Gold Medal Mel: Weighing in on Thorpe vs. Phelps

By Mel Monroe Stewart, Courtesy of

BAKERSFIELD, California, January 29. IAN Thorpe's mantra has always been that Michael Phelps won't break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals at the same Olympics. Monday, according to Reuters, Thorpe was at it again.

From Beijing, surely on a fat-cat corporate tour to line his pockets, Thorpe told reporters Michael wouldn't make history in 2008 because "there's a thing called competition."

I've never been a big fan of Thorpe, a.k.a., "The Thorpedo." He lacks the edge I like to see in my swimming heroes. In his defense, he is witty and face-to-face. He's nice, but I always hated how he presented himself as an aquatic rock star, because at best he's rock star light.

Winning three gold medals at the 2000 Aussie Olympics, Thorpe boyishly waved to the hometown crowd, smiling. But at the 2004 Athens games, he bristled when the media cast Michael Phelps as their darling.

Thorpe was supposed to be eternally sweet, or at least that was the propaganda his P.R. handlers were pushing. I think he came off as catty, then surly and ultimately whiny. Lest we forget, Thorpe was under immense pressure to equal Mark Spitz's haul of seven gold medals in Athens, and his chances weren't far-fetched considering his six wins at the 2001 World Championships. Thorpe was "The Thorpedo" back then. No doubt. But three years later, at the 2004 Olympics, he lacked the edge I'm talking about.

Thorpe is, how should I put this, a cosmopolitan type of dude. He likes media, and money, and being a paid ambassador for Armani suits. That's all fine and well in the world of athletic endorsements, but to transcend Olympic history, you have to do the unthinkable. To be a true athletic rock star, you have to be "the balls." Thorpe wasn't in Athens. Thorpe hedged. He focused on his core swims instead of competing in seven events.

Bottom line: Thorpe didn't go for it. Michael Phelps did.

Watching Michael win six gold medals and two bronzes in Athens probably chapped Ian Thorpe where the sun don't shine. Thorpe had to know he was watching the greatest swimmer of all time. Of course, Thorpe was congratulatory in front of the cameras. But in the maelstrom of his mind, I assure you Michael Phelps had taken up residence.

The tipping point was the bold challenge Michael made in Athens in the 200 free. That was undeniably Ian Thorpe's best event, his baby. Michael lost to Thorpe in that race. But Michael was "the balls." He ran down the Aussie on the last 50, charging into the final wall. Had there been five more meters, Michael would have won. Ian Thorpe knew that, and he knew his career was done.

Ever since 2004, Ian Thorpe has been waffling about his swimming. Meanwhile, Michael turned in another fast 200 free at the 2005 World Championships in Canada.

"When I'm able to stand up against Thorpe [and Hoogenband] again, then it will be a better challenge," Phelps told a reporter from the Baltimore Sun. Then he added, "I'm sure if they're [Thorpe and Hoogenband] like me, they're watching all the results. They're great competitors, and hopefully I'll have my chance to race them."

That was the nail in Thorpe's coffin. The subtext of that quote wasn't lost on him: I am King Michael, the consummate gentlemen, but I am coming for you, Ian.

Michael's coach, Bob Bowman, even saw the writing on the wall. "Thorpe was the greatest middle-distance swimmer of all-time," he said graciously. I don't know for sure, but I think Bob was offering Thorpe an olive branch so he could expire with dignity.

For the record, Thorpe retired Nov. 22, 2006, sighting aquatic apathy. Yeah. Apathy for silver. I don't buy it for a second.

There are reports that Michael and Ian Thorpe are friends. I've asked around and most people confirm that. I believe it. Michael would never allow friction between him and any swimmer.

That's probably the scariest characteristic of Michael. In many ways, you could describe his career as absolute control. For competitors, that must be frightening. Michael's almost like a programmed computer around the pool. He swims his swims and recovers so rapidly, he's like an indifferent hitman; his wins are eerily cool and mean.

I know. I'm gushing, and I know what you're thinking: Michael's a U.S. citizen, so I'm partial. And to be perfectly honest, I have to admit I have a man-crush on Michael.

He's the true rock star. Ian Thorpe is not.

And if you doubt Michael's chances of beating Mark Spitz's record in Beijing, you're not only blind, you're ignorant about the present state of competitive swimming.