The East German women turned Moscow's sparkling new swimming hall into their own private lake, while the Soviets arrived on schedule as a world power in the men's events. But here more than in any other sport the shadow of the boycotting Americans hovered constantly over the competition.
The United States historically showed the way in men's swimming -- a la Mark Spitz's seven gold medals at Munich and the even more overwhelming team domination at Montreal -- and there's no reason to think it wouldn't have taken top honors again here. As for the women, they had lost their No. 1 spot to East Germany at Montreal but had seemed to gain it back on the basis of recent international results. At the very least they would have made it much tougher for the "fearsome Frauleins" -- and they probably would have wound up dividing the spoils fairly evenly if not reclaiming the upper hand.
Even some of the medal winners indicated that they regretted the circumstances that left them unable to battle it out against their arch-rivals, and everyone agreed that of course the competition would have been much more difficult if the Americans had been here. But they weren't here, so we'll never know for sure -- as the Soviet and East German medal winners kept going out when asked the inevitable hypothetical question.
There was no single overwhelming figure like Spitz this time, but there was certainly one momentous occasion. That came in the men's 1,500, when to a thunderous, steadily increasing roar of encouragement from the packed stands, Vladimir Salnikov became the first man ever to go under 15 minutes for the metric-mile distance of 1,500 meters -- a feat equivalent in swimming to the breaking of the four-minute mile barrier in track.
He did it with plenty to spare, too, with a world record 14:58.27 clocking, and afterward played down the psychological aspect.
"I don't think it was a psychological barrier for me," Salnikov said, "and I don't think the limit has been achieved."
With a performance like that, of course, the Soviet star wasn't in the position of some other winners who had to wonder what might have happened if the Americans had been competing.
"If they were here, I'm sure I would swim as I did today," he said -- and few doubted that the gold medal still would have been his.
Salnikov, who also won the 400 and picked up a third gold medal in a relay, was the top individual star among the men, with the rest of the medals spread out among a dozen of his Soviet teammates plus various others from Sweden, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere. The USSR won 7 of the 13 gold medals and a total of 17, compared with 6 golds and 22 overall for everyone else.
Sergei Fesenko got the "home team" off on the right foot in the opening event of the program, winning the 200-meter butterfly to become the first Soviet male swimmer ever to earn an Olympic gold medal. Sergei Kopliakov, who finished with two golds and a silver for No. 2 honors overall, was the next Soviet winner, in the 200 freestyle. Then Salnikov swam his big 1,500, and he and his teammates kept it up from there.
None of this was surprising, for the Soviets had shown via an improved performance at Montreal and continued lowering of their times since then that they were making a big push to do well before the home crowd this year. Salnikov would have been the favorite in his specialties in any case, and it had been concluded long ago that the Americans weren't going to win any 12 out of 13 gold medals as they had in 1976. But the strong US contingent, including such record-breakers as Rowdy Gaines, Peter Rocca, Mike Bruner, Steve Lundquist, and Jesse Vassallo certainly figured to win at least six or seven golds -- and relegate the home team to second place.
On the women's side, East Germany often seemed to have the pool to itself with a deep and talented team on which 17 competitors won medals. Rica Reinisch , with world records in both backstroke events and another gold medal in the medley relay, was perhaps the top individual star, although Barbara Krause and Caren Metschuk matched her three golds, while Inez Diers outdid them all in terms of total medals with five.
With Americans like Tracy Caulkins, Cynthia Woodhead, Mary Meagher, and Linda Jezek absent, there just wasn't any competition, as the East Germans swept six events, were 1-2 in another, and were shut out only once. Even with all this, they couldn't improve on their Montreal gold medal harvest, once again taking 11 of the 13 first places, but they loaded up much more heavily on silver and bronze to win 26 total medals against 13 for all other competing nations.
The only other winners were Australia's Michelle Ford in the 800 freestyle and the USSR's 200-meter breaststrokers, who scored a 1-2-3 sweep just as three other Soviet women had at Montreal in this one event, which they really seem to have invented.
And so it will be 1984 before the United States gets a chance to regain its accustomed Olympic predominance -- and by then there undoubtedly will be an almost entirely new cast of characters. For whether it's the hours one must put in, the premium on speed and endurance, or whatever, this is a sport so youth-oriented that even in the communist nations -- where other athletes keep going much longer on the average than their American counterparts -- the swimming turnover is almost total from one Olympics to the next. Thus among East Germany's 17 medal winners here, only Andrea Pollack had also won one at Montreal, while Kopliakov and Andrei Krylov were the only Soviet swimmers to win medals in both games.
Perhaps because of the boycott, more than the usual number of US swimmers will hang in there for another four years in hopes of getting the chance they missed this time. Certainly they were all eagerly watching the results here as they trained for their own US nationals, which are taking place this week at Irvine, Calif.
"It's hard not to think about how they're doing . . . but I don't really dwell on it," Caulkins was quoted as saying there. "All we can do is look at their times and then go out and try to beat them."
That's small consolation in place of an Olympic medal, of course, especially since there's always the question of whether you can compare times in one place and another with any validity anyway. Some people think you can, though, as Mark Spitz once explained with the simplest of logic. "A pool is fast or slow," he said, "according to who is swimming in it."
Undoubtedly that's the philosophy in Irvine this week as America's best go out and try to knock down the marks posted here. But even if they succeed, would they have beaten Salnikov, Reinisch & Co. head to head on those particular days and nights with the medals on the line? Unfortunately, it's a question without any answer.