The men? Maybe. The women? Sorry, mate. In the swim showdown that
will highlight the Games' first week, SI projects the U.S. men
winning 18 medals (eight gold, three silver, seven bronze) to 14
for the Australians (five gold, seven silver, two bronze). As for
the women, SI sees the U.S. winning 14 medals (five gold, four
silver, five bronze) to the Aussies' eight (two gold, three
silver, three bronze). "The truth is, every nation is trying to
beat the U.S.," says Australian coach Don Talbot.
There are plenty of reasons for the Americans to worry, however.
Only twice since World War II (excluding the boycotted '80 Games)
has the U.S. failed to win the most swimming medals--in '88, when
the Olympics, in Seoul, were held in the fall (as they are this
year) and the U.S. chose to hold its trials just a few weeks
before (as it did this year), forcing team members to maintain
their peak form for more than a month; and in '56, when Dawn
Fraser and the Aussies cleaned up in the home waters of
Melbourne. "There's a buzz this year just like there was then,"
Talbot says. "This could be our greatest team."
The home team will have a raucous crowd behind it in Sydney's
18,200-seat aquatic center. The loudest roars will be for Ian
Thorpe, the modest 17-year-old with the immodest flippers (size
17) for feet. The Thorpedo, who has broken 10 world records, is
favored to win the 200-meter freestyle, in which he has history's
five fastest times, and the 400 free, in which he has the three
fastest. Throw in three relay medals, and his resume could be
just short of Spitzian.
Talbot said in 1998 that Thorpe could be the swimmer of the
century--the 20th century. "That's quite offensive to all the
other swimmers before me who've achieved so much," says Thorpe.
None of them profited as handsomely as Thorpe has: He endorsed a
car two years before he was old enough to drive and has already
bought his family a house. (He even races a seal in one TV ad.)
At age eight, Thorpe was allergic to chlorine, but he outgrew
that and at 13 set 10 national age-group records in one meet. "He
had to look at what events to drop because he can swim the whole
program," says Talbot. "He'll level out sometime. God, please let
it be after the Olympics."
While several U.S. swimmers privately concede two races to
Thorpe, they defer on little else. "When there are 10 meters to
the wall and there are an American and an Australian, we're going
to make sure nobody touches us out," says Tom Dolan, who won both
individual medleys at the U.S. trials. "That's why we're the best
swimming country in the world." American swimmers set no world
records at the trials, but they also set none in 1996 before
winning 13 gold medals in Atlanta.
The Aussies have worked to instill the rah-rah spirit that has
long marked U.S. squads. "We want to build the component of team
support that the Americans have, which others criticize but
secretly envy," Talbot says. To do that he brought his swimmers
to bonding camps complete with trivia games, hikes, surfing and
guest speakers, from Formula One champions to Everest climbers.
He even invoked geography as a factor in his team's favor. "We're
an island nation of 18 million, 95 percent within 10 minutes of
the sea," Talbot says. "We should have the best swimmers."
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN THORPEDO The 17-year-old Thorpe gives the Aussies one weapon the Americans can't match.