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Odds stacked against Thorpe, but don’t count him out

Mon., Feb. 7, 2011

PARIS – Ian Thorpe versus Michael Phelps, a chlorinated version of Godzilla versus King Kong. Just imagine. Guaranteed to get top billing next year at the London Olympics.

If it happens.

Might not. Or may be an anticlimax if it does.

So what? Until reality proves otherwise, let’s revel in the fantasy of these human fish, the greatest swimmers of their times, competing in one last Olympics together.

There is always a rush to judgment when an athlete of Thorpe’s stature announces that he or she is making a comeback.

The quick consensus is that the sequel is rarely as good as the original. The standard examples – Bjorn Borg’s feeble 1991 return with a wooden racket, Michael Jordan’s deflating two seasons with the Washington Wizards, Michael Schumacher’s so far ho-hum comeback to Formula One – are dusted off to support the argument that, more often than not, ex-athletes are wiser to stay retired.

That is likely true for the Thorpedo, too.

For starters, his sudden desire to swim at the 2012 Games has come awfully late, making it look more like a whim than a well thought-out plan. He’s got less than 550 days to get back into Olympic shape and little more than a year until the Australian tryouts in March 2012. But if he rushes too quickly, Thorpe risks an injury that could wreck this comeback before it’s really begun.

His age, 28, shouldn’t be a problem. But even assuming that Thorpe is lucky enough to train without hitches and that 30-40 hours in the pool each week don’t soon dampen his ardor, much of 2011 will still be a write-off for cleaning away the rust.

As for any swimmer coming out of retirement, Thorpe must wait nine months before competing, so dope testers can first give him an all-clear. He’ll therefore miss the world championships in July that would have given an early indication of whether he can still measure up against the best.

In other words, the odds are stacked against him. All the more reason why Thorpe should be applauded for giving this adventure a whirl. It could end poorly, be criticized as foolhardy, embarrassing, a sad grab for attention or money. And that makes it brave, too. As Thorpe says, it would have been easier to stay retired.

“I have had an almost flawless career, and I put that at risk,” he said.

Thorpe is hoping for a spot on Australia’s 400- and 800-meter freestyle relay teams. Which events Phelps will swim may not be known until after this year’s world championships. But two of Phelps’ record eight golds at the 2008 Beijing Games came in those freestyle races. And Phelps and Thorpe both raced in the 800-meter freestyle relay at the 2004 Athens Games. It was one of the most dramatic races of those Olympics, outshining even their head-to-head individual battle with Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200 freestyle – which Thorpe won.

Now, thanks to Thorpe, we have a shot of seeing them do it all over again.

Perhaps nothing will come of it. But at least Thorpe will have tried. And that has to be better than not trying at all.

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