By Stephen J. Thomas
SYDNEY, Australia, April 26. THE worst kept secret in Australian swimming was revealed on commercial television tonight when Craig Stevens was asked on a current affairs program produced by the network that has the rights to the Olympic Games in Athens what decision he had come to in relation to competing in the 400 freestyle in Athens.
"My decision is to stand aside in the 400 freestyle," announced the 23-year-old Canberra based swimmer. "Ian Thorpe, the world record-holder and 2000 Olympic champion, will now be in a position to defend title if he accepts the opportunity to replace Stevens.
Stevens was adamant that Thorpe had placed no pressure on him at all in relation to the matter, indicating he had discussed the various options with his support team which included his newly appointed manager but in the end the decision was up to him. "The decision I’ve made comes from the heart; money was never a motivation."
Steven’s manager is believed to have cut a deal worth about US$45,000 for the exclusive rights to announce his story tonight and some ongoing media engagements. However, the show does not stop there. Tomorrow at midday Sydney time, a press conference has been scheduled at the Sydney Olympic Aquatic Centre with the focus now on Ian Thorpe – with his coach Tracey Menzies and national head coach Leigh Nugent also to attend – to give his decision on the vacated 400 freestyle berth.
But wait, there’s more: the current affairs program has already announced it will do a follow-up on the reaction to the Stevens withdrawal and perhaps by then the Thorpe acceptance to swim the race. Thorpe as it happens is already contracted to the same television network.
Aussie teammate Grant Hackett, the man who probably will be Thorpe’s main rival for the 400 freestyle gold medal in Athens, said he would happily welcome Thorpe back into his signature event, having already declared he wants to swim against the best in the eight-lap race on August 14. Hackett tonight supported Craig Stevens's decision to stand aside for Thorpe to defend his Olympic crown in Athens. However, he felt that by skipping the 400 freestyle on the first day of competition, Stevens would be disadvantaged by not having had an individual swim under his belt before competing in his best event, the 1500 freestyle, that will be held on the final two days of competition.