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BEIJING (Reuters) - World record holder Alain Bernard opened the war of words for the Olympic swimming competition on Thursday, stating he was the favorite for the 100 meters freestyle and the French relay squad would "smash" the Americans.
Bernard lowered Pieter van den Hoogenband's world record to 47.50 seconds in March and four of his title rivals have since swum under 48 seconds, making the blue-ribbon event one of the most open on the Beijing program.
Not according to Bernard.
"The 100 meters favorite, it's me," he told journalists in Beijing. "If I didn't believe I was, I wouldn't be here at all.
"I've always said that 10 to 15 swimmers could be on the podium. But physically, I'm on top. I'm fitter than I was at the French championships, fitter than I was at the European championships."
A great fan of double Olympic champion van den Hoogenband, Bernard said the Dutchman, below par in recent months, was far from finished despite having the 13th fastest time this year, 0.87 seconds behind Bernard's world record.
Van den Hoogenband has withdrawn from the 200 freestyle to concentrate on defending his Olympic title.
"He will be there, believe me," Bernard said of the Dutch veteran. "He's going for his third title, and for someone like me, taking part in his first Olympics, it's impressive."
Bernard also said the French relay quartet, in a remark reminiscent of Gary Hall Jr's comments the Americans' would "smash the Australians like guitars" just before the Sydney Olympics, would be one of the teams to beat.
France with a team including Amaury Leveaux, Frederic Gilot and Frederick Bousquet clocked 3:12.54 in June, only 0.08 seconds from the world mark and Bernard was bullish ahead of Sunday's 4x100 freestyle relay heats.
"The Americans? We're going to smash them. That's what we came here for," Bernard said.
"I'll start my Games in the 4x100 meters freestyle relay final, confident that my pals will have qualified easily.
"If the relay goes according to plans, than we'll be on a roll."
Editing by Greg Stutchbury