OH, those Australians. In 1983 they used a winged keel to wrest sailing's America's Cup away from the United States. Now at the '88 Olympics, echoing that chapter of their sports history, they unleashed another secret weapon with startling results against an American cruiser. The surprise was swimmer Duncan Armstrong, a virtual unknown who outraced two superstars and set a world record in the 200 meters. The American was Matt Biondi, the 6 ft., 7 in. swimmer whom some thought might win seven gold medals to match Mark Spitz's feat at the '72 Munich Games. (It was the favored American woman, however, who brought in the gold. Story, Page 9.)
Armstrong also outpaced West Germany's Michael Gross, whose world record was erased.
There couldn't have been a better way to win Australia's 100th swimming gold medal in history, or to get the Aussies on the gold standard early. ``This will have a domino effect on the whole Australian team,'' predicted Dawn Fraser, a former Australian swimming champion.
Fraser, an Olympic winner in 1956, '60, and '64 and an adviser to the swim team, says rumors circulated earlier that ``Armstrong had something up his sleeve.'' And indeed he did, capitalizing on a favorable lane assignment next to Biondi.
``If you're right next to a champ, you can always pull that last little effort out,'' Fraser observed.
Digging out a last-lap kick, of course, is easier when you can conserve energy in the first half of the race. Armstrong chose to bide his time swimming in Biondi's wake, which washed through the lane marker that separated them. ``Duncan got a ride through the first 100,'' said coach Bill Sweetenham.
Not surprisingly, Armstrong had plenty in reserve heading into the final 50 meters, when both he and the surprise silver medalist, Anders Holmertz of Sweden, overtook the powerful American leader, who placed third.
``I was feeling very fresh and wasn't dying the way I usually die,'' said the Aussie, who had never before swum the distance in under 1:50, but clocked a 1:47.25 during his inspired effort.
At the '84 Olympics, another obscure Australian, Jon Sieben, upset Gross in the 200-meter butterfly, also while swimming in Lane 6. Gross finished second then, but was shut out of a medal this time, as was Poland's Artur Wojdat, who had the best preliminary time.
Given this, Biondi was satisfied with his bronze, in what he considers his worst event. He said Spitz comparisons were a media creation and that his only objective in Seoul was to swim his fastest. He emphasized that his sport is populated by many more top athletes than it was in 1972. ``The days of Mark Spitz are over,'' Biondi said. ``He didn't see the Australians, he didn't see the Swedes. Things have changed.''
Americans don't dominate anymore, and they don't just share the stage with the East German women, either. Britain's Adrian Moorhouse won an exciting women's 100-meter breast stroke, beating Hungary's Karoly Guttler by a slim hundredth of a second. And world record holder Kristin Otto had to hold off Chinese and French challengers in the women's 100-meter freestyle.