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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | Inside the Olympics
: The Day in Sydney

Sorry, Mate, That's Not a Thorpe, This Is a Thorpe

September 17, 2000|MIKE PENNER

SYDNEY, Australia — Thorpe the Great, Thorpe the Magnificent, Thorpe the Yankee Killer, Thorpe the Conqueror, Thorpey the Porpoise With A Purpose, Thorpe the Wizard of Oz, Thorpe this, Thorpe that.

Ozzies, let me tell you about an athlete named Thorpe.

A Yank, this one was. Had some indigenous blood in him. Once upon a time, had a beaut of an Olympics himself.

First off, he won the pentathlon, just a bit of long jumping, javelin throwing, discus throwing, 200-meter sprinting and 1,500-meter running to loosen up the muscles. The next day, he took fourth in the high jump. Then, seventh in the long jump. Then, kicked off a new Olympic event called the decathlon by routing the field so thoroughly, his closest competitor finished 668 points behind.

He was also pretty fair in the game of Yankee rules football, playing offense and defense and special teams, scoring 198 points and 25 touchdowns in his last collegiate season and earning a place in America's Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In his leisure time, he slummed around in major league baseball, spending a good six seasons there.

So, young Sir Ian, you might be able to out-swim a nuclear sub at 400 meters. But there's another Thorpe out there, name of Jim, and before you climb aboard the same mantel, you'd first better towel off, enter the marathon, win it, enter the cycling road race time trial, win it, brush up on your googly and bowl Australia's cricketers to the Ashes, then sign on with Adelaide and lead the Crows to the Australian Football League Grand Final championship.

So far, what has Ian the Big-Footed actually done?

Taken a few dips in the pool, won a few races.

OK, he's won two gold medals, with a third likely on the way any minute.

OK, he's also set two world records, with a third likely on the way any minute.

But let's take a closer look at the first two medals. The 400-meter freestyle--that's Thorpe's and Thorpe's alone. Just the boy and his size-17 dorsal fins and that long, lean keel of a body and that wave-shearing rudder of a nose. Who designed this kid, the Royal Perth Yacht Club?

As for the 400-meter freestyle relay, Thorpe had help. In fact, the entire Aussie swim had help. Four of them did the grunt work and are now basking in the glory, but the gold medals hanging around the necks of Mssrs. Klim, Thorpe, Callus and Fydler can be directly attributed to an old English bloke who really never cared much for any sport, with the possible exception of pinball:

Pete Townshend.

Thirty-five years ago, Townshend began the odd habit of ending concert performances by The Who by grabbing his electric guitar around its neck, hoisting it high above his head and hammering it hard against the stage platform, bashing the thing all to bits.

Had Townshend never shattered that first guitar, U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr. never would have had a reason to suggest that the Americans will smash the Aussies "like guitars" at the Olympics and the Aussies never would have had the motivation to swim that world record in the relay against the Yanks and Klim and his mates never would have had the chance to gloat by playing a few chords of air guitar as a post-victory swipe at Hall.

(Then again, you call that air guitar? Come on, boys, that looked more like "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" plinked out on the air ukulele.)

Already, Aussies are heralding the 400 freestyle relay victory as their greatest Olympic moment, their own Miracle On Ice. Of course, Aussies are so inflicted with Olympic fervor, the Sun Herald celebrated one day of glitch-free CityRail transport with a front-page story and a banner headline: "WE DID IT!"

Still, the victory was some kind of result. Until this weekend, the United States had never lost the men's 400-meter freestyle relay. It had become the traditional American take-home souvenir from the Summer Games. Everybody else brings back pins and T-shirts, the U.S. men's swim team pack the 400 free relay gold in their carry-ons.

Instead, Americans are left with the following unlikely linescore to ponder:

The men's 400 freestyle relay team is 0-1.

The men's soccer team is undefeated after two games.

And headed to the quarterfinals for the first time if it can beat Kuwait Tuesday.

The Americans have tied the Czech Republic and Cameroon and would have beaten them both were it not for two clumsy fouls in the penalty area. They will be favored, finally, against Kuwait, and if they do the business in Melbourne, they will be headed out of the first round for the first time in 12 attempts.

Stranger still, a Dodger won a baseball game here. Tom Lasorda did the managing, his players performed the fundamentals, the game was rescued in extra innings, the end result was an important victory with a potential championship at stake in mid-September.

Crazy place, this Australia.

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