THE FAMOUS sneer that even at its best swimming could never be more than a disturbance in the water didn't take account of the possibility of Ian Thorpe. No more than golf imagined Tiger Woods or boxing Muhammad Ali.
These may be sports which do not permit easy parallels, but some men - even at the age of 17 - cross all boundaries. They are all of a glorious piece; they have an aura that flies beyond what they do, and however masterfully they do it. Thus we have the Australian wunderkind smashing world records as he picks up Olympic gold, turning a 50-metre stretch of water into a private causeway with wonderfully easy, power-laden strokes, and reserving his most stunning impact for when, after blowing kisses to his adoring public, he sits down to explain himself.
Saturday night was the apotheosis of the making of the "Thorpedo". After winning gold - and breaking world records - in the 400 metres freestyle and in his anchoring of Australia's historic 4x100 metres victory over the United States, he was asked to react to the euphoric over-heating of his agent, who had just predicted a commercial haul of at least pounds 3m.
"That would be nice enough, mate," said Thorpe, "but for some time I think I have known something very important. It is that if you try to do anything just for the money you're not going to get the best out of yourself. You need to want to do the thing for itself, and if you want that badly enough I really think the other stuff will fall into place."
It was at this point of philosophical discussion that an American in his audience said softly: "Jeez, he must have problems communicating with other 17-year-olds."
Thorpe, we have now seen under the ultimate pressure of his sport, is a wonder of both performance and style.
How many 17-year-olds would have resisted at least a hint of triumphalism after making the decisive contribution to the first defeat of the American team in the history of the event in the Olympics - and especially after the man drawn in and beaten in the last strokes to the finish, was the abrasive Gary Hall Jnr, who had declared that the American swimming machine would smash "like guitars" Thorpe and his mates.
Thorpe's team-mate Michael Klim, who had assaulted American confidence on the first leg with a a world-record 48.18sec, certainly was captured by the moment of triumph. He stood over the lane of the beaten Hall and strummed an imaginary guitar. Thorpe, who had told Klim that he had broken the world mark as he waited to swim the final leg, settled for shaking hands with the vanquished. …