Thorpe eager to set record straight

RAKESH RAO

HE is the most famous swimmer in the world today. But that is not the only reason why Ian Thorpe was in the news since March this year, when the trials to select the Australian swimming squad for the Olympics were held.

Thorpe had been toying with the idea of trying for a "Magnificent Seven" at Athens to go with his triple gold effort in the Sydney Games four years ago. He wanted to win the freestyle events over 100, 200 and 400 metres, the 200m individual medley plus the three relays. Later, he dropped the idea of taking part in the shorter medley and wanted to concentrate solely on three golds in freestyle and relays. But a rare stumble, as he overbalanced himself on the blocks of the 400m freestyle trials, saw the 21-year-old being sensationally disqualified from the event.

The following day, with Thorpe out, Grant Hackett and Craig Stevens finished the 400m freestyle final, in that order. Thorpe handled the disqualification with grace and won admiration for his impeccable conduct. Since becoming the youngest male world champion at 15 in 1998, Thorpe has dominated the eight-lapper. Unbeaten in the event for the last seven years.

Thorpe holds the world record since August 1999, when he won the Pan Pacific title in Sydney. He has improved his own record four times, the last being in the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games. In such a background it was indeed hard to believe Thorpe's absence in the event at Athens. But thanks to Craig Steven's magnanimous gesture of opting out in Thorpe's favour, the Aussie got a chance to defend his title. Stevens whose announcement with Channel Seven's Today Tonight was reportedly worth $130,000, said, "I will get to see Ian swim that race on day one of the Olympic Games and to also put all my focus on two other events the 4x200m freestyle relay and the 1500m freestyle."

Now that Thorpe is in with a chance to win six gold medals in Athens, he knows only too well how difficult it can get. In what is remembered as one of the biggest upsets in Olympic swimming, Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband had taken the 200m freestyle gold and the world record from Thorpe in Sydney. The result also shattered Thorpe's dream of winning a 200m and 400m `double' before his home fans. Not surprisingly, Thorpe reclaimed the world record in early 2001.

He is now eager to set the record straight in Athens. But Thorpe has a word for those who, this time, expect a bigger golden sweep. "I think what everybody is, may be, forgetting is this is not a shoo-in. This isn't going to be easy for me to do." That's Thorpe.