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The Big Event // SHOWDOWN IN THE 100

WHAT: Men's 100-meter freestyle

WHEN: Swim finals begin at 7:33 p.m.

THE BEST: Russia's Alexander Popov _ the defending gold medalist, the world champion and world record-holder _ is the overwhelming favorite to win this event. He is the only swimmer competing who has broken 49 seconds (his world record is 48.21).

The confident (some might say cocky), 24-year-old Popov could emerge as a star of the Games. He could win the gold in the 100 free, the 50 free and as a member of the 400-medley relay. He also could medal in the 100 backstroke if _ as he has hinted _ he decides to enter.

THE REST: American Gary Hall Jr. probably will have a better chance at beating Popov in the 50 free, but he and teammate Jon Olsen each could medal in this event. Both have been ranked among the top five in the world the past two years.

Hall likely will be carrying a part of his father's past with him into his first Olympic event. Gary Sr. qualified for three Olympics but never won a gold medal. His son's first Olympic appearance could be an emotional one, particularly if he makes it to the victory stand.

Olsen is hoping for an individual medal after a fourth-place finish in 1992. He owns two golds in relay events.

Brazil's Gustavo Borges is expected to challenge the two Americans for a medal.

_ SHARON GINN

Swimmers

to watch

ALEXANDER POPOV: Russia, world record-holder.

GUSTAVO BORGES: Brazil, 1992 silver medalist.

JON OLSEN: U.S., fourth in Barcelona.

GARY HALL JR.: U.S., Pan Pacific champion.

FERNANDO SCHERER: Brazil.

CHRIS FYDLER: Australia.

PAVLO KHNYKIN: Ukraine.

JANI SIEVINEN: Finland.

Past

winners

1992: Alexander Popov, Russia, 49.02.

1988: Matt Biondi, U.S., 48.63 (OR).

1984: Rowdy Gaines, U.S., 49.80.

1980: Jorg Woithe, East Germany, 50.40.

1976: Jim Montgomery, U.S., 49.99.

1972: Mark Spitz, U.S., 51.22.

1968: Michael Wenden, Australia, 52.2.

1964: Don Schollander, U.S., 53.4.

1960: John Devitt, Australia, 55.2.

1956: Jon Henricks, Australia, 55.4.

World

record

Alexander Popov: Russia, 48.21 (1994).

Top times

of 1996

ALEXANDER POPOV: Russia, 48.88.

JON OLSEN: U.S., 49.46.

GARY HALL JR.: U.S., 49.49.

PAVLO KHNYKIN: Ukraine, 49.76.

BJORN ZIKARSKY: Germany, 50.27.

NICHOLAS SHACKELL: Great Britain, 50.33.

CHRISTIAN TROGER: Germany, 50.36.

CHRIS FYDLER: Australia, 50.44.

Top times

of 1995

ALEXANDER POPOV: Russia, 49.10.

GUSTAVO BORGES: Brazil, 49.31.

DAVID FOX: U.S., 49.32.

JON OLSEN: U.S., 49.39.

GARY HALL JR.: U.S., 49.44.

FERNANDO SCHERER: Brazil, 49.46.

TORSTEN SPANNEBERG: Germany, 49.67.

CHRIS FYDLER: Australia, 49.72.

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