Thorpe is the man to beat if Phelps is to be golden boy


ATHENS - A few miles into the drive from the airport to downtown, the image of the elite swimmer looms on several billboards.

Michael Phelps?

No, Ian Thorpe.

When the American swim team returned to Greece yesterday after six days of training in Spain, Phelps got a reminder of the individual and the nation that stand between him and Olympic history.

Phelps is the hottest swimmer in the world, but Thorpe still carries enough weight to have adidas drop considerable coin using him to promote its brand. He could be the biggest obstacle in Phelps' bid to match, or perhaps surpass, the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz in 1972.

That quest might be moot midway through swimming's eight-day run at the Athens Olympics.

On Monday, Phelps will try to crash the 200-meter freestyle. Thorpe is the favorite there, and the next night he'll anchor Australia in the 800-meter freestyle relay, in which his homeland has long been invincible.

Like Michael Johnson's 200-meter dash in Atlanta eight years ago, swimming's 200 freestyle could be the seminal race here. Thorpe underscored why yesterday, when he was asked about the presence of Phelps.

"He's an excellent athlete, and I think he'll have a successful Games," Thorpe said. "But for me to look at one competitor is not fair. ... Look at what happened in Sydney."

At 18, Thorpe carried the weight of his hometown and the host nation at the 2000 Olympics. On swimming's opening night, he won the 400 freestyle and anchored a raucous win in the 400 freestyle relay.

Sydney underwent a mood swing in the next 48 hours, as Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands took the 200 freestyle world record from Thorpe in the semifinals, and the next night beat him to the gold medal.

Thorpe lowered the world record to 1 minute, 44.06 seconds in July 2001, but he hasn't broken 1:45 in the past two years. Van den Hoogenband is back. Grant Hackett, another Australian, is No. 3 all time, and Phelps has shown signs that he is ready to bust up his American record of 1:45.99.

"There are so many good swimmers involved in that race," van den Hoogenband said. "It's something extra."

Van den Hoogenband spoke Monday at the athletes' village. Phelps, who trained at the Olympic aquatic center yesterday afternoon, and the United States' other record-holders will take questions today in the largest media hall. Yesterday, the Aussies crammed into a much smaller room, and they didn't seem to mind being out of the spotlight they occupied four years ago.

"I feel more at ease here than I did in Sydney," Hackett said. "The whole team is more relaxed."

His head shaved, Hackett looked like a commando. His hair meticulously disheveled, Thorpe is eager to stop making news away from the pool.

Thorpe was second to Phelps in the 200 individual medley at last year's world championships, then dropped the event to protect his freestyle turf. Last December, he became the first to discount Phelps' chances.

At the Australian trials in March, Thorpe false-started in the 400 freestyle, where he's a lock, but gained a berth when teammate Craig Stevens withdrew. If he wins the 400 freestyle, has he ruled out giving Stevens the gold medal?

"I'm not ruling it in, either," Thorpe said.

Last week, he incurred the wrath of FINA, swimming and diving's world governing body, for stating the obvious, that swimming has doping cheats. Van den Hoogenband comes from a nation that was a doping pioneer, but Thorpe said he wasn't pointing a finger at the Dutch.

Team Phelps fired a salvo at the Australians last month, when coach Bob Bowman predicted victory for the Americans in the 800 freestyle relay. Neither team has announced a lineup, but it could come down to Phelps against Thorpe on the anchor leg.

Hackett wasn't as diplomatic.

"We've had great swimmers, great depth," Thorpe said, "but the U.S. has reestablished itself. A lot assume that Australia is going to win hands down, but it's not going to be as easy as that."

His mate was a little more testy.

"Talk is cheap," Hackett said, "and the only day we'll talk about it is on Day 4."

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