With its deep-sea pageantry and cauldron rising from a pool, the opening ceremonies came submerged in water. So, it turned out, did the first full day of competition. Looking the part of a frogman with his size-17 feet and black bodysuit, Australia's Ian Thorpe won two gold medals and touched off a celebration of Aussie amphibianism.
If Australians aren't literally at one with water, they are littorally so: Almost 095% live within 10 miles of the sea. Champion swimmers festoon billboards. Newspapers bristle with split times and annotated frame grabs of every turn. Why, in the run up to the Olympics, the U.S. swimming trials were broadcast on Australian television in prime time.
Thanks to the ocean pools lining the coast, even a chlorine-allergic kid—that's what Thorpe was at age 8—can take up the sport. When national team coach Don Talbot pronounced the Thorpedo "the swimmer of the century" two years ago, it wasn't entirely clear to which century he was referring. But Talbot could be forgiven if he meant the 20th, for Thorpe, who's only 17, is so precocious that he won a car before he was old enough to drive it. After his golden night in Sydney, Thorpe's rivals were left to ponder such unsettling questions as. When he's 18, will he have size-18 feet?
The winner of every final on this Saturday in the Sydney International Aquatic Centre picked up a world record to go with the gold. But the night will be remembered most for the men's 4 x 100, an event the Americans had never lost. In the anchor leg Thorpe lost the lead to which he'd been staked by Michael Klim, Chris Fydler and Ashley Callus, as Gary Hall of the U.S. raced to the front. But Thorpe is gaited to swim at a no-worries pace, regardless of the distance. With 20 meters to go and the crowd swollen with noise, he caught Hall and touched out for a winning 3:13.67 Tell the average American that Klim and Thorpe had book-ended the relay with two of the fastest 100-meter split times ever, and his eyes would glaze over. Tell an Aussie, and his eyes would come alight. What a pity if such a race, such a night, had been wasted on any other public.
In most superior athletes we can isolate one quality that accounts for their greatness. With Ali it was majesty; with Jordan, an out-sized will; with Woods, a serenity of mind. With Thorpe, in both the early predictions of his destiny and the unhurried ease of his stroke, it's a kind of inevitability. Inevitability is the way of nature, the same nature that plopped Thorpe's homeland down in the sea. As this night made clear, the Aussies have made peace with their moated lot. "