Michael Phelps swims, what does Ian Thorpe do?

Caroline Frost
August 18, 2008 12:00am

BEIJING has the past week played host to two of the world's greatest-ever swimmers. But has the gold on Thorpie's medals lost its shine?

We all know what Michael Phelps has been up to - eating, sleeping and ploughing his way once again into history.

With our own Ian Thorpe, it's been a little harder to tell.

Presumably when he's not hanging out behind the VIP rope with such luminaries as Jackie Chan and Henry Kissinger, he's doing sterling work mentoring less-experienced athletes and promoting the Aussie brand.

But spotted ambling around the shops in a shapeless hoodie, his heroic status does appear a little diminished in comparison with the lean machines still working the water.

It seems the label of icon has all but been revoked.

Phelps' coach said before the Games that his gifted charge only broke Thorpe's 200m freestyle world record last year because of his improved underwater kicking technique.

In a straight-line race, coach Bob Bowman admitted his money was still on the Australian.

Add to this Thorpe's own admission that, just before his retirement, he had been perfecting a new stroke that had made him, in his own word, lethal, and we can only be disappointed.

Thorpe's decision to opt for Armani over Adidas, meant that not only did the Australian team lose its aquatic figurehead, but spectators around the world have been deprived of a Phelps-Thorpe swim-off, which would have undoubtedly gone down as one of history's greatest races.

But as far as inspiring his own team goes, it is quite clear that Stephanie Rice, Libby Trickett and Leisel Jones have risen to the challenge of filling the golden gap.

And let's remember Athens 2004, when, after Thorpe's tumble and disqualification in the 400m freestyle trials, Aussie rival Craig Stevens found himself under enormous public pressure to relinquish his Olympic spot to an athlete whom he and the rest of us knew had more chance of bringing back a gold.

When Stevens surrendered his place, it was considered the sporting thing to do.

And it is in keeping with this tradition that Thorpe is not gunning for further glory at Beijing.

He may have had even more chance at the medals than his teammates.

But he would have been taking his place on the podium from another swimmer who simply wanted it more.

Someone whose life, like Thorpe's, had consisted of years of waking up in the dark, eating meals so regulated they could have been siphoned from a petrol pump, and making their way, hour after hour, day after day, along the endless black line on the bottom of the pool.

A line Thorpe knows more intimately than anyone.

So Thorpe has taken his life back, even if it is to wander around the Games looking a bit of a spare part and, in the process, has given someone else their chance for glory.

That's as shining an example of satisfying both individual need and team honour as any good relay team would wish.

While we may have been deprived of swimming's greatest-ever contest and left to glory only in Michael Phelps' history-making skills, Ian Thorpe can still provide his own brand of Olympian inspiration.