Race Of the Century: When Two Stalwarts and a Rising Star Clashed For History (Video)
The 200 freestyle had enough substance at the 2004 Olympics, thanks to a repeat clash between the Netherlands’ Pieter van den Hoogenband and Australia’s Ian Thorpe. But when Michael Phelps entered the fray, too, the race became something special, and one of the most-anticipated events in Olympic history.
How many times has this refrain been uttered by sports fans and experts: Wouldn’t it be great if (fill in the blank) and (fill in the blank) had the chance to battle? Yet, in many instances, the desired matchup is left only to the imagination, timing usually the most significant factor in the blockage of what could be an epic duel.
As the 2004 Olympic Games neared, however, swimming found itself in a fortunate position when three of the biggest names of the era – or history, for that matter – decided the 200 freestyle was going to be on their Athens schedules. The revelation had the sport’s analysts wringing their hands and fans counting down to what undoubtedly would be a day to remember: August 16, 2004.
Two of the pieces for an epic race in Athens were in place long before the Games returned to their birthplace. In Australian Ian Thorpe and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband, the 200 freestyle two of the greatest performers the event had seen. From 1999-2001, Thorpe and van den Hoogenband combined to set eight world records in the event, Thorpe leading the way with six global standards. The men had also met four years earlier in a splendid showdown at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, so Athens was a Part II of sorts, a second chapter which carried little risk of failing to match up to the first clash.
The event, though, surged even greater in expectations when Michael Phelps – never one to shy away from a challenge – announced that he was going to give the four-lap discipline a go. It would be one of five individual events, and eight overall, for Phelps, who was in pursuit of matching (or eclipsing) the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
In his other individual events – the 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly, 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley – Phelps was a favorite to walk away with a gold medal. The 200 freestyle was a different story, the sport’s rising star playing the role of underdog in what only added to the intrigue of the event. But for Phelps, and coach Bob Bowman, the opportunity to race against the best was too alluring.
“This is the best opportunity for me to swim in the fastest 200 (freestyle) in history,” Phelps said ahead of Athens. “I love a challenge.”
To gain a full appreciation for what unfolded in Athens, it’s necessary to examine the years leading up the Olympiad, particularly what unfolded in Sydney in 2000. At the time, Thorpe and van den Hoogenband were already stars, each etching his own legacy in Olympic lore – and doing so with the help of the other.
Racing in front of a home crowd, which topped out at 17,000 spectators, a 17-year-old Thorpe was sensational in his Olympic debut, winning the 400 freestyle in a world-record time. Since winning his first world title in the event at the age of 15, Thorpe was deemed a future star, so talented that he could go down as the best swimmer the sport had ever seen.
With the 400 freestyle title in his pocket, Thorpe figured to win the 200 freestyle, too. One problem: Van den Hoogenband had a different plan. The bronze medalist in the 200 freestyle at the 1998 World Championships, van den Hoogenband had developed into one of the world’s elite 100 and 200 freestylers. If there was someone who could derail Thorpe and do it on the Aussie’s home turf, it was the Flying Dutchman. That possibility became even more evident when van den Hoogenband sent a statement in the semifinals in Sydney, producing a world record of 1:45.35. Although Thorpe won the other semifinal in 1:45.37, there was no longer any belief that the final would be a coronation for the Aussie.
The final in Sydney played out as expected in the early stages, van den Hoogenband surging to the front of the field and forcing Thorpe to run him down over the final lap. But as the swimmers covered the final meters, Thorpe couldn’t overcome his rival and watched van den Hoogenband equal his world record from the semifinals. A stunned Australian crowd could do nothing more than appreciate what “Hoogie” had done: Slay the dragon in his own lair.
“It was amazing to do this,” van den Hoogenband said. “In his home nation, in his home city, in his home pool. It was so eerie. (With) 25 meters left, I didn’t see him creeping up on me. I thought, ‘Man, he’s not going to touch me.’”
Thorpe finished his home Olympiad with five medals, three gold and two silver, while van den Hoogenband added a gold medal and world record in the 100 freestyle to go with bronze medals in the 50 freestyle and 800 freestyle relay.
While Thorpe and van den Hoogenband were constantly in the spotlight, Phelps flew under the radar – the last such time in his career. A month earlier at the United States Olympic Trials, a furious finish by the 15-year-old in the 200 butterfly landed Phelps his first Olympic invitation. His accomplishment made him the youngest male Olympian for the United States in swimming in 68 years.
Although Bowman and higher-ups with USA Swimming knew the future for Phelps had no ceiling, he certainly was not the talk of the American team. Sure, journalist Paul McMullen of the Baltimore Sun followed Phelps’ moves closely, providing superb reporting to those from Phelps’ hometown. But on the bigger stage, Phelps was a role player on a United States team which featured established stars such as Gary Hall Jr., Lenny Krayzelburg, Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres.
Phelps had just one event to contest in Sydney and had no trouble handling the pressure which would floor many other teenagers competing on the biggest stage in athletics. Phelps went through the preliminaries of the 200 fly as the third-fastest qualifier, then moved through the semifinals with the fourth-fastest time. It was becoming clear that Phelps – although maybe not in Sydney – wasn’t going to be denied much longer.
In the final, Phelps used his customary late charge to put himself in medal contention, but the wall crept up a shade too early as he finished fifth in 1:56.50, 33 hundredths shy of the bronze-medal-winning time posted by Australian Justin Norris. In the six races he contested at the Olympic Trials and Olympic Games, Phelps established a personal best in each. One day, it surmised, there would be no stopping a guy who had all the right tools.
“How do you stand this?” legendary coach Mark Schubert asked Bowman in Sydney. “I have never seen anyone his age like him. You look at the Olympic Trials, the most pressure-packed meet in the world, and now the Olympics. He is truly phenomenal.”
Over the next few years, Thorpe and van den Hoogenband continued to excel, with Thorpe besting his foe for world titles in the 200 freestyle in 2001 and 2003. Thorpe was at his best at the 2001 World Championships, where he won six gold medals and set world records in the 200 freestyle, 400 freestyle and 800 freestyle. Van den Hoogenband was a constant force as well, and while he finished short of any world championships, he was a regular presence on the podium.
What changed the most was the profile of Phelps, who in short fashion soared from rising star to one of the world’s elite performers. By 2001, he was a world-record holder and world champion and by the close of the 2003 World Championships, Phelps was an all-around stud, the best the globe had to offer in the 200 butterfly, 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley. He was also right there in the 100 butterfly, trailing only American teammate Ian Crocker for world supremacy.
At those 2003 World Championships, Phelps and Thorpe locked up in the 200 individual medley, hardly a strong event for the Aussie. Ultimately, Phelps prevailed by more than three seconds over Thorpe, the silver medalist. As a result of that head-to-head triumph by Phelps and the overall depth of his program, it was argued that Phelps had moved ahead of Thorpe as the sport’s Poseidon. Still, the freestyle was Thorpe’s domain and Phelps – outside of duty in the 800 freestyle relay – had not ventured into that territory.
Of course, that scenario soon changed.
In the months leading up to the 2004 United States Olympic Trials in Long Beach, California, there was a great deal of speculation concerning Phelps’ program for the Athens Games. Because Phelps and Bowman kept their plans a well-guarded secret, all that was known was that Phelps would embrace a multi-event slate. Eventually, it was revealed that the 200 freestyle would be part of the agenda, thus enhancing the hype concerning the event come Athens.
With Thorpe, van den Hoogenband and Phelps all targeting the event, the 200 freestyle had it all. The world-record holder and two-time defending world champion. The reigning Olympic champion and former world-record holder. The upstart. It was soap opera stuff, played out across three continents.
“I don’t see us as being animals and marking our territory,” Thorpe said. “Not yet. I don’t think there’s anyone’s territory. I enjoy challenging myself rather than it just being about who’s in the race. I think Michael wanted to swim this race not just because I was in it, but you know, I think he wanted another challenge. For athletes, that’s what we’re here to do. I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to race against some of the world’s best athletes in my event.”
Looking for a way to add excitement to the event (not that it was needed), the press dubbed the impending showdown between Thorpe, van den Hoogenband and Phelps as the Race of the Century. Really, it was a fitting title considering the credentials of those involved.
Unlike four years earlier, when van den Hoogenband blasted a world record prior to the final, the combatants advanced through the opening two rounds in measured fashion. Van den Hoogenband won the first semifinal while Thorpe finished ahead of Phelps in the second semifinal, with all three men saving their best for when it mattered most.
When the final under the Athens sky unfolded, intrigue was certainly in the air. Thorpe and van den Hoogenband were considered the favorites, but a persistent question was on the lips of those in attendance: Can Phelps make this a three-man battle for gold. The answer proved to be a negative, but it did nothing to take the shine off the Race of the Century.
At the 50-meter mark, van den Hoogenband was out in front, Thorpe sitting just off the pace in second and Phelps in fourth. As the swimmers hit the midway point, van den Hoogenband had increased his lead over Thorpe, 50.42-51.04, with Phelps now sitting third in 51.70. That’s when Thorpe started to reel in van den Hoogenband.
Unable to play catchup in Sydney four years earlier, Thorpe cut into van den Hoogenband’s lead on the third lap and overtook the Dutchman on the final lap to prevail in 1:44.71, with van den Hoogenband earning the silver medal in 1:45.23. Producing the fastest last-lap split, Phelps touched in an American record of 1:45.32 for the bronze medal.
“It was the final that excited a lot of people,” Thorpe said. “This has been played out on three continents in the leadup to the Olympic Games, so it became a big deal. But I wasn’t focused on that. I really wanted to concentrate on what I was trying to do, make sure I swam the race well. I was able to do that. For me, that’s how I approached my races and I have been able to be successful in the past. I don’t worry about that my competitors are doing.
“I said to (van den Hoogenband), ‘Well, I guess that makes it 1-1 and I’d like to see you again in Beijing,” Thorpe said. “That brings up the question that was asked before, and you know I intend to be swimming it again. Pieter and I are good friends and it is a wonderful experience to be able to challenge yourself in this race, to prepare so hard in it. And you know, that’s what I’ve done, and that’s what Pieter’s done. And Michael’s done exactly the same thing. It’s good to be able to go out there and experience that with people that you know well. People kind of have their fate and their destiny and that was what it was tonight. I’ve worked damn hard for this.”
With the United States taking the bronze medal in the 400 freestyle relay earlier in the competition and Phelps winning the bronze medal in the 200 freestyle, his pursuit of Spitz’s seven gold medals from Munich was over. Some members of the media called Phelps’ performance in Athens a disappointment, but his eight medals told another story.
By winning both butterfly events and both individual medley disciplines, to go with a pair of relay gold medals, Phelps surpassed Spitz’s overall medal haul. Making the effort more impressive was the fact that Phelps, thanks to the sport’s global growth, faced deeper competition than Spitz and had handled a schedule which included semifinal rounds, something Spitz did not have to negotiate.
“How can I be disappointed?” Phelps asked after the 200 freestyle. “I swam in a field with the two fastest freestylers of all time and I was right there with them. I’m extremely happy with that. It’s a (personal) best time. It’s a new American record. I wanted to race those guys and that’s what I did. It was fun.
“It’s a lot more emotionally draining than anything I have done before and it takes a lot out of you race to race, particularly tonight. When those guys are going so fast it makes it real exciting, but it’s tough. I had an opportunity and I tried to do something that he (Spitz) did, but I didn’t. When I started to swim, I never thought I would have an opportunity to go for seven.”
The summit meeting which took place in Athens figured to be followed up at some point. Instead, it marked the final time Thorpe, van den Hoogenband and Phelps raced against one another. Thorpe initially announced he was taking a break from competition following the 2004 Games, but he never raced internationally again. Ahead of the 2012 Olympics, Thorpe announced a comeback attempt which blew up, with the middle-distance legend far from qualifying for the Australian squad which competed at the London Games.
Van den Hoogenband and Phelps met again in the 200 freestyle at the 2007 World Championships and the outcome was a one-sided affair, with Phelps taking down Thorpe’s five-year-old world record with a time of 1:43.86, and van den Hoogenband settling for the silver medal in another zip code, 1:46.28.
The dominance of Phelps, who won seven gold medals at the 2007 World Champs, could only be appreciated by van den Hoogenband, who announced after the final in Melbourne that he would abandon the 200 freestyle going forward, choosing instead to focus his energy on the 100 freestyle, where he was the two-time defending champion.
“I was swimming OK,” van den Hoogenband said. “But after every turn, he was pushing off and kicking through the water extremely fast. I was like, ‘Let’s see what he’s got left for the last 50.’ Well, he had a lot left. I thought the 200 freestyle record by (Thorpe) would last for 10, maybe 20 years.”
At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where Phelps surpassed Spitz with an iconic 8-for-8 gold-medal performance, Phelps obliterated the opposition in the 200 freestyle, taking his world record down to 1:42.96. That time proved to be more than a second faster than anything Thorpe or van den Hoogenband ever produced. For his part, van den Hoogenband was fifth in the 100 freestyle in Beijing, but became the first man to make the final of the 100 freestyle in four consecutive Olympiads. Aside from his two victories, he was fourth as an 18-year-old in 1996.
All told, the Race of the Century brought together three men who combined for 44 Olympic medals, 28 by Phelps. In a little less than two minutes, Thorpe, van den Hoogenband and Phelps showed the beauty of what can happen when three legends get together. They thrilled a fan base. They brought something to the sport which will never be forgotten.