“Frog King” Kitajima reigns supreme
Just like Ian Thorpe and Aaron Peirsol, Kosuke Kitajima had competed at the 2000 Olympic Games as a 17-year-old. Unlike the other two, he had left Sydney without a medal to show for his efforts, placing fourth in the 100m breaststroke and 17th in the 200m.
The Japanese swimmer spent the intervening years training, analysing and preparing for Athens. And the improvement in his performances was tangible. He arrived in Athens as 100m and 200m breaststroke world champion. Until a month before the Games he had also been the world record holder over both distances, but had seen his marks bettered by American swimmer Brendan Hansen, who had set new 100m and 200m breaststroke records during the US national trials for Athens. It was clear that Hansen vs Kitajima, who had earned the nickname of “the Frog King”, was likely to be one of the outstanding sporting contests of the Games.
Their first clash between the two came in the 100m. Kitajima set the fastest time of the qualifying round, setting a new Olympic record of 1 minute 0.03 seconds. In the next heat, Hansen touched the wall just 0.22 seconds slower.
In the semi-finals it was Hansen who was the quicker of the two, as he lowered the Olympic record to 1 minute 0.01 seconds, with Kitajima only slightly slower. Barring a huge shock, one of these two athletes seemed certain to become Olympic champion, but it would have been rash to try and predict which.
Kitajima went out quicker in the final, but by the halfway point Hansen had come back at him and went into the turn very slightly ahead. Yet as they emerged from that turn, the Japanese swimmer had regained the lead, and despite Hansen's sustained attack, Kitajima refused to yield. He touched the wall in 1 minute 0.08 seconds to clinch gold by 0.17 seconds, letting out a scream of joy as his victory was confirmed.
A few days later, the two recommenced their duel in the 200m, with both men qualifying for the final with ease. This time, though, they had a third swimmer to contend with in the form of Hungary’s Dániel Gyurta, who had laid down a marker in the semi-finals by beating Hansen.
As it turned out, Gyurta and Hansen were left to contest a tight battle for silver, which was eventually edged by the Hungarian; but the gold belonged to Kitajima, who led from the front and touched the wall some distance ahead for a new Olympic record.
The Japanese swimmer added a bronze medal in the 4x100m medley relay before returning home to a hero's reception.