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Ian Thorpe won the clash of the titans on Monday night and rectified his error in Sydney four years ago when he managed to lose at his favourite distance in front of his home crowd. In winning the 200m freestyle, the “Thorpedo” beat both his Sydney conqueror, Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, and the young pretender to his crown, Michael Phelps of the USA.
The infamous meltemi wind of the past two days, which has ruffled the surface of the outdoor pool, was felt to be going to militate against super-fast times, but it is a measure both of Thorpe and his opposition that the Australian won in 1min 44.71secs, faster than Van den Hoogenband's Olympic record, and second only to his own world record of 1.44.09. Furthermore, Thorpe was off his blocks the slowest of the eight contestants, a result, he admits, of continuing concern after a false start and disqualification in the Australian trials.
Thorpe has already performed better than in the individual events at Sydney. He has now won two golds, in the 200m and 400m freestyle, and has the 100m free to come, beginning on Tuesday. The win also makes him the most successful Australian swimmer in history.
The quiet Dutchman almost spoilt the hullabaloo over the Thorpe-Phelps rivalry, just as he did in Sydney with Thorpe. He went out so fast that he was nearly a body's length up on Thorpe and Phelps at halfway, but Thorpe's deceptively languid style is so full of power and he surged back to ensure the race was won before the last 25m.
As for Phelps, in the unlikely event that he does nothing more of note this week, rest assured that he restored belief in the Olympic ideal on Monday night.
The “going for eight” golds was always a confection of his sponsors, and however much control a 19-year-old has over such things, it should not obscure the fact that he deliberately chose a distance at which he is not the best in order to swim against those who are.
Thorpe greeted his victory with a rare display of triumph, and there was a sting in the tale for critics at home. Referring to Van den Hoogenband, he said: “I knew he was going to go out quick. Now we are even. It will be another tough race in Beijing . I think that justifies my decision to change coaches.”
Van den Hoogenband said: “I gave my best, but Thorpe was better. He is the man in this distance. Maybe I started too fast.”
The Dutchman will have a chance to rectify matters when he begins his defence of his 100m freestyle title.
A tired Phelps was back out within 30 minutes to compete in the first semi-final of the 200m butterfly, and was unexpectedly beaten by Britian's Stephen Parry. Parry had been the best of the bad British lot in Sydney, who failed to win a single medal for the first time in Olympic history.
Another medal hope, Melanie Marshall, had earlier come a disappointing last in the 200m freestyle semi-final. Parry's victory raises hopes for breaking that eight-year medal duck in the water.