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In this time of social distancing, many of us are lucky enough to have no patriotic duty other than to stay home and not spread disease. But without sports, access to bars, restaurants, and movie theaters, and limited interactions with other humans, millions of people are already incredibly bored. In an effort to cheer up the abyss we’re all staring at, every Tom, Dick, and Harry talking about pop culture on the internet has posted a list of recommended streaming media to help pass the time. (Not least among these outlets is the doorbell, home of the “broadcast canon,” a list of dozens of movies and TV shows and where to find them.)
Reading: Ian thorpe vs michael phelps
but the best and most epic serialized drama to watch again isn’t game of thrones, expansion or lord of the rings. It’s Olympic swimming.
High-level swimming is a great sport that can be seen again for two reasons. First of all, the sheer number of events and competitions lends itself to YouTube rabbit holes that stretch miles and miles deep. Second, while individual athletes may be familiar after repeated exposure to television during the Olympics, the actual results are often confused. For example: Everyone remembers Ryan Lochte, but no one remembers how he did in the 200-meter freestyle at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships, which makes that race as dramatic now as it was 10 years ago.
Videos from previous Olympics (and World, European and Pan-Pacific Championships) are available on the internet, from sources ranging from nbc sports to sketchy youtube channels with russian titles and glitchy audio sources. You can jump from meeting to meeting or event to event at random, or choose a medley of highlights for Katie Ledecky or Adam Peaty or Park Tae-Hwan. but the best way to consume international swimming is by picking up a narrative thread that has linked athletes and countries for years.
The most glamorous of these is the passing of the torch between the two most famous male swimmers of the 21st century: Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps. What follows is a selection of six races from three Olympic Games tracing Thorpe’s unique career and illustrating how he paved the way for Phelps to become an international swimming superstar.
Episode 1: Men’s 4×100 Freestyle Relay, Sydney, September 16, 2000
The men’s freestyle relay represents the fastest and most flashy form of Olympic swimming, and prior to the 2000 Olympics, the United States had long been the dominant force in these events. the United States. he was undefeated all time in the men’s 4×100 and had won eight of the previous 10 gold medals in the 4×200. Australia had beaten the United States in an Olympic men’s freestyle relay only twice, most recently in 1956.
but just like in 1956, when the olympics were held in melbourne, australia had home court advantage to a raucous sydney crowd. Most importantly, the Australian roster featured two up-and-coming superstars: 23-year-old sprinter and butterfly Michael Klim, who had won seven medals at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, and 17-year-old Ian Thorpe. At the 1999 PanPacs, Thorpe won gold in four freestyle events, including the 4×100 relay, the first time the United States had lost that event in that meet.
Thorpe’s competitive credentials alone would have made him a celebrity in swimming-obsessed Australia, but it didn’t hurt to look like he could have been a member of the globally popular Backstreet Boys. he was also the representative of the growing importance of technology in sports. Reducing drag is paramount in swimming now, but up to and including the 1996 Olympics, most male competitors entered the pool in their briefs. many did not bother to shave their heads or wear shower caps.
By 2000, however, specialized hydrodynamic swimsuits had become the norm, from long pants and jumpsuits to Thorpe’s black adidas bodystocking, which reached down to his wrists and ankles. Thorpe’s swimsuit was not only effective in increasing his buoyancy and the ease with which he moved in the water, it also made him the most recognizable man in the pool.
Four years earlier, that distinction would have gone to American superstar Gary Hall Jr., a 6-foot-6 second-generation Olympian who won four medals in Atlanta and wore a silken boxer’s robe on the deck of the swimming pool. if thorpe was the backstreet boys, hall was green day; he had finally been suspended after a positive marijuana test in 1998, when he was still scandalous. And as the superstar presenter for the defending seven-time Olympic champions in the 4×100 freestyle, Hall said the US team would “crush [the Aussies] like guitars.”
That would be the most famous trash line in swimming history and an example of arrogance straight out of homer.
the night of the olympic final, klim swam the first leg of his life. His time of 48.18 seconds broke six-year-old Russian legend Alexander Popov’s 100-meter individual world record and put seven-tenths of a second past American leadoff hitter Anthony Ervin. But while Australia had more star power with Thorpe and Klim, the Americans had more depth. neil walker and jason lezak cut australia’s lead to inches over the middle two legs and left the race to the finish.
although some of thorpe’s greatest international triumphs came in sprint relays, he was first and foremost a middle-distance freestyler. Hall, on the other hand, was one of the best sprinters of his generation. The fastest American built a three-foot lead into the corner, but in the final 40 meters of the race, Thorpe was able to keep up with him and gradually closed in on Hall. Hall swam a stage slightly faster than Thorpe in time, but the Australian, a teenager running for the third time that day, beat him by less than a quarter of a second.
thorpe jumped out of the pool to celebrate with his teammates, while klim turned to the stands and, recalling hall’s pre-race comments, gifted the home crowd with an air guitar.
episode 2: men’s 200m freestyle, sydney, september 18, 2000
Shortly before his spectacular anchor leg in the 4×100 freestyle relay, Thorpe had won his first individual event, the 400m freestyle. He finished in a world record time of 3:40.59, nearly three seconds ahead of second place finisher Massimiliano Rosolino of Italy and six and a half seconds ahead of bronze medalist Klete Keller of the United States.
That surprisingly dominant debut, followed by the historic win in the relay, made it look like Thorpe would win gold in each of his first four Olympic races. Thorpe entered the games as the heavy favorite in the men’s 200m freestyle, having posted the fastest four times in history. None of the Atlanta medalists had returned four years later. Klim, the reigning world champion, skipped the event, and none of the Americans in the 100-meter relay final stretched to challenge Thorpe for the longest distance. His main competitors were the swimmers who had finished alongside Klim on the podium at the world championships: Rosolino and the 22-year-old Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband.
As a teenage Olympic debutant in Atlanta, van den Hoogenband had finished on the podium in all six events he contested, winning just one individual medal, a bronze, at the World Long Track Championships in 1998. It was ‘until he established a new world record in the 200m freestyle semi-finals in sydney, emerged as a real threat to thorpe. Like Hall and Klim, van den Hoogenband was primarily a sprinter, which meant that his top speed was greater than Thorpe’s. Thorpe would have to beat him by staying close and coming home strong, as he had done against Hall in the relay and in a world record win over Klim in the 200m at the Australian Olympic Trials.
It took several seconds for the excited Australian crowd to calm down enough for the race to start, but when it did, thorpe, van den hoogenband and American josh davis quickly distanced themselves from the other five swimmers. Davis kept up the pace for 100 meters before crashing, after which it seemed that Thorpe, who had matched the fastest Dutchman stroke for stroke up to that point, was well positioned to shift up a gear. Thorpe made the final lap with a slight lead, but on the final leg, it was van den Hoogenband who found an extra lap of speed to win by half a second.
This was Thorpe’s first loss in Olympic competition and an introduction to stardom for Van den Hoogenband, who would go on to the Hall’s all-time torch and two-time defending champion Popov in the 100m final and take bronze. in the 50 meters. . By all accounts, Thorpe and van den Hoogenband were friendly rivals, in contrast to Thorpe’s frosty relationship with Phelps, but this was a momentous occasion: the first time Thorpedo met an adversary he could not defeat.
Episode 3: Men’s 4×200 Freestyle Relay, Sydney, September 19, 2000
This is the least dramatic race in the series, but nothing better illustrates Thorpe’s dominance. In contrast to the 4×100, in which Klim opened and Thorpe anchored, Australia opened with her two faster swimmers in the hope that she could take the gold medal in the first half of the race and go on to victory.
That’s exactly what happened. Thorpe swam the fastest first stage by three and a half seconds. Klim followed up with a second stint that extended the lead by a tenth of a second and put two or three seconds on the rest of the field. By the time Klim finished, Australia were so far ahead of the field that the TV camera was having a hard time keeping the top three teams on the same shot. The Australians, largely thanks to Thorpe, won by more than five seconds, breaking their own world record in the process. Thorpe won a fifth medal swimming in the 4×100 medley relay heats, before Klim led the team to silver in the final. Although Thorpe’s upset loss to van den Hoogenband prevented Thorpe from achieving his anticipated 200-400 double, the 17-year-old left his home Olympics as the Games’ most decorated athlete.
episode 4: men’s 200m freestyle, athens, aug 16, 2004
at the 2001 world aquatics championships, thorpe avenged his olympic loss to van den hoogenband. She won gold medals in the 400 and 800 meters and led Australia to victory in the men’s relay. Meanwhile, Phelps, who at age 15 had finished fifth in her only event in Sydney, won her first world championship in the 200-meter butterfly. The following summer, Thorpe won the 100, 200, and 400-meter freestyle in the Pan Pacs and went toe-to-toe with Phelps in major international competition for the first time when she led the 4×200-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter freestyle. meters. mixed relays. australia won the first by nearly three seconds, while the us. he set a world record for taking gold in the latter.
at the 2003 world championships, phelps won six medals, including a direct individual matchup over thorpe in the 200-meter individual medley. That prompted Speedo, Phelps’ sponsor, to offer the American a $1 million prize if he beat Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals at the 2004 Olympics.
In 2004, 29-year-old Hall was no longer one of the world’s top 100-meter sprinters, and injuries nearly ended Klim’s career. But Phelps’s emergence as a global superstar breathed new life into men’s swimming in international sports media. Here is a brash young American with the potential to put on world-class performances in an unprecedented variety of events, and dethrone Thorpe as the biggest star in the sport. Most importantly, in contrast to the affable van den Hoogenband, both Phelps and Thorpe were the kind of competitors who not only wanted to win at all costs, but wanted to beat their opponents.
phelps was famous for using specific opponents as motivation. When Ian Crocker beat Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2003 world championships, Phelps put a poster of Crocker on his bedroom wall as a reminder. Thorpe did all he could to crush the budding rivalry, but Phelps was determined to try to be the best swimmer in the world. After Phelps qualified to swim in nine events at the U.S. At the 2004 Olympic Trials, he scratched the 200-meter backstroke to focus on the 200-meter freestyle, specifically for a chance to compete head-to-head with Thorpe. Thorpe, meanwhile, said Phelps’ goal of tying or beating Spitz was “unacceptable.”
the run up to the athens games was awkward for thorpe. He parted ways with his former coach in 2003 and was later disqualified from the 400m freestyle at the Australian Olympic Trials when he fell off the blocks before the shot; It was only after enormous crowd pressure that second-place finisher Craig Stevens withdrew from the race to give Thorpe a chance to swim.
and swimming did. Thorpe defended his 400-meter gold by beating compatriot Grant Hackett and Keller, the top American, on the first day of swimming competition. Phelps won gold in the 400-meter individual medley the same day, and the following night, the two met for the first time in Olympic competition in the final of the 4×100 freestyle relay.
Both left disappointed when south africa’s roland schoeman—the surprising top qualifier—jumped off the blocks and gave his team a lead of more than a second. Klim came out of the pool fourth, while American leadoff hitter Crocker was last at the end of his term. neither team was able to make up that ground. south africa led from cable to cable, and the u.s. He finished a humiliating third after van den Hoogenband chased Lezak down the final stretch. By the end of the race, Australia had dropped to sixth place. Phelps’ dream of eight gold medals was dead on arrival, and Thorpe’s Australia, who had dominated the Americans in international competition, was an afterthought.
the day after the crushing loss in the relay, phelps and thorpe returned to the pool for a race with more star power than any individual swimming event in olympic history. Six of the eight competitors in this race were Olympic medalists, including Van den Hoogenband, Hackett, Keller and Italy’s Emiliano Brembilla.
thorpe had claimed the world record from van den hoogenband in 2001, but the Dutchman once again entered the final as the top seed in the race. Thorpe and Phelps beat van den Hoogenband, but the Dutchman quickly passed them both to hold the lead at 50, 100 and 150 metres. Phelps dropped to third early on and stayed there, but Thorpe was able to stay close to the lead. while van den hoogenband was able to hold the lead in sydney, this time he tired down the stretch and thorpe passed him in the final corner to avenge his loss in sydney.
phelps had given thorpe his first real chance and not only lost the race, but also his chance to break the spitz record at the 2004 olympics. he and thorpe would meet only once more in olympic competition: the 4×200 relay the following night.
Episode 5: Men’s 4×200 Freestyle Relay, Athens, August 17, 2004
In 1997, 14-year-old Thorpe made his debut at a major international swimming meet, the Japan Pan Pacific Championships. There, he and an Australian team that included Klim and Hackett finished second to the United States in the 4×200 freestyle relay. That was the last time an Australian team with Thorpe lost this race in the Olympics, Panpacs or World Championships for a long time, a winning streak of seven years.
even with klim and hackett on the 2004 team, australia’s hopes of retaining the gold medal rested mainly with thorpe. In four previous Olympic singles matchups, Thorpe had absolutely set Keller, the American anchor swimmer, on fire each and every time. And four years earlier, Keller had almost missed out on the silver medal in this event when Rosolino and van den Hoogenband chased him down the final stretch. If Thorpe got into the water even seconds after Keller, the Aussies could almost count on taking home the gold medal.
so the top three american swimmers knew they had to give keller a big lead, and they did. In the first leg, Phelps beat Hackett into the wall by more than a second. Ryan Lochte, 20, swimming in the first event of his Olympic career, edged out Klim by another tenth of a second, and when Peter Vanderkaay came home for the final installment, Keller had a lead of about 1.5 seconds on Thorpe. .
that track disappeared almost immediately. With Thorpe’s long, smooth strokes and her 6-foot-5 body seemingly elongated by her black suit, she looked like a shark chasing Keller through the water. After about 115 feet, Thorpe’s head was on Keller’s shoulder. It seemed only a matter of time before Thorpe made the decisive pass and was gone forever.
but somehow, that pass never came. For more than three lengths of the pool, Keller kept the greatest 200-meter freestyler of all time in his back pocket, even though he couldn’t see Thorpe in the decisive final meters. Every time Thorpe grabbed another fistful of water, it seemed like he would finally squirt past Keller, but each stroke ended with the two of them in almost exactly the same position they’d started. Keller stayed ahead of Thorpe throughout and hit the wall 0.13 seconds ahead of the defending champion.
after the 2004 olympics, 21-year-old thorpe retired from top-level competition: the 4×200-meter relay in athens would be the last time he and phelps shared a pool. Although he attempted to return several times, Thorpe never returned to a major international match, retiring in 2006. In the years following the end of his career, Thorpe struggled with depression and alcohol abuse, which he revealed in a 2012 memoir, before to come out of the closet. as gay in a 2014 television interview.
Thorpe’s five Olympic gold medals are the most for an Australian athlete, and his nine medals overall are tied for the Australian national record with fellow swimmer Leisel Jones. While his total haul of medals is dwarfed by the likes of Phelps and Lochte, Thorpe competed in far fewer events and had a much shorter career: just 10 events in total, in which she finished on the podium just once. .
phelps, at this point, was on his way to becoming the most decorated olympic athlete in history. He participated in eight events in Athens and, apart from his losses in the 4×100 freestyle relay and the 200-meter freestyle, took home gold each time. With four years of additional training, and Thorpe and van den Hoogenband out of the way, he would have a clear path to an eight-event gold medal sweep in Beijing.
Episode 6: Men’s 4×100 Freestyle Relay, Beijing, Aug 11, 2008
After Thorpe’s departure from international competition, Phelps ventured into new events at the 2005 World Championships and the 2006 PanPacs. It wasn’t until the 2007 World Championships that Phelps returned to his Athens program in a major international meeting. There he won seven gold medals, breaking Thorpe’s record of six golds in the 2001 edition, and he almost certainly would have won an eighth if his medley relay teammates hadn’t had a false start in a heat. preliminary.
Still, Thorpe, who at the time had been retired for years, doubted that Phelps could achieve his goal. “I don’t think he can’t do it,” Thorpe told Reuters on the eve of the Olympics. “I just don’t think I will. he watches the competition.”
The competition didn’t seem to bother phelps in his first event, the 400-meter individual medley, in which he won by more than two seconds. But the second event was the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay, which the United States hadn’t won at the Olympics since 1996. They faced a strong Australian team led by Eamon Sullivan and a favored French team led by the individual world record holder Alain Bernard. In the preliminaries the night before the final, the Americans won a series in world record time, but beat Australia by just 0.18 seconds. in the second heat, the french set a new european record, while amaury leveaux broke the olympic record in the individual 100 meters and frédérick bousquet swam an anchor leg in 46.6 seconds, going around an eighth of a second faster than the van den hoogenband face tearing apart split relays in the last four years before.
“the Americans? We’re going to crush them,” said Bernard, who had apparently never heard of Gary Hall Jr. “That’s what we came here for.”
The 2008 final is to this day the fastest relay race in Olympic swimming history. The South African team, which had dominated this event four years earlier, recovered the same four swimmers, posted a faster time than Athens and managed to finish seventh. This race represents the high point of the swimwear technology revolution of which Thorpe was one of the early champions. You’ll notice that in 2004, Phelps swam this relay in a suit that stretched from his waist to his ankles, while four years later, he and his three American teammates wore shoulder-to-ankle dungarees covered in patches. Called speedo lzr racers, these black suits were made of polyurethane and were extremely hydrodynamic, so much so that they, and all non-textile suits, were banned from the sport in 2010.
But in addition to this historically fast crop of runners wearing historically fast gear, the pressure surrounding the race made it one of the most exciting and tense events in Olympic history, perhaps in the entire history of the sport.
sullivan defeated the Australian team early on, posting a first leg of 47.24 seconds to set a new individual world record by nearly a quarter of a second. Phelps, who did not swim the 100-meter freestyle as a regular part of his competitive program, came home second in 47.51, to set a new American record, and in the 12 years since, only three American men have gone further. Quick. Phelps gave Garrett Weber-Gale a 0.4-second lead over France, and Weber-Gale chased down Australian Andrew Lauterstein in the second leg to take the lead from the United States.
It’s worth mentioning here that one of the things that makes this race so special, at least in American sports history, is the call from NBC’s Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines. other races on this list have been fueled by great feedback—australian broadcaster dennis cometti’s account of the 2000 4×100 free relay is one of my favorites—but in the 2008 relay, hicks and gaines delivered what is, in my opinion, the best commentary performance television in the entire history of the sport.
As much as the American public was enamored with Phelps in 2008, the technicalities of swimming eluded most sports fans. hicks and gaines managed to pack a ton of information into an easily digestible form, all while captivating viewers by evoking an intensity befitting the occasion. If the announcers, profits in particular, acted as if this race determined the fate of humanity, who were we to argue?
In stage three, american cullen jones equaled his time from last night’s heats, but unfortunately for the united states, so did bousquet, who had been about a second faster. Bousquet passed Jones just 20 meters into the third stage and pulled away to establish a lead of more than half a second for Bernard, the fastest swimmer in the race.
lezak, 32 at the time of the race, had run in the only two u.s. men’s teams that failed to win the 4×100 freestyle at the Olympics and had never won an individual World or Olympic medal of any color. four years earlier, van den hoogenband had run him over in the closing stages of this race to deny the us. uu. a silver medal behind south africa. And while Lezak, an experienced relay swimmer, managed a better jump off the blocks than Bernard, the Frenchman quickly restored his half-second lead in the turn.
with about 25 meters left in the race, lezak closed in on bernard and cut what had been a length of distance in half with a powerful kick into the final turn. it was just after hicks expressed his resignation that the us. would be consigned to a silver medal the nbc play-by-play man raised his voice in a shout: “lezak is getting a little closer to bernard! can the veteran chase him down and pull off an upset here?
and in the last 15 meters, he did exactly that. Jones, standing alone on the pool ladder after getting out of the water, took one look at the scoreboard and jumped into the air. phelps and weber-gale yelled. gaines yelled to himself in a raspy soprano voice, marveling that lezak “beat” the fastest relay in history by more than half a second.
This race preserved phelps’ path to eight gold medals in one olympics and pushed him past thorpe with 10 career medals, eight of them gold. The rest of the story, the greatest race in the history of swimming or the Olympics, is already well known.
After phelps claimed his eighth gold medal, in the 4×100 meter medley relay, pinned once again by lezak, thorpe met his old rival in beijing to congratulate him.
“I have never been so happy in my life to have been proven wrong,” Thorpe told reporters. “I enjoyed every moment.”