Feat of the Games

FIRST NIGHT: IAN THORPE; The Australian boy they call 'Thorpedo' has made a huge splash in the pool.
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The Independent Online
The message that Don Talbot, head coach of the Australian swimming team, relayed to the rest of the world was as chilling as anything achieved by his squadron of gold medallists in the pool. "We've a got a few more waiting in the wings," said the man whose accreditation says simply "Don". If Talbot can whistle up any more physical specimens like Ian Thorpe, the Sydney schoolboy who has flippers for feet, rivals would be sensible to invest in outboard motors for Sydney 2000.

Thorpe is a phenomenon, both in and out of the water. He stands 6ft 4in tall, weighs 14 stone and, the most famous statistic of all, takes a shoe size larger than his age. Only in October, when he turns 16, will the two match. Practically, having to send off to the States for a pair of shoes must be a chore; technically, being able to leg-kick 50m in a mere 28 seconds makes coaches slack-jawed. A good time is 32 seconds. Only the radiant smile of Susie O'Neill, the Queenslander who took her personal Commonwealth tally to a record 10 by winning six gold medals, has rivalled the awesome stern power of the boy wonder as the symbol of Australian dominance here. "He's incredible, just a fantastic talent," says Terry Denison, coach of the England team.

Of the 25,000 fax messages which have reached the Australians' headquarters in the athletes village, a fair percentage have been for the "Thorpedo". Mixed in with the love letters have been invitations to high school dances, a touching reminder that Thorpe is not yet legally entitled to cast away his school satchel and concentrate exclusively on his swimming. He is taught by correspondence course at East Hills Technical College, though it is a fair bet not much studying has been done over the past 10 days. Winning gold medals, four in all, and conducting interviews have been central to the rhythm of his life at the Commonwealth Games. "He's become the Jason Donovan of Australian sport," Ian Hanson, the press officer of the Australian team, says.

The only real question mark now is whether Thorpe will follow Kieren Perkins, twice Olympic champion, into the millionaires' club before the Olympics or afterwards. He and his mother, Margaret, already feature in a television ad for milk: "He's a good boy, but I do wish he wouldn't drink from the carton," she says as her little boy dribbles milk down his chin. The Australian Swimming Federation have appointed a commercial manager to deal with the off-water demands of sporting idolatry. In the lead-up to the 2000 Games, the arrival of a true working-class Sydneysider is a heaven-sent opportunity for swimming as well as Thorpe.

If the national age championships in 1997, in which he won 10 gold medals, alerted Australia to the true extent of Thorpe's freakish talent and victory in the 400m freestyle in Perth in January made him the youngest ever world champion, the Commonwealth Games have propelled him into wider waters. Rumours about the Thorpedo began to circulate before the Games. But not until he loped into the handsome new aquatic centre at Bukit Jalil and thrashed his way to within a blink of the oldest swimming record in the book - the one minute 46.69 seconds set for the 200m freestyle by the Italian Giorgio Lamberti at the 1989 European Championships in Bonn - was the truth fully revealed.

Thorpe's trademark is a late flourish, but in the 200 metres he started fast and just went faster, leaving the world champion Michael Klim, Daniel Kowalski and the double Olympic champion Danyon Loader trailing in his wash. The following night, Thorpe anchored a world record swim in the 4 x 200m freestyle relay, a mere prelude to his premium event, the 400m freestyle, and a fourth gold in the 4x100m relay.

"Having such power in his legs means he has great stability of stroke," Denison explains. "The legs have such big muscle groups, they build up lactic acid very fast, so the first part of a freestyle race is generally swum on the arms with the legs trailing. It's only towards the end of a race that the legs kick in. When Thorpe does that, it's just like an athlete changing up a gear on the track. He has tremendous acceleration." In the face of nature, then, what comfort is there for the rest?

"He's had no problems so far," Denison adds. "His career has been one big sweep upwards, but there will come a time when his perceptions will change and he will start to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. He's out there now as Olympic favourite in two events and he'll start thinking: 'I wonder who's coming up, perhaps there's a Russian or an American'. He'll start thinking that and he's going to plateau out.

"I can remember Adrian Moorhouse having to cope with the same sort of thing before the 1984 Olympics. He was expected to win, he was billed as the next David Wilkie and everyone got on his back. He finished fourth, but he learnt from the experience and won gold next time. It all depends how Ian Thorpe deals with all that. He seems to have his head screwed on, his coach too. But I believe the parents are already wondering whether he should take a year or two off school to prepare for the Olympics. If I was them I would want to keep a balance in the young man's life. Yes, do the training and all the preparation, but also try to keep his schoolwork going alongside it, just to try to control the pressure." Even if it means a day which starts at 4.15am and doesn't end until the homework has been done.

In Kuala Lumpur, guidance has never been far distant. Thorpe has been placed under the wing of Kieren Perkins, Phil Ryan and other senior members of the Australian team in the athletes' village. Perkins, the double Olympic champion in the 1500m freestyle, has been an inspiration to a whole generation of Australian swimmers, including Thorpe, who still has an autograph tucked away at his home in Milperra in the western suburbs of Sydney.

On Thursday night, Perkins paid the price of his own celebrity, suffering his first defeat in eight years in the 1500m freestyle at the hands of his countryman Grant Hackett, at 18 nearly seven years his junior. "It's not over, far from it," Perkins said. "I've felt more motivated here than I have for a long time." Yet, for all his defiance, the sight of an Australian legend trailing in third, 23 seconds behind his world record time, proved the one low point in a week of near unbroken success for the Australian team.

In Sydney, there will be no room for innocence. Thorpe will be swimming in his own back garden, the Americans will be there and Australia will expect nothing less than a string of golds in return for their adulation. There is exuberant talk of Thorpe matching the record of Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the Munich Games of 1972. "He's a nice kid, but he's still a kid," Talbot says. "He can't break records or win golds to order, but at the age of 15, he should improve a bit, shouldn't he?" It seems just a matter of keeping those size sixteens on the ground.