Phelps vs. Thorpe: The great buzz match of these Games

Late last week, before anyone had dipped a toe into the Olympic pool, an American reporter posed a curious question to Ian Crocker. Knowing that many consider him to be the best butterfly swimmer in history, and that he presents one of the greatest threats to Michael Phelps's quest to match Mark Spitz and win seven gold medals, the reporter asked: "So, how does it feel to be the enemy?"

But bear in mind that Crocker is American. Now imagine how the US, a suddenly swimming-mad nation, might react Monday night if Phelps's golden road dead-ends at his other big threat, Ian Thorpe - an Australian.

It is well that this showdown will take place here, in a place that has shown itself capable of comprehending the full impact of the epic. Think thunderbolts. Think large wooden horses.

For this is a rivalry straight out of Homeric central casting - only add Speedos. Indeed, it is far more than an arm-thrashing, 200-meter dash to the finish. It is a clash of nations, a confrontation of immortals that could probably be the single most memorable moment of the Games - for one country.

"You don't want to turn this into a two-nation meet, but it really is a grudge match," says Duncan Armstrong, who is broadcasting the meet for Australian radio.

The climax might well be Monday night, when the two best swimmers in the world meet in the 200-meter freestyle, but the threads of the story weave through virtually every event at the pool this week - and go as far back as the Sydney Games of 2000.

During the past half decade, the swimming world has essentially split into two parts: the United States and Australia, and everybody else. This week, Americans will get a faceful of kangaroos.

The Australian women have already toppled the Americans in the 4x100 meter freestyle relay, and the sense is that the Australian women are the class of the pool this year. Moreover, for all the hype about Phelps, it would be a major upset if he beat Thorpe Monday night. Phelps's best time in the 200 meters puts him fourth in the event, behind Thorpe and Grant Hackett also of Australia, as well as Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband.

The fact that Phelps entered this race at all is a statement as much as a swim: I can take on the world's greatest swimmers in their best race and beat them. If he does, the rumblings around the press tribune is that this could go down as the most spectacular race ever.

Elsewhere, however, Americans clearly hold the balance of power. While the Australian men own the longer-distance races (mostly 400 meters and more), America has brought one of the most dominant sprinting teams in Olympic history, with gold-medal favorites in every stroke.

"In the past two years or so, Australia has faded back," says Phil Whitten of "They're competitive, but they can't beat our group."

That's fine, because Australians don't make very good enemies. The Soviet Union, they are not. With Thorpe's broad smile and blond hair, he is more California beach boy than Slavic stoic. As popular in Australia as Tiger Woods is in America, he plays the role of superstar reluctantly, going to movies because people can't recognize him in the dark.

Enemies are supposed to eat concrete and use chain saws as nail clippers. Aussie long-distance specialist Hackett said that if he won $1 million - the prize Speedo is offering Phelps if he ties Spitz's record - he would give it to charity. Next thing you know, he'll start adopting Athens's stray dogs between heats.

Talking to their fans doesn't help, either. Ask Brett Towers what could happen if Phelps beats Thorpe Monday night, and this is his answer: "He could become a hero." Yes, Phelps. In Australia.

Quickly, it becomes apparent that coach Vince Lombardi would have had trouble trying to assemble the Green Bay Packers in Australia. Not that the Aussie fans who have come here wrapped in flag-capes don't take this seriously - and want their boys to win. Mr. Towers can rattle off the names of the top Australian swimmers like grade-school multiplication tables. But winning isn't everything or the only thing.

"We accept all challengers," says Towers, "and we like the fact that we are challenged."

Dutch swimmer Van Den Hoogenband became a bit of a legend Down Under when he surprisingly beat Thorpe in the 200 meters at the Sydney Games. The point is, Towers and others say, Australians appreciate good swimming. The reasons are obvious: Australia is essentially just a big island, and 90 percent of the population lives within 90 miles of the ocean.

"During the summertime, we always go down to the beach or the pool," says Belinda Lowe, who has come to see Thorpe swim in his trademark race, the 400 free. "It's a very social event."

Perhaps America won't ever reach that point. Many of the American fans who filter past the gates and into a palace of plastic chairs confess that they're just here for the Olympic experience. But these two weeks of pitched interest are something. One American fan even recalls that Thorpe criticized Phelps for his eight-medal quest, and he has translated Thorpe's Zen-like statement about life and priorities into a verbal punch to the gut.

Still, he understands that in the pool this summer, it comes down to Australia and America. And with no evil empire to overcome, the Aussies will just have to do.

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