Work in Sports
Everybody loves Ian
Thorpe's record-setting performance was a 'family' affair
SYDNEY, Australia -- On my way to the Sydney International Aquatic Centre for the Olympic coronation of Ian Thorpe Saturday night, I am trying to find a way to quantify just how big Thorpe is in Australia. It's a little like measuring Mount Everest by looking up. How can you explain, to someone who hasn't heard live stroke-by-stroke radio calls of Thorpe's swimming races, just how big "Big" is? Start from the bottom, where the race is still on between his age and his shoe size. At 17, he has size-17 feet that propel him like flippers in the water -- which means if you swiped his slippers, you might fit both a left and a right foot into one of them.
Thorpe signed his first autograph at age nine, for a school principal/teacher. He broke 10 national age-group records in a single meet. When we change money at the press center, or drink milk or ride a bus or go anywhere near a billboard, there is Thorpe looking up at us. The guy won a car before he was old enough to drive. It was around that time, two years ago, when Australian head coach Don Talbot said Thorpe could become the "swimmer of the century." Thorpe was 15 at time. Fifteen! Just a happy-go-lucky kid, fielding "Happy Birthday" calls from the Prime Minister like every other teen.
I asked a colleague from TV7 Australia, the host network of the Games, just what he expected their TV share to be when Thorpe swam the 400-meter freestyle and 4x100-meter relay. "In the 80s, mate," he told me. "Don't think we'll hit 90." Eighty percent? Are you hosing me? Was the share that high in the States when Kennedy was shot? When they hit nine-irons on the moon? When the Simpson verdict came out? Eighties? Just what is that in terms of Super Bowl ratings?
Then we go inside the Aquatic Centre where, as the swimmers leave the starting blocks, the stands on their right side seem to get lost in the mountains. The place seats 18,000 people and, as I pass through them before the races, all seem to lay claim to "Thorpee" or "The Thorpedo" as their own. "My brother raced against him in Milpera (the Sydney suburb where Thorpe grew up)," a girl named Marjorie tells me. "My son took one of his classes," Edith Foster chimes in. "We know the parents," a couple tells me, aware, I believe, that mom and pop Thorpe (Ken and Margaret) are sitting two sections to their left. Here in this country -- where even Einstein would have to pass a swim test before moving on to middle school -- the degrees of separation don't seem to matter. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who is a close personal acquaintance of the mailman on the route that leads to the grandmother of the best friend of a classmate who once swam in a rec pool in the lane next to . . . Ian Thorpe.
His first race is a clinic. It is presumed that Thorpe, who owns the world record by two seconds, will smoke the field. His strokes are so long and economical he doesn't seem to moving as fast as the foes in adjacent lanes. But he never loses the body-length lead he builds on the second of eight laps. He later says he doesn't hear the waves of chants in the stands -- "Aussie, Aussie" on one side; "Thorpee" on the other -- before hitting the wall in a world-record 3:40.59. He looks up and mouths a deliberate "Thank you" while exhaling. "It was to God, for letting me get to this stage. It's a gift," Thorpe explains later. "I was also saying 'thank you' to my parents, my coach, to Sydney and to the Australians." As Australian TV later surmises: "It was for the big bloke upstairs."
An hour later, about 40 minutes after singing his anthem following his victory in the 400-meter free, Thorpe is back to anchor Australia's 4x100 relay. Thorpe's teammate Michael Klim sets a world record 48.18 seconds with his leadoff leg but doesn't realize it until Thorpe tells him in the middle of the next leg.
"No, no, Michael, I mean you went 48.18," Thorpe says.
"Are you sure?"
Thorpe doesn't have a lot of time to convince Klim he isn't pulling a charade; he has to jump in again. His U.S. counterpart, Gary Hall Jr., a superior 50-meter freestyler, passes Thorpe in the first 50 meters and builds a half-body-length margin. Then Thorpe rallies, again so smoothly he is splashing less than his counterparts. Thorpe passes Hall back only meters from the line. The building sounds like the inside of a working CD player. Thorpe touches the wall ahead of Hall, then pops forward out of the pool and into the open arms of his teammates. "I didn't see the scoreboard, didn't hear the crowd," he says, "but I knew to react. I would've felt like a fool if I'd been wrong, but I knew to react."
The Aussies' time, 3:13.67, shatters the U.S. world record of 3:15.11. Even the U.S. team that takes the silver in Sydney beats the mark by 1.25 seconds but loses its grip on the longest streak in swimming. Since the 4x100-meter freestyle relay was introduced at the 1964 Tokyo Games, the U.S. men had never been beaten. Throw in the 4x200 free relay and the 4x100 medley relay, and U.S. men had won 25 of the 26 relays in which they'd competed at the Games.
Hall graciously acknowledges Thorpe and the race at the first press conference: "I consider this the best relay race I've ever been a part of," he says. "The last 50 meters I went after it. I doff my cap to the great Ian Thorpe. He swam better than I did. . . Dawn Fraser said it was the greatest relay race she's ever seen, and she's seen a lot of them."
Thorpe says all the right things for the better part of an hour. The conference room seats roughly 300, and volunteers are leaning back against walls on either side of the room, nodding and beaming at his every "thank you." He is asked whether he deserves the Swimmer of the Century mantle. "Still no," he says. "It's still something I can't justify, something I can't accept until I achieve a lot more." So if you're racing Thorpe in the 200 free later this week, it's a great time to take up the backstroke.
A good three hours after the last race I'm on a 15-minute walk to the main press center. Along the way I overhear a man telling his son to put away his ticket stub for safekeeping and for proof. "Look, your mates will ask where were you when," he says, "and you'll tell `em 'See this? I was there.'"
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Brian Cazeneuve is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Cazeneuve's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.