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SO CLOSE

He stood on the deck of the pool, and he tried to summon a look most evil. Alexander Popov stood in the starting blocks, and he turned his head to the left, his eyes drawing sight on his American rival, and for an instant, all of the old feelings were back.

Popov stared, and he did not smile. For a moment, he looked menacing, mysterious, cold.

For a moment, he looked like Russia.

The Cold War has thawed now. Nobody talks about the Russians, mostly because by the time you read this, Russia will be the size of the coffee table in your living room. What once was the Soviet Union is 15 different countries, and no one talks about Nikita Khrushchev's shoe or Gary Francis Powers' plane any longer.

For a while, however, they still can talk of Popov and Gary Hall Jr. For a while, the rivalry still has a place.

They are the last gunfighters, soldiers of a war fighting long after the truce. And it was their battle in the 100-meter freestyle _ still the defining race of swimming _ that brought the familiar drama to the pool Monday night.

The United States vs. Russia. It shaped global politics, it provided heroes and villains for movies and novels. And it defined the Olympics for athletes and spectators alike. How good did an American have to be? Good enough to beat the Russians, that's how good. History will remember the '72 basketball victory by the Russians. And the '80 hockey victory by the Americans. And the boycotts by each nation.

And it will remember the '96 battles of Popov and Hall.

It also will remember this: Popov won. The Russian Rocket took over with 10 strokes to go, touching the wall with seven-hundredths of a second to go. Seven-hundredths. Turn out the light and wait for the room to get dark. That takes about seven-hundredths of a second. Think of this: The battle between the Cold War remnants was decided by 0.07.

"I think this is going to be a rivalry that will last for a long time," Hall said. "There is always a Russian opponent who is world-ranked and tough to beat. This Olympics, it was Gary vs. the Russian."

Mostly, it was the Russian. Popov became the first swimmer to win the 100 in back-to-back Olympics since Johnny Weissmuller in 1924 and 1928. No wonder they call him Tarzan.

They call him other things, too. The Russian athletes of old may have come across as emotionless, but Popov is a world record-holder in smirk, too. He stares down opponents, goes out of his way to psyche them out. The last time he and Hall met, he turned at a 45-degree angle to psyche out Hall. He also said if Hall's father, former Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Sr., was in attendance, the pressure would be too much for his rival, whom he says talks too much.

This guy is Russian? He trains in Australia much of the year. He has a contract with Reebok. He grins and jokes and answers questions in English. And he engages in a bit of splash-talk, too. He once described himself this way: "When I am at my best, no one can beat me. When I am not at my best, no one can beat me, either."

But if Popov is a different kind of Russian, then Hall is a different breed of American swimmer, too. His lackadaisical training is legendary. He plays the bass and listens to grunge and drives a '60s Volkswagen. He once described his training methods this way: "Think like a fish, drink like a fish."

So here they were, on the deck of the Olympic pool. Hall burst into a bit of shadowboxing. Popov did a little more staring. If the swimmers wore flippers, Popov might have taken one off, pounded it on the deck and said, "I will bury you."

And then they went into the water, and it was like a race between the Nimitz and the Red October. Hall was nine-hundredths of a second ahead halfway through. Three-fourths of the way through, they were in a dead heat. Only Popov's fingers drew wall first.

Seven-hundredths of a second. The time the sound takes when you pop a knuckle. When it was done, when both were in the water, it was hard not to wonder whether a little more training might have made up the difference. Or is Hall's way the right way and the rest of the world _ including Popov, a hard trainer _ wrong?

Hall dismisses the question. The difference is mental, he says. Practice is about quality, not quantity. But you wonder. The thought takes more than seven-hundredths of a second.

For the record, both swimmers are playing it cautiously about the preswim antics. Hall says he didn't see Popov do any of his head games. Popov's comeback was, "I didn't need to."

No, he didn't. But Hall did manage to narrow the gap with his best swim. He did hint there was more to come between these two.

And there is. The two swim Thursday night in the 50-meter sprint.

After all, a good thriller always has a sequel, doesn't it?

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