With Biondi Shooting for Career 10 Golds, US Swim Team Looks Strong

ASKED what they most anticipate on the eve of the Barcelona Games, two long-time Olympic watchers cast their eyes toward the blue waters of the Bernat Picornell swimming complex.

"The American swimming team is going to be the star of the Games," predicts Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan. "They are loaded."

"From a historian's point of view," says Olympic chronicler and NBC researcher David Wallechinsky, "the high-profile story to watch will be Matt Biondi. He's got a chance to become the first athlete to ever win 10 [career] gold medals."

Mark Spitz, of course, captured seven golds at a single Olympics (the '72 Munich Games), and nine overall, both records. He shares the latter mark, however, with Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi and Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina. Biondi, a 6 ft., 7 in., 210-lb. freestyler, has six golds from '84 and '88 and is entered in four events here. If he wins but one race, he will become the first swimmer to win golds in three Olympics.

One of his toughest challenges will come in the 50-meter freestyle on Thursday, July 30, when he and teammate Tom Jager engage in what Jager considers the best rivalry in the Olympics. Jager holds a 16-to-8 advantage in 25 head-to-head races.

Biondi and Jager, both in their mid-20s, are only two of the headliners on easily the oldest, but perhaps the best, swim team the US has ever sent to an Olympics. (The average age for the men is 24 and for the women, 21.) Dennis Pursley, national team director for US Swimming, says financial assistance "has enabled our swimmers to pursue their careers past college years."

Endorsement money has also provided lucrative opportunities for established veterans like Biondi, Jager, and Janet Evans, a triple gold medalist in 1988 who was one of the few swimmers to crack the East Germans' domination. The GDR monopoly dates to 1976, when the German women traveled to Montreal with no previous record of success and returned with 11 of 13 gold medals and set world records. Suspicions of drug use (recently confirmed) followed the program thereafter, and often demoralized the competitio n. But given a level "playing field," the American women have reemerged as the major force in the sport. Now there are only four individual East German records on the books, and the US could erase some of those here.

The Olympics won't be strictly an American pool party, though. Hungary boasts Tamas Darnyi and Krisztina Egerszegi, who, as a 99-pound 14-year-old in 1988 became the youngest swimmer to win an Olympic gold. Suriname has butterflyer Anthony Nesty, who beat Biondi by one 1/100th of a second at 100 meters in Seoul. The host country will cheer lustily for world record-holder Martin Zubero, a backstroker who lives in Florida but whose dual citizenship makes his quest for Spain's first swimming gold possible.

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