By Phillip Whitten
SYDNEY, April 13. DEFENDING Olympic champion and world record-holder Ian Thorpe has been training quietly for the Athens Olympic Games in August, still not knowing whether or not he'll be swimming his best event, the 400 meter freestyle.
The Thorpedo will be swimming the 200m free, in which he also holds the world record, and the 100 free. In addition, he'll swim on both the 800 and 400 free relays and, most probably, the 400 medley relay. But the 400 freestyle, in which he is unbeaten since 1997, remains a big question mark.
That's because Thorpe fell in the water during prelims of the 400 at the Aussie Trials last month and was disqualified. Grant Hackett went on to win the event in 3:43.35, followed by Craig Stevens in 3:48.08.
Since then, a national debate has been raging Down Under: Should Stevens, who also qualified in the 1500 meters and the 800m free relay, step aside and allow Thorpe to swim for the greater glory of Australia (though why Thorpe should get the second spot remains a mystery)? Or should he swim the 400, a right he earned through the specified — and presumably unbendable — Australian qualifying procedures.
The split among Australians is reflected in the current SwimInfo poll, in which about 56 percent say Thorpe should not have any special privileges and 44 percent say he should be placed on the team.
And interesting precedent was set at the World Championships in 1994, when Franziska van Almsick qualified ninth, right behind a German teammate. The teammate was induced to step aside, reportedly with significant cash incentives, though the official German position has always been that she did it out of the goodness of her heart and in the national interest.
Van Almsick, swimming in lane 8, went on to win the event and set a world record.
Another precedent was set at the US Trials in 1960. Jeff Farrell, the Olympic favorite in the 100 free, underwent an emergency appendectomy six days before the Trials. Unable to swim the 100, he was offered the option of qualifying in a special time trial after he had recovered but he refused.
Farrell went on to make the US team in the 800 free relay (there was no 400 free relay that year). By September, he had recovered and won two gold medals: in the 800 free relay and the 400 medley relay.
While many Australians want Stevens to step aside and allow Thorpe to take his place, others say he should swim the event himself, and the pressure on him was so unbearable that he went fishing last week to consider his options.
"The kid just wanted to get away and get his head screwed back on," Simon Langford, a spokesman for the Australian Institute of Sport — where Stevens trains, told reporters. "It is a big issue and he wants to make sure he gets it right."
At the Aussie Trials, Thorpe supported Stevens, saying he had earned his spot. But he could not hide his disappointment and later called on the International Olympic Committee to consider awarding automatic berths to reigning champions.
Stevens, too, was also uncomfortable and while he has never been to the Olympics he was so distressed by the way the 400 unfolded he couldn't sleep.
An informal poll of American coaches conducted by this writer at the men's NCAA Championships last month showed almost universal sentiment — some might call it cynical — that the Aussies would find a way to have Thorpe swim the 400 in Athens.
Meanwhile, Stevens has given no indication what his decision will be.
Australian swimming officials have been careful not to put any pressure on Stevens but they want a decision soon so that both swimmers can tailor their training to the events they will be swimming.
"We're not going to pressure him. He has to do what he has to do," AIS head swimming coach Pierre LaFontaine said.