The Olympic Showdown Of Matt Biondi and Tom Jager in Inaugural 50 Freestyle
There is something special about being identified as the fastest person on the planet in a specific endeavor. Usain Bolt, the Jamaican track legend, holds the distinction on land. In the water, the honor currently belongs to Brazilian Cesar Cielo.
From the mid-1980s into the early 1990s, there was no doubt about the fastest men in the pool. Outside of one another, the United States’ Matt Biondi and Tom Jager had no peers. Instead, they volleyed ownership of the 50-meter freestyle back and forth. During that timeframe, they combined for nine world records (six for Jager) and took the record in the one-lap sprint from 22.40 to 21.81.
They battled at the World Championships and at Nationals on several occasions, but it was their showdown at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul that defined their rivalry. With the event on the Olympic program for the first time, Biondi and Jager each had the chance to make history. Ultimately, it was Biondi who stood on the top step of the podium.
Although Jager was the reigning world champion, having defeated Biondi in 1986 in Madrid, there was little separating the Americans as they prepared to race. An argument could be made, however, that Biondi had greater momentum based on his march toward seven medals (five gold) in Seoul.
Off the blocks in Seoul, Biondi and Jager were deadlocked, and found themselves in a showdown when they hit the midway point. But as the race unfolded, Biondi was strongest down the stretch and touched in a world-record time of 22.14. That performance sliced .04 off the previous standard, the 22.18 produced by South African Peter Williams earlier in the year. Williams was ineligible to compete at the Seoul Games due to the International Olympic Committee’s ban of his nation due to its apartheid practices. That ban was lifted ahead of the 1992 Olympics.
Jager, who went on to retain his world title in 1991, picked up the silver medal in 22.36, with the Soviet Union’s Gennadiy Prigoda the bronze medalist in 22.71. At the touch, Biondi looked to the scoreboard and unleashed a wild celebration that included several fist pumps and splashes. It was clear the triumph was long desired.
“The 50 free was it for me,” Biondi said during a past interview with Swimming World. “I have a picture of my reaction and it was the most jubilant I’d ever been. It was a world record. That swim made it for me.”