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Jacob Sweetman: Swimming against the tide

For Germany's swimming dream couple, Britta Steffen and Paul Biedermann, the Olympics have been a nightmare. The Sportsdesk reckons it is because of the expectations on their massive shoulders.

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Photo by Michiel Jelijs (The Wolf; Flickr CC)

Alexander Pope once said: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

Prescient words indeed. It is unlikely that Pope would have been a fan of the Olympic games – at least since the dastardly bastard powers that be removed the event at which he was mostly likely to win a gold medal (the poetry competition was done away with after 1948) – but he knew a thing or two about the one German word that most English know – “Schadenfreude”.

Maybe I’ve got him wrong, and I’m not really suggesting that he revelled in others’ failures, but it sounds like Pope was an underdog man – a supporter of the unfancied. They were never solid Olympic favourites, but in the performances of Britta Steffen and Paul Biedermann, Pope was proved spot on. It’s the expectation that’ll kill you.

Steffen was, until this week, the Olympic swimming champion in the 50 and 100 metres freestyle. She is a constant in the tabloid press, partly due to the fact that everyone with long blonde hair, good legs and a face with teeth in it will be called a beauty by Bild. But also because her relationship with Biedermann, which has been going for over two years now, is a tabloid dream come true. Germany’s best sporting love affair since Steffi Graf finally got bored of knocking back the advances of the weirdly religious, balding Andre Agassi.

Unfortunately, however, the pair will both be returning home on the boat the German authorities have got moored in the Thames for the purpose of being without medals. Without even a sniff of a medal (okay, that’s harsh, Biedermann’s relay team came fourth in the 4×200 metre). Steffen slunk out of the final in the 100 metres after qualifying by a hair’s breadth. She won’t win the 50 metres. Biedermann came fifth in the final of the 200 metres and 13th in the 400 metres freestyle.

Both of them hold world records. Both of them are national heroes. Both of them have found out that swimming in the Olympics is a young person’s game.

That expectations were so high for the pair is in part because of the relatively poor recent history of Germany in the games. Their swimming double act has carried them, and this year, as the smallest team to travel in a generation, the expectations are even lower, relying on a couple of dressage riders (and their horses, who actually seem to do all of the work involved) to add some more precious medals to the walls of their aristocratic homes. (This isn’t strictly true. I just wanted to have a go at the aristocracy, really. The German rowers are easily among the best in the world, and the discus thrower Robert Harting should win with a single massive heave of his gargantuan body that is really nothing else than a pulsating muscle on legs.)

Biedermann and Steffen can count themselves lucky. Imagine the pressure being heaped on the host nation’s athletes from ignorant broadcasters and a public desperate for something good to happen in their lives, or at least being stupid enough to believe that a maths teacher winning a bronze medal in the modern heptathlon is the sign of a Britain once again on the rise.

Among the gems spouted out of the gobshite BBC poolside was as Gemma Spofforth came fifth in the 400 metres individual medley. Writing this, I can’t actually believe that the words came out of Claire Balding’s (the BBC’s horse expert, dumped on to wetter duties for the week), but then I can’t believe a lot of the crap that I hear these days. But she actually said this: “No one deserved to win it more than Gemma.”

Er. Apart from maybe the four women who swam quicker than her in the race, eh? I’m all for the one eyed, but maybe not to the detriment of all of our other senses. Especially the ones that are screaming internally: “Shut up, just because she’s British, she doesn’t DESERVE to win anything. This is a swimming race.”

Sorry, I digress. I like Biedermann, even though he’s not as sexy as Mark Spitz ever was with his bristling moustache in an age when men had facial hair for reasons other than being ironic. I like Steffen because she worked her arse off in coming back from the biggest slump of her career this year to win at the European Championships. It is a genuine shame that all of this, all of this has to end like this.

But as Steffen said yesterday, “There’s no point in crying.” At least they’ve got each other.