He didn't come to the interview room. He didn't come and didn't come, and still everyone waited for Ian Thorpe. His race had been finished for almost two hours, and he didn't come. "He's in the warm-down pool," an official from the Sydney Olympics announced at first.
"He's in doping," she said maybe a half hour later.
"He's at some obscure IOC function," she said a half hour after that, "but we'll get him out of there."
The winners at the Aquatics Center on Monday night arrived one after another and told their stories and shared their joy. There was Diana Mocanu from Romania, the 100-meter backstroke champion, telling what it felt like to win the first swimming gold medal in her country's history. There was Lenny Krayzelburg of the U.S., winner of the men's 100 back, telling his tale of emigrating from the Soviet Union and landing in Southern California and now in Sydney with a gold medal around his neck. There was no Thorpe.
The arrival of Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, the 22-year-old winner of the 200 free, aroused interest because he had beaten Thorpe. The margin was a solid .48 of a second. The time of 1:45.35 matched the world record Van den Hoogenband had set in a semifinal on Sunday. How had he won? What had been his strategy? His answers, in halting English—"I pushed off the wall on my last turn and saw I was ahead and said, I am going win a gold medal; it's unbelievable"—were duly recorded, but mostly to kill time. The wait was for Thorpe, the 17-year-old silver medalist from Australia.
Where was he? Autopsies had to be performed on an instant legend. Obituaries had to be written.
For the first two full days of competition Thorpe had been the face of the 2000 Olympics. Swimming had been the No. 1 sport of the Games. The Aquatics Center had been the heart and soul of host Australia's presentation to the world. Hey, look at us. Hey, look at what we can do. Hey, look at this man-child, this wunderkind. Thorpie! The Thorpedo. Look! For two days he had been invincible.
In an hour's time on Saturday night he had won the 400 free with ease, breaking his own world mark, and then come back after the medal ceremony to anchor an amazing upset of the U.S. in the 4x100 freestyle relay, a race of high drama and record speed, maybe the best relay race in history. Thorpe was a jolt of high-voltage electricity that went through his sport and his country. "I saw him on the bus coming over here," Dara Torres of the U.S. said that night, after she had won her own gold in the women's 4 x 100 free. "I'd never seen him. He had such large hands. I kept trying to get a look at his feet? And I did. Wow. I said to myself, This isn't a boy. This is a man!"
The buzz had been building for years. A prodigy at 15, already called by his coach, Don Talbot, "the swimmer of the century," Thorpe was now a combination of Tom Sawyer, Ricky Martin and maybe the young Abe Lincoln (Australian versions). He was the favorite son of every mother in the country, courteous and well-spoken, an absolute Boy Scout, a national treasure.
Did anyone not know the particulars of his life? He was the perfect kid from Milperra, a Sydney suburb. His feet were size 17—seventeen, for goodness' sake—virtual flippers. His mum was Margaret. He loved her cooking! His dad was Ken, a former semipro cricket player. His sister was Christina, a former swimmer. His dog was Tiny, a miniature fox terrier. His favorite band was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His favorite actor was Adam Sandler. He was 6'4", 213 pounds! He didn't like to clean his room! His secret ambition was to appear on Friends!