played into the hands of rivals slower on paper by failing to get away from them over the opening 200m. Alberto Castagnetti, the Italian head coach, would doubtless have watched that one keenly and had a serious chat to his charge.
In the 200m final, Pellegrini was out second - behind Pang Jiaying (CHN), on 27.01 - in 27.27, 0.54sec inside her own world-record pace in the heats on her way to that 1:55.45 conclusion, which removed arch-nemesis and love rival Laure Manaudou (FRA) from the world-record books. Manaudou was never in the race, having opted out long ago at French trials. If she had only listened to Philippe Lucas for a while longer. As for the other Luca, well, imperial honours all round in Rome and its provinces, presumably. He is treachery personified forever and ever amen in France, of course. Pellegrini ploughed on after the 50m turn and by half-way had taken a commanding lead, turning in 55.92 (almost as fast as the time in which Ender won the 100m title back in 1976 - imagine that). Pang was next through, in 56.43, at which point Katie Hoff (USA) was still third on 56.67 and Sara Ivakovic (SLO) had worked her way through the pack from 7th at the first 50m to 4th in 56.86. Down the third 50m, it was Isakovic who put in the fastest 50m, a 29.17, which swept her past Pang and Hoff. Hoff was by then 0.09sec up on Pang.
Out of the turn, two swimmers stood out in terms of their aggression off the wall: Isakovic and Pang. Within 10m, the Slovenian had Pellegrini pegged, while Pang had ripped half a metre off Hoff, a woman with a little too much on her plate, as things have turned out. One of the tests of a true champion is how they respond under serious assault. Doubt set in as far as Pellegrini was concerned when she broke the world record in semis at Melbourne 2007 and declared that she didn't care what happened next because "no-one can take that away from me". Yes they could and yes they did: Manaudou claimed the crown and the world record - with a sizeable axe in her hand. Eindhoven in March this year fell shy of a real test and had the feel of a time trial in the absence of a true threat. And then came Beijing and the 400m. But something became much clearer in the 200m: Pellegrini is steely when she needs to be, she can grit her teeth, she can dig deep, she can hold on. And all of that she did with flare from 30m out from home.
The wave of willpower flowing from her and the momentum that Isakovic had coming off the last turn dissipated just a droplet with each passing stroke. Pang, meantime, had started to roll and 10m out China had reason to believe that one of its women would claim gold at a home Games. But the Italian was not about to miss the target again. In 1:54.82 - we trust that the great Don Schollander was sitting down while he was watching his telly - Pellegrini stopped the clock 0.15sec ahead of Isakovic with Pang just 0.08sec back on an Asian record of 1:55.05.
Imagine what we would have said in 1998 had a Chinese woman wiped 3sec off her best time for a medal at world level off the back of having had no finalist in the event at another world event just a year and a touch earlier. But these are days in which the pace of progress is so extraordinary across the entire world spectrum that pang has a right not to have her performance questioned if the Isakovic and Pellegrini, among others, are not questioned. Hoff set an American record of 1:55.78. The best of the stars and stripes a second off world record pace in a 200m race and no other American capable of getting in the final. In fifth was defending champion Camelia Potec (ROU) on 1:56.87, 1.16sec up on Athens, around the time in which Franzi held sway for so long but now a 2.05sec off what it takes to hold sway in polyurethane and neoprene.
Impact on all-time top 10:
All-time top 10, end 2007:
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
Of the 11 finals contested since 1968, three have gone to each of the USA and the tainted GDR. Pellegrini became the first Italian winner of the 200m and indeed any other Olympic event. Isakovic was the first Slovenian to make the podium and Pang, 7th in 1:59.19 in Athens 2004, the first Chinese to make the podium in the 200m The title has never been retained. Two winners have bridged 100 and 200m: Ender (1976) and Krause (GDR, 1980). Two have also bridged 200 and 400m: Meyer (1968) and Gould (1972), while Meyer is unique in bridging 200, 400 and 800. A footnote from history: silver medallist in 1976, Shirley Babashoff (USA) is second to none in being the most robbed woman in swimming history, having won four silvers behind GDR women on a steroid programme.
Fastest: 1:54.82, Friedrich (GDR), 1988
World Record wins: Gould 1972; Ender, 1976
Biggest margin: 1.96, Ender and State Plan 14:25 over Babashoff, 1976
Closest shave: 0.08, O’Neill (AUS) over Moravcova (SVK), followed by 0.10sec, Haislett over Van Almsick, 14, in 1992