Swimming: Ultimate Olympian takes final bow with his usual free style

Ian Thorpe, Australia's greatest swimmer, talks of his relief after retiring at 24 citing weight of responsibility. By James Lawton in Brisbane
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The Independent Online

Two years ago in Athens he was an ultimate Olympian, his great Condor span overwhelming the Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and the much-ballyhooed American Michael Phelps in what had been described as the race of the century.

Ian Thorpe seemed to reach beyond the dimensions of the pool which had become for a little while the centre of the sporting universe. He didn't beat his opponents in his great reach for another Olympic gold in the 200 metres spectacular. He consumed them. But yesterday, in Sydney, the god in athletic form became just another relatively happy, if still rather confused, young man. At 24 the millions of dollars, and fresh laurel leaves, awaiting him in Beijing in two years' time had no more appeal than a dubious blind date.

In announcing his retirement he expressed the agony of all those great sportsmen who one day hit a wall which they know, with a terrible clarity, separates them from all that was once at the core of their existence. But if there had been pain, it was gone now, he declared.

Said the fabled "Thorpedo": "I discovered that you can swim lap after lap staring at a black line and then suddenly look up and see what's around. I'm proud of my decision because I have faced up to something I could no longer deny. I realised that there were now things more important to me than swimming."

Chief among them, he made clear, was having a life not dominated by the imperatives of endless training, of daily re-motivation sessions that the natural winners, as he was for an extraordinary decade, undertake as instinctively as a commuter steps on to his morning train. Thorpe, who, as a 14-year-old, became the youngest male to represent Australia and a year later, stunningly, won his first title, smiled a lot when he made his final bow yesterday in a five-star hotel.

But there were tugs of deeper emotion, too, as the sports nation that has adored him for so long was briefly distracted from the impending Ashes cricket series.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, interrupted a visit to Australian war graves in Vietnam to speak to the nation. He said that "Thorpey" was an incredible athlete, a national treasure and a "good bloke". His greatest recollection was not the race of the century in Athens but the devouring of Gary Hall Jnr in the dramatic defeat of the muchvaunted American team in the relay at the Sydney Olympics. Then Thorpe was more than a national hero, he was, suggested Howard, the spirit of his sports-obsessed land.

Yesterday, Thorpe made it clear how relieved he was to put down such responsibility, saying: "The support I've had down the years has been incredible. I know I have inspired people but they inspired me too. But then I reached this point when I just realised I couldn't do it any longer."

The moment of final decision came at 2.53 on Sunday afternoon. "I knew I had made up my mind and then I looked at my watch. I knew I would never forget that moment. I'm 24 years old, just 24, and I have the rest of my life to live. If there is sadness, I do not feel it now because I think I can achieve other things, which suddenly are just as important to me as swimming titles."

Not all Australians were quite so prepared to take the broad view of life's possibilities. The leading coach Lawrie Lawrence said: "This is a sad day. He leaves a huge hole, I've never seen a talent like him, not just in his body but in his beautiful technique. When you put that together with the deepest of dedication it is inevitable you have a superstar. I'll always have a picture in my mind of him mowing down Hall when we beat the Yanks in Sydney. It's something you know you'll never forget."

For Thorpe the road to Damascus led him to Southern California. He went there to recharge his body and his mind after fighting injury and illness and waning motivation after the dramas of the Athens Olympics. "One important thing happened in Los Angeles," Thorpe was recalling yesterday. "As I got physically fit, my mind also got fit. I started asking a lot of questions. And I started looking at myself as a person. This begged another question. What would life be like without swimming? It was my security net. But then it also meant that I didn't balance out my life in the way that I should have done. So I realised I had to prove other things to myself and let swimming take a back stage for the first time in my life."

For some outside of the ferocious circle of world-class competition, there was no hint of weakness when Thorpe walked away yesterday. Quite the opposite, certainly, in the view of the grand dame of Australian sport, fellow gold medallist Dawn Fraser, who once inflamed the athletic bureaucracy by stealing the Olympic flag at Munich, and used to welcome guests at her pub in Sydney with a breakfast bottle of beer. She saluted Thorpe's independence of mind. She said: "He has done so much for his sport and carried himself so well. He was the greatest freestyle swimmer we have seen and we should be thankful he has come out of all his successes still in touch with real life."

In his last days as one of the world's most successful sportsmen there was a small but telling reminder of the pressures that come to a winner of the dimensions and consistency of Thorpe, a swimmer who has railed against the the perversity of widespread drug use. He had a routine visit from the drug testers. They came with their phials and their officially required po-faces, monitors of blood and the possibility that no winning athlete on earth is clean. That was a shadow that Thorpe always swept beyond with a wing-span bequeathed by the gods.

Yesterday he made it official. All the striving was over. Whichever way you looked at it, he could only be seen as a winner. A different race, perhaps, but who could say it wasn't the same result?

Golden years: Thorpe's medals

Olympic Games

2000 Gold: 400m, 4x100m and 4x200m. Silver: 200m and 4x100m.

2004 Gold: 200m (below) and 400m. Silver: 4x200m relay. Bronze: 100m.

World Championships

1998 Gold: 400m, 4x200m relay.

2001 Gold: 200m, 400m and 800m, 4x100m relay, 4x100m medley relay.

2003 Gold: 200m and 400m, 4x200m relay. Silver: 200m individual relay. Bronze: 100m.

All medals freestyle unless stated

Too young to go? Other sports stars who quit at a tender age

Mark Spitz

Swimmer who won two gold medals at the 1968 Olympics, a record seven four years later - then retired, aged 22. Attempted comeback for 1992 Games, but failed to qualify.

Barry John

Considered by many as the greatest fly-half in rugby union history, formed a devastating combination with Gareth Edwards in the great Welsh team of the late 1960s and early '70s. Retired at 27 in 1972, citing the pressures of fame.

Bjorn Borg

Won Wimbledon five years in a row, and the French Open six times. After 109 weeks at No 1 and 62 career titles, retired in 1982 at 26.

Olga Korbut

Soviet gymnast won three gold medals and one silver in the 1972 Olympics in Munich aged 17, and one gold and one silver in the '76 Montreal Games. Retired in 1977 aged 22.