Ian Thorpe: boy with a fin

ROHIT BRIJNATH

JOHNNY WEISSMULLER, the legendary Olympic swimmer, was once en route to a golf game in Cuba in the late 1950s, when his car was surrounded by rebels. It was an uncomfortable moment, alive with menace, but the American coolly stepped out of the car, beat his chest and let loose a primitive yell.

Astonished at first, the rebels then embraced him. "Tarzan," they cried, "welcome to Cuba."

Weissmuller was one of many Olympic champions (Buster Crabbe was another) who played Tarzan in Hollywood movies. He rode elephants, wrestled with lions and fought crocodiles.

He would have, however, wet his swimsuit in fear had he seen Ian Thorpe.

To rephrase a line from another Hollywood film, Jaws may have retired to his Universal Studios museum, but it's still not safe to go into the water.

To stand alongside Ian Thorpe on the blocks, as swimmers are doing at the Commonwealth Games where he has entered seven events, is to be confronted by the Oxford Dictionary's definition of intimidation.

He weighs 104.5 kilograms (he recently informed us he needed to put on a little bit more muscle), has a neck borrowed from Mike Tyson, legs that could hold up a skyscraper, and a shoe size of 17 (the four letter f-word, he once called them after the constant attention they received). He wears a full-body wetsuit, apparently to help him move quicker through the water. One cannot help wondering if it is merely to hide his gills.

By the time his opponent has digested this, the announcer begins to introduce him. Usually this can take 30 minutes.

But let's forget the golds at the Perth world championship in 1998, the individual gold and silver at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the triple gold (200m, 400m, 800m freestyle) at last year's World championships. Let's just say this. He has more world records (21 at last count) than he has years against his name (19). And this kid was once allergic to chlorine!!!

It's enough to get off the blocks and look for an alternative career.

Yet ask Thorpe to describe himself, as he did last year after dominating the World championships, and the answer stupefies. "Very overrated", he said.

There is something both abnormal ("He's genetics gone crazy", said former Australian head coach Don Talbot) and normal about Thorpe. He is your every day young man, and he isn't.

He likes his mom's cooking, The Simpsons and Red Hot Chili Peppers. He also wakes up, six days a week, at 4.17a.m. to train, swimming almost 100km a week, only to be confronted by headlines, like in The Times, London, which read: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's Thorpedo.

From the time he was 15, he has been labelled the could-be, will-be, swimmer of the century, or to put it bluntly, the greatest thing to happen to water since Jesus did his walk on it. He has been subject to tabloid sleaze (ridiculous innuendo about his sexual preferences) and been accused (baseless it turned out) of having a woman reporter fired for mocking the size of his feet. It's enough to unnerve a man, let alone a boy.

But Thorpe wears his greatness lightly and with a charming grace. Recently, he posed on the Cover of a Melbourne magazine, wearing a suit and dork-like spectacles (think Clark Kent) but with a vest emblazoned with Superman's logo inside. If anything, he was gently mocking the world's view of him.

Champions are propelled by ego. When myths about their greatness are constructed, often they tend to swallow them. Thorpe's size of foot is useful: they help him stay grounded. When swooning commentators place his name alongside Mark Spitz (seven golds in an Olympics), or Dawn Fraser (three successive 100m freestyle Olympic golds), unconcerned that Thorpe is some distance from matching those feats, he could be excused for being seduced by their hype.

Instead, he will have none of it. Furthermore, he powerfully refutes it. As he said last year: "It doesn't embarrass me, it's frustrating. It's as if nobody hears what I'm saying. I have so much respect and admiration for those people as swimmers, their achievements are incredible and I can't fathom comparing myself to them. Right now, I have achieved a few things but nowhere near as great an achievement as what those people have."

He is champion who understands and embraces his gifts, whose sense of balance and self-worth is extraordinary in one so young. As he told the Melbourne magazine: "For myself, losing is not coming second. It's getting out the water knowing you could have done better. For myself, I have won every race I've been in." When he lost to Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200m freestyle at the Sydney Olympics, a race many believed he should have won, he did not pout, but joked with Dutchman on the victory podium and said it was an honour to have swum alongside him.

Last year, he topped a survey in Australia of athletes offering sponsors the best value for money. Part of it is his image (shy, clean cut, poised); part of it is a genius that has almost single-handedly oxygenated a sinking sport. It has been an improbable feat.

Swimming has been rife with fakes. Dressing rooms, through time, have been crowded with East German women with the voice of Pavrotti, and Chinese ladies with unfortunate moustaches. When 1996 Olympic champion Michelle Smith was banned for tampering with a urine sample, not an eyelash flickered in surprise.

Swimming is also a classically un-sexy sport, a television nightmare, for speed in the water does not translate in pictures. With the runner you see the heaving lungs, with the footballer the twist of a dribble, with the boxer the violence wrought by a jab, but the swimmer, camouflaged by water and goggles, is like some practitioner of an invisible art.

Ian Thorpe has altered much of that perception.

Because he's clean, an anti-drug crusader, a triumph of will and work ethic. Because he's a picture of imposing athletic beauty, as if he was constructed under God's full attention. Because if you look closely you will see that at turns he thrusts himself off the wall with oaken legs and gains a fraction of an inch from the others; because his slow, driving style, almost an economy of movement, is misleading because it is propelling him over three metres per stroke; because the muscular pitter-patter of his feet is probably faster than anyone alive.

The supreme athlete, for that moment when he embraces excellence, rises above the limitations of his sport. He demands attention. Tiger has changed the way we view golf; Thorpe has done it for swimming. Genius as always holds us in its thrall.

He says, quietly, modestly, he will be grateful if he wins five golds at Manchester.

We are grateful too. Just for the privilege of watching this boy with a fin.