Imperious Thorpe swoops to conquer in race of century

Maybe not the race of any century, maybe not Jesse Owens against the Third Reich or Secretariat against the world, but what the astounding Ian Thorpe did in the Olympic Pool here last night will linger in the mind long enough to acquire the status of greatness.

The big man from Australia, with the arm span of a condor's wing and the nerve of a gunfighter, won his fifth Olympic gold medal and as he did so he reminded us of what all the real champions do when they are pushed to their limits.

They dig down and fight with every fibre at their disposal, and in the end it was just too much for the sensationally quick Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and Michael Phelps, the 19-year-old boy from Baltimore who had supposedly inherited the world of big-time swimming.

These were supposed to be the Olympics of Phelps, the wondrously versatile youth who had mastered every nuance of every discipline and was poised to sweep beyond even the astonishing mark of his countryman Mark Spitz's seven golds in Munich in 1972. But that, you could see from almost the first strokes of the 200 metres freestyle final was another broken sporting dream.

Phelps can still write his name large in the annals of Olympic sport. He still has the chance to add five more golds to the 400m individual medley title, and world record, he almost nonchalantly gathered in on the first day of action, but this was a night that taught him a thousand lessons about the dangers of counting on the power of mere talent.

Thorpe, whose competitive maturity is especially stunning when you consider that he is just 21 years old in the middle of his second magnificent Olympic campaign, and Van den Hoogenband, 26, showed Phelps that they were too good, and had been around the top too long to be easily pushed on one side. The result was a desperate struggle for the all-American pretender. He slipped into fourth place, with the slightly considered Canadian Rick Say briefly occupying third, on the first 50m leg and could never impose himself at the most serious end of the race that had been awaited so long.

Thorpe, trailing the Dutchman for the first three legs, was imperious as he came in at 1min 44.71sec, 0.64sec inside the defending champion Van den Hoogenband's Olympic record.

The Australian reeled in the champion with vast easy strokes and as the third-placed Phelps, an urchin now with his face pressed against the window of the most glittering toy shop he had ever seen, gasped for breath, Thorpe and Van den Hoogenband embraced.

Thorpe said: "We're even now." Later he explained: "I said that meaning that we will be even in the next Olympics in Beijing, where it will be another tough race."

Where, you had to wonder, will be Phelps? He will be stronger, no doubt, and he will understand better that greatness sometimes doesn't come in a rush.

His Australian conqueror learned that vividly in his home town of Sydney four years ago when he, like Phelps here, was given superman status. It was an idea that the Dutchman, hard-eyed in defiance of rumours that he had used questionable means to shoot so quickly to the highest level of competition, tore down with his dramatic victory.

Here last night it seemed Van den Hoogenband was on the point of again shocking the world of swimming to its core.

He had staggered the sport's aficionados with his dramatic effort in Sunday night's 4x100m freestyle, when he turned in a blistering leg of 46sec, and last night he seemed set for another assault on the psyche of his rivals.

His first three legs were guaranteed to burn off all but the most resilient opposition - and they did. But there was Thorpe, with that quality of resistance to the ultimate pressure radiating from the pool, squeezing from him the last of his ambition. Van den Hoogenband said: "As the defending champion I had to show something, I wanted to win the gold and push back the limits of the world record. But then I realised I had just given too much in the first 100 metres, I tried so hard but I didn't have anything left.

"But when I look at it I see it is my second best time ever in an Olympic final and with all these swim phenomenons around, it is really something quite joyful, especially in this field of [Grant] Hackett, Thorpe and Phelps. It is not so bad to be beaten by the best in my sport. That is the way it is, and what I have to live with."

For Phelps there had to be a similar level of reflection. "This is all a learning process and I have to accept that," he said.

His coach Bob Bowman denied that there was any danger of a breaking of the spirit, saying: "He was not obsessed with breaking Spitz's record. It is not the centre of his being. He will grow strong from these experiences. He's at his first Olympics and he is on his way to proving himself a great swimmer."

Thorpe, as everyone, including Britain's Simon Burnett who came in seventh, now knows, has made it all the way to that high ground.

The Australian was told that his supreme place in his sport had been taken away, and here last night we saw his reaction. It was filled with the grandeur of beautiful execution and, more than anything else, a determination to produce everything he had.

Against that, the story of Phelps, the putative phenomenon, simply had to pause. Thorpe's accumulation of Olympic medals - he now has one more gold than the legendary Dawn Fraser - is threatening to be, one day, untouchable.

And now he says that he will be in Beijing to face any challenge from the world. It is statement that demands only the most serious response - not least from Phelps.

For him, it was something apart from being someone else's race of the century. It was the first day of the rest of a more realistic life.

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