The first weekend

The "Thorpedo" gets torpedoed, and U.S. gymnastics hopes go tumbling down.



Kerry Lauerman
September 18, 2000 5:55PM (UTC)

After his swashbuckling opening weekend, the first clear star to break out of the Summer Olympics Games in Sydney clearly is Australian man-child Ian Thorpe, 17, who smashed a world record in the 200-meter freestyle, anchored a come-from-behind upset over the heavily favored Americans in the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay and, just as impressively, survived a TV profile that, NBC's best efforts aside, made him seem downright meek.

Alas, Monday's big news is that he lost the 200-meter freestyle final to Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband, who seemed as shocked as the thousands of Aussie fans, telling the Associated Press that in the homestretch, when he didn't see Thorpe challenge, "Suddenly, I thought, 'God, he's not going to pass me.'"

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But it's not the last we'll hear of Thorpe, who still seems years away from growing into his big, elastic face (similar to young Boris Becker, who actually never quite grew into that face) or his size 17 feet, the sure cause of blushing speculation among his more ardent admirers. In an NBC profile, Thorpe managed the unimaginable task of escaping seeming more likable -- even though the network chose the slightly exploitative idea of focusing on his friendship with a young man struggling with cancer. It had all the hallmarks of an overzealous flack job. (You can just picture his press agent yelling, "Do I have a story for you!" to some witless NBC hack.) Somehow, Thorpe seemed natural, and blessedly avoided the tearful money shot NBC was praying for. All hail the Thorpedo!

His best moment came when he shamed the American team, particularly U.S. freestyle star and arrogant pretty boy Gary Hall Jr., who had bragged in an online journal that the U.S. team would "smash the Australians like guitars" in the relay. Thorpe, who is so huge that it looks like his competitors are taking two strokes to every one of his, barely out-touched the American at the end. And when Hall finally made it out of the water, the Australians cheerfully played air guitar in his direction. Hall, meanwhile, wouldn't talk with NBC right away, saying he was feeling "ill." I bet he was.

Other than Thorpe, though, the Americans have largely dominated the pool, with victories Monday by Ukraine immigrant-cum-Californian Lenny Krayzelburg (100-meter backstroke) and 16-year-old phenom Megan Quann (100-meter breaststroke). Those followed weekend victories by Tom Dolan (400-meter individual medley) and Brooke Bennett (400-meter freestyle), along with a victorious women's 4-by-100-meter relay team, anchored by Jenny Thompson, who won her sixth gold medal in three Olympic Games, a record for an American woman.

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Thompson, meanwhile, leans more toward Susan Lucci than Marion Jones: On Sunday, she finished fifth in the 100-meter butterfly (her hyped American rival, 33-year-old Tae Bo shill and Al D'Amato "friend" Dara Torres, won the bronze), which means she has still never won an individual Olympic medal. She'll only have one more chance, in the 100-meter freestyle in a few days. Can she really be considered America's greatest all-time women's Olympic swimmer if she never wins individual gold?

Angry young men in leotards
Also Monday, the Chinese men finally won an Olympic gold in the gymnastics team event, after choking the past two Games. The American men, meanwhile, despite heavily promoting their chances at a medal, finished as was predicted fifth. Another prediction: Monday night on its tape-delayed broadcast, NBC will show U.S. champ and "bad boy" Blaine Wilson, after an unexpectedly poor performance on a challenging apparatus, throw one of his gloves to the ground angrily, peel off his shirt to expose his crazy tattoos and then sit sullenly, staring off into space. Somebody needs to tell Wilson that, historically, the gymnast-as-James Dean pose doesn't really work.

On Sunday, the U.S. women's gymnastics team also was foundering, finishing sixth in the preliminaries. This raises the vaguely exciting, though probably premature, hope that this may actually be a pixie-free Olympics. That is, if we ever can ever get enough of Nikki Webster, the little 13-year-old who starred in the opening ceremonies. Her spinning aerial work (80 feet up, we were told) was brave, her lip-syncing bold, and she seems generally adorable. But really, NBC, we've met her sweet middle-class parents, and we know she's preparing to be in a production of "Annie" (not in the lead, as one of the orphans). We're ready to let her go.

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The Medals Race

1 - United States 6 (Gold) 5(Silver) 2(Bronze) 13 (Total)

2 - France - 4 - 6 - 2 - 12

3 - China - 4 - 1 - 5 - 10

4 - Australia - 3 - 5 - 5 - 13

5 - Italy - 3 - 1 - 3 - 7

6 - Holland - 3 - 1 - 0 - 4

7 - Japan - 2 - 3 - 1 - 6 \

8 - Turkey - 2 - 0 - 0 - 2

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9 - Germany - 1 - 3 - 2 - 6

9 - Russia - 1 - 2 - 3 - 6

11 - Great Britain - 1 - 2 - 1 - 4

12 - Cuba - 1 - 1 - 2 - 4

13 - Bulgaria - 1 - 1 - 1 - 3

13 - Switzerland - 1 - 1 - 1 - 3

15 - Ukraine - 1 - 1 - 0 - 2

16 - Canada - 1 - 0 - 1 - 2

16 - Czech Republic - 1 - 0 - 1 - 2

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16 - Romania - 1 - 0 - 1 - 2

16 - Spain - 1 - 0 - 1 - 2

20 - Croatia - 1 - 0 - 0 - 1

20 - Hungary - 1 - 0 - 0 - 1

20 - Lithuania - 1 - 0 - 0 - 1

20 - Mexico - 1 - 0 - 0 - 1

24 - Slovakia - 0 - 2 - 1 - 3

24 - South Korea - 0 - 2 - 1 - 3

26 - Brazil - 0 - 1 - 1 - 2 -

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26 - North Korea - 0 - 1 - 1 - 2

28 - Greece - 0 - 1 - 0 - 1

28 - Taiwan - 0 - 1 - 0 - 1

28 - Yugoslavia - 0 - 1 - 0 - 1

31 - Belarus - 0 - 0 - 2 - 2

31 - Indonesia - 0 - 0 - 2 - 2

33 - Belgium - 0 - 0 - 1 - 1

33 - Costa Rica - 0 - 0 - 1 - 1

33 - Georgia - 0 - 0 - 1 - 1

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33 - Kirghyzstan - 0 - 0 - 1 - 1

33 - Latvia - 0 - 0 - 1 - 1

33 - South Africa - 0 - 0 - 1 - 1

33 - Sweden - 0 - 0 - 1 - 1

33 - Thailand - 0 - 0 - 1 - 1


Kerry Lauerman

Kerry Lauerman is Salon's Editor in Chief. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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