Thorpe strikes first blow in battle to break Phelp's invincible aura

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The wildest dream in these 28th Olympics - and maybe no great sports event ever needed to be sustained by one more desperately - is still just alive but by no greater margin than the stretch of an arm.

The wildest dream in these 28th Olympics - and maybe no great sports event ever needed to be sustained by one more desperately - is still just alive but by no greater margin than the stretch of an arm.

Unfortunately for America's 19-year-old potential demi-god of the pool Michael Phelps as he contemplates tonight's "race of the century" in the 200 metres freestyle final it could well be the fabled one of "The Thorpedo".

The Australian Ian Thorpe, who dominated the Sydney Olympics four years ago but came here somewhat marginalised by the boy from Baltimore's cool declaration that he might just surpass his countryman Mark Spitz's seven golds at Munich 32 years ago, is plainly not for abdication - not for a few more taut hours at least. Phelps can no longer beat Spitz's mark, only equal it after the defeat of his American team in the final of the 4x100m freestyle relay, and even this target is under heavy threat from Thorpe.

The Australian finished 0.43 seconds ahead of Phelps in last night's second semi-final after the controversial Dutch flier Pieter van den Hoogenband scored his own psychological victory in the first semi with the fastest time of a night tossed by high winds and a gathering tension. Hoogenband was 0.46 of a second quicker than Thorpe but he was racing, with his usual bite, against the clock.

The 6ft 5ins Australian, who on Saturday matched Phelps gold for gold - he won in the 400m freestyle while the American took the individual medley over the same distance - was fighting the first leg of a mano a mano battle with the man who wants to swim beyond his own huge aura.

Phelps walked wordlessly away from the pool, a pensive look on the face that broke into a smile of relief on Saturday night when he mouthed the words of the Stars and Stripes after bringing home his first gold. Thorpe was not exactly exultant but students of high-level sporting combat reported the sense of a man who had struck an important blow in possibly the greatest battle of will an Olympic pool has ever seen. Certainly there is no doubt that Thorpe's patience - and maybe even his nerves - have been stretched by the ever increasing hype surrounding the upcoming duel.

Thorpe said the other day, "Give me a break guys, were talking about a race in the pool - not the outbreak of war. I know what I have to do and I'll do it as well as a I can. That's about the extent of it as far as I'm concerned. I've got nothing against Michael Phelps. Full stop." Or, perhaps, full, flowing action.

Thorpe denied that his devouring finish was designed to put the "upstart" American in his place. "No it wasn't about anything like that - it was about conserving energy, putting in a performance that was about making my way to the final as conservatively as I could. The race that matters is tomorrow night. Tonight was about just getting a job done."

Earlier Thorpe had disappointed those anxious to whip up tonight's showdown as something more than a collision between two superbly gifted swimmers, saying, "I've talked about this race for some time, and you know that I see it as a very important race.

"Michael Phelps is obviously a great swimmer and he has my respect. I have some achievement of my own, so obviously I'll be giving it everything I have."

Phelps' other business of the night - the crucial one of preserving his chance of matching Spitz's epic achievement in Munich - was to win his second Olympic gold with team-mates Ian Crocker, Neil Walker and Jason Lezak in the men's 4x100m freestyle relay.

But if that was vital to the unlikely ambition of eclipsing Spitz, the arithmetic of glory suddenly seems less important than the head-to-head fight for supremacy when the magnificently gifted young men - Thorpe is still a mere 21 - return to the pool tonight.

So far the battle is taking a thrilling shape. Phelps, the introspective kid from a broken home who was required to conquer childish fears before he could swim with any confidence, is the extraordinary gifted phenomenon of his age - the one man with the range of talent to seriously consider matching the Man of Munich. Thorpe is simply immense in the water. His condor wing span consumes the pool.

Fascinatingly, there is also the unchartable element of Van den Hoogenband. He burst into Thorpe's Olympics four years ago with two golds and a stunning world record in the 200m freestyle. For that unexpected ambush of Thorpe, he was both feted and doubted - and required to dismiss suggestions that his success had come with illegal assistance.

It scarcely makes him a unique figure in these Olympics - there are, after all, not so many sporting citizens about suspicion here in the shadow brought by the disgrace of Konstadinos Kederis and Ekaterini Thanou - and his own ambitions were emphatically underlined with the power of his performance last night. He will not see himself as an interloper in the greatest swimming race the world has ever seen.

It is just another powerful touch of intrigue in the most viable drama of these troubled Olympics.