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Popov comes up golden once again

There they were again, Alexander Popov and Gary Hall Jr. Stroke for stroke in the middle of the Olympic pool.

Same result: Popov first, Hall second. Just barely.

This time, Popov edged Hall in the 50-meter freestyle Thursday night, three days after the Russian beat the American at 100 meters.

His arms pumping with piston-like ferocity, Popov finished with a great foaming rush to become the first man to win the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events in consecutive Olympics. He never has lost either race in a major competition.

Popov, in defending his 1992 title, won the 50 in 22.13 seconds. Hall took the silver in 22.26, and Fernando Scherer of Brazil took the bronze in 22.29.

"I don't feel I lost a gold," Hall said. "It was within reach."

The duel in the pool was short and thrilling. Popov and Hall churned one length of the pool, arms flying and waves rocking the lane lines.

Popov's reach proved a bit longer at the end of swimming's most chaotic 22 seconds.

"If you win first Olympics, you become famous," Popov said. "If you win second Olympics, you become great."

Then, Popov set the stage for a showdown with Hall at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

"If you win third Olympics," Popov said, "you become history."

The margin of victory, although just .13 seconds, was a relative blowout compared with Monday's 100. Popov beat Hall by .07 of a second in that one.

Hall came into the Games hoping to beat Popov and carry on America's sprint domination that began with Matt Biondi and Tom Jager.

His father was a three-time Olympian, winning two silvers and a bronze.

Popov and Hall are exact opposites. Popov is relentlessly handsome and self-assured. He frequently attempts to psyche Hall out before races by staring him down, which Hall ignores as he shadow boxes on the starting blocks.

Hall is laid back, so much so that he often swims poorly in small meets, driving his coaches to distraction, only to redeem himself with impressive performances in major competitions.

Popov prefers the 100 to the 50, and Hall prefers the shorter race.

"The 50 is a one-way ticket," Popov said after the morning heats. "If you lose the start, you lose the race."

Said Hall: "Whoever wins the 50 is the fastest man. I have a sacred feeling in my heart for it."

The time was outside the 21.81 world record of Jager and the 21.91 Olympic record Popov set in Barcelona.

But that did not worry Popov. "Anything ahead of Gary is good," he said.

Popov is a stoic, dedicated trainer, while Hall is a Deadhead who prefers leather pants to sweat suits on the pool deck and prefers alternative training methods such as playing basketball, which keeps him entertained and drives swimming officials crazy.

"I reached the point a long time ago, where I was going to do it my way or throw in the towel," Hall said.

American Tom Dolan, the 400 individual medley champion, had to settle for seventh place in the 200 IM in 2:03.89.

Jacksonville's Greg Burgess was sixth.

Attila Czene upstaged world champion Jani Sievinen in the event to bring Hungary its second gold medal of the day. Czene won in 1:59.91, beating the 2:00.17 Olympic record Tamas Darnyi set at the 1988 Seoul Games. Canada's Curtis Myden took the bronze.