20 Years On: – Sydney 2000, Act One, Scene One – Golden Double For Ian Thorpe

2020-09-15 Reading Time: 12 minutes
Ian Thorpe, 11 years after his towering golden evening at Sydney 2000 - by Patrick B. Kraemer

Twenty years ago to this day, Ian Thorpe led a celebration of extraordinary swimming and events on the opening night of finals at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. It was the Games that also brought us Eric the Eel, as named by me, Craig Lord. Here is a personal reflection and memory of that special night in Sydney 20 years ago at an amazing Games in Australia

From The Craig Lord Archive

It is 20 years since Sydney welcomed the world to the Olympic Games at its Opening Ceremony. The first day of action in the pool heralded the arrival of Ian Thorpe in Olympic waters with two golds, the first in a stunning world record over 400m freestyle, the second in the 4x100m freestyle to the sound of  crashing guitars.

And … Action. It was electrifying from the moment we entered the pool at Homebush. If the preview days leading up to a week of sensational Olympic racing at the first eight-day swimming programme at the Games promised much, what unfolded in the first evening of finals was telling not only for the moment but set the tone and pace for the seven fabulous days that followed and the decade as a whole.

It was the first Games at which bodysuits were worn since the pre-War era. Textile, sleek by design, compression taken further than ever before, they made a visible impact in the pool but nothing like the kind of impact on times across the board and deep through the world rankings as non-textile shiny suits made in 2008-09.

There were 15 world records, a high tally in historic terms, and a third of what would unfold nine years later at world championships in Rome, body suits and compression a factor in both – but different – cases.

Top billing was given to the firing of the Thorpedo and the explosive success of the flying Dutch duo, Inge de Bruijn and Pieter van den Hoogenband, while the US came out well on top once more in a battle that left it nursing wounded pride but still able to celebrate its superpower status in the face of an Australian advance at home.

The score was 14 gold and 33 medals overall for the Stars and Stripes; five gold and 18 medals overall for the Green and Gold school of Dolphins; and five golds for Hoogie and Inky, the born-again sprint diva, lifting the Orange order to third on the medals table.

Despite the inroads made by the rest of the world, including the medley double by Yana Klochkova (UKR) and Italy’s first two Olympic champions, Domenico Fioravanti and Massimiliano Rosolino (ITA), the USA had a stellar meet, one that saw more than half its squad set personal best times.

Susie O'Neill by Patrick B. Kraemer
 Susie O’Neill by Patrick B. Kraemer

That translated to a world record for Tom Dolan, who defended the 400m medley crown in 4:11.76, and and Olympic record of 8:19.67 in the 800m freestyle for Brooke Bennett, who five days earlier had claimed the 400m freestyle crown in 4:05.80. Tom Malchow claimed the 200m butterfly crown (in a final that featured 15-year-old Michael Phelps, back in fifth and one of a new wave that would build its own plinth in the pantheon) and Lenny Krayzelburg a backstroke double, Megan Quann triumphed in the 100 breaststroke, while Misty Hyman’s defeat of defending 200m butterfly champion Susie O’Neill in 2:05.88, a 3.2sec improvement on her pre-Game best, was one of the biggest shocks of the Games. O’Neill, second, had already won the 200m freestyle in 1:58.24, the only home gold among women.

A thrilling eight days of races ended as so may had done over so many years: with American medley relays setting world records: B. J. Bedford, Megan Quann, Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres axed 3.37sec off the 1994 global mark set by China to become the first quartet to break 4 minutes, in 3:58.30 (Australia were also inside the old world mark, on 4:01.59); and Lenny Krayzelburg, Ed Moses, Ian Crocker and Gary Hall Jr. improved the USA’s 1996 mark, in 3:33.73.

Hall Jr. tied for gold in the 50m freestyle with U.S. teammate Anthony Ervin, the son of an African American who at 19 was written up as the ‘first black swimmer’ to make a US Olympic swimming team. He was also the first to win Olympic gold in the pool. He wasn’t done pioneering: in 2016, Ervin won the same race again, at the Rio Olympic Games: at 35 he became the oldest Olympic swimming champion in history and the first to win the same crown 16 years apart.

Some more on the history of events 20 years ago at Sydney 2000 over the course of the coming week.

Act One, Scene One: Thorpedo, The Thunder From Down Under

The first night was explosive and had writers from the wider world of sport waking up to the gladiatorial nature of a great sport. Day one finals witnessed five world records in four finals, led by a towering performance from Ian Thorpe, 17, and coached by Doug Frost.

As he rose to his blocks for the start of the 400m freestyle final, you could hear a pin drop and hairs standing on end on the necks of a 17,000 capacity crowd in the city of his birth. Thorpey did not disappoint: a jaw-dropping 3:40.59 world record was delivered in a fountain of fancy (big)foot work down the last length that made the Australian teenager look as though Achilles had sewn rockets to his heels.

The writing had been on the end wall ever since Thorpe had become the youngest world champion among men in swimming history at 15 in January 1998, on 3:46.29 in Perth. A year and a half on at Pan Pacs, his best and the global best had been crushed down to 3:41.83. A new era of distance swimming had begun.

To this day, Sun Yang, the Chinese Olympic champion suspended after testing positive for a banned substance in 2014 and earlier this year was banned for eight years for tampering with a test sample, remains the only man who has won any crown, at global or other levels, in a faster time over eight laps without the buoy of a shiny suit.

Ian Thorpe on the podium after the 400m free - by Patrick B. Kraemer
 Ian Thorpe on the podium after the 400m free – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Thorpe’s Top 10 at that moment

  1. 3:40.59 2000
  2. 3:41.33 2000
  3. 3:41.83 1999
  4. 3:43.85 1999
  5. 3:44.35 1998
  6. 3:44.65 2000
  7. 3:45.96 1999
  8. 3:46.29 1998
  9. 3:46.47 1998
  10. 3:48.36 1999

Thorpe was back in an hour later. Charged by the atmosphere and driven by challenging comments made by Gary Hall Jr. (USA) on the eve of the Games,  the Australians were ready to respond. Michael Klim gave the Dolphins a perfect start in the 4x100m freestyle in a world record of, 48.18sec, 0.03sec inside the standard that had stood to training partner Alexander Popov (RUS).

The race was an AUS v USA heart-stopper: Klim v Anthony Ervin: 48.18 to 48.89; Chris Fydler v Neil Walker, 48.48 to 48.31; Ashley Callus v Jason Lezak, 48.71 to 48.42.

Before the race began, a colleague from The Guardian asked me how the race would go. I concluded that Thorpe would enter the water first, would get caught and past by Hall Jr but would come thundering back to win. The cricket writer was skeptical.

Thorpe entered the water 0.25sec ahead of Hall.  The American clocked a sizzling 22.47 down the first 50m, to Thorpe’s 23.34 and the USA had a 0.62sec lead. The unbeaten record of the USA, which had won every 4x100m freestyle title since 1964, looked safe – for a fleeting moment.

Ian Thorpe, by Patrick B. Kraemer
 Ian Thorpe, by Patrick B. Kraemer

Stroke by stroke, paddle of a pull by paddle of a pull, giant kick by giant kick, Thorpe clawed and thundered his way back and as Hall started to pay the price for that early catch-up and the crowd rose to its feet in anticipation of the first big upset of the Games, the advantage of the man who had put in the metres and already had gold around his neck that day made itself known.

A 48.30 split for Thorpe gave the Dolphins the crown in a world record of 3:13.67, while Hall’s 48.24 took the USA inside the previous world mark by 1.25sec, for the silver in 3:13.86. The Guardian’s David Hopps turned to me with a beaming smile on his face and said: “You bastard!”

The video shows Thorpe leaping from the water to celebrate before the race is over … seems they wouldn’t have dared even in a realm stacked high with misinterpretation of rules (the problem of last swimmers is not leaping out, to be clear, but leaping in, three parts of the rules on relays relating to the potential obstruction and hindrance of others).

The atmosphere was charged, the air crackling and fizzling in the venue that night. The Australians celebrated by playing air guitar on the pool deck, a gesture aimed at Hall, who had said that the USA would “smash the Aussies like guitars”.

It all made for an electric moment that thrilled the home crowd and gave ticket holders more than their money’s worth. Hall Jr.’s comment had been made in competitive spirit. He was lambasted for it and much misquoted and misjudged, perhaps in part because of the reputation he had for showboating.  What Hall Jr. actually said was far more gracious than the image reflected of him by the media at the time:

“I don’t even know how to play the guitar … I consider it the best relay race I’ve ever been part of. I doff my cap to the great Ian Thorpe. He swum better than I did.”

Not faster, better.

Gary Hall jr [Courtesy: ISHOF]
 Gary Hall jr [Courtesy: ISHOF]

At the end of a sensational week of racing in which Hall had made history with Ervin by sharing the 50m freestyle title in 21.98sec, Hall paid a further gracious tribute to Australia:

”When faced with a worthy opponent, it forces you to get your act together and step up. We were able to use that threat of being dethroned as the best swimming nation as motivation to reach a level that otherwise we might not have reached.”

A fitting thought that links Thorpe with two of the other greats of the past decade and all-time, Pieter Van Den Hoogeband (NED) and Grant Hackett (AUS), among the few who provided real challenge to Thorpe and who knew victory over him in their careers.

When Thorpe, coached by Doug Frost, had done on that first night, waiting for him in the days that followed was Hoogie, coached by Jacco Verhaeren …

The standards set by Thorpe and Hackett (whose arrival in international waters represented a gear shift for the sport), and Hoogie and De Bruijn in the early year(s) of the decade set enduring challenges for the whole of the swimming world, challenges that in textile suits remain among the tallest in the history of swimming.

Michael Phelps – half his current age – was there to witness the whole thing unfold before his eyes. For inspiration, it could hardly have been a better showcase for a man who would go on to become the greatest Olympian of all-time.

An Overview Of Swimming At Sydney 2000

Below is an overview of the party in the pool and a memory of Eric The Eel, his naming and a moment of survival that changes the rules of the Games as far as qualification goes.

Sydney 2000 – The 27th Olympiad

There were 148 nations, just 18 made the podium and not many more than that made finals as swimming reached the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the rebirth of bodysuits, compression and teflon-style coatings on the trail of angles of buoyancy eight years before non-textiles would bring a whole new dimension to the role of kit.

There were 15 world record, nine of them to men, and at the top of the medals the USA won the duel with hosts Australia 14 golds, 8 and 11 to 5 golds, 9 and 4 , the efforts of Pieter Van den Hoogenband and Inge de Bruijn elevating The Netherlands to third best nation on the table at 5 gold a silver and two bronzes.

Between the bodysuits that made a visible impact in the pool and the 15 world records, the firing of Thorpedo, AKA Ian Thorpe, and the explosive success of the flying Dutch duo were the abiding images of Sydney.

Of the 148 nations, 22 nations were seen in Olympic waters for the first time: Aruba, Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Micronesia, Georgia, Equatorial Guinea, Grenada, Guinea, Iraq, Laos, St Lucia, Morocco, Mongolia, Mali, Palestine, Palau Islands, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Rwanda, Tajikistan, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Zambia. None made an impact beyond development heats.

Sydney was a Games of extremes: Ian Thorpe at one end of the pool, and Eric Moussambani, of Equatorial Guinea, at the deep end, recording the slowest time ever seen at a Games over 100-metre freestyle: 1:52.72, slower than the time in which Thorpe passed the 200m mark on his way to a world record victory of 3:40.59 over 400m. Eric The Eel was born – and the rules of engagement in Olympic waters were changed.

The Naming Of Eric The Eel

This author gave Eric The Eel his name in a news file first published at The Times Online, which was running instant reports on the internet ahead of the newspaper’s coverage for the first time in the history of  publication (1785 and officially ‘The Times‘ in 1788).

Here is an extract from open version of the report on the day:

Eric The Eel (CAL)
 Eric The Eel (CAL)

Eric Moussambani, from Equatorial Guinea, learned to swim in January when his nation established its first aquatics federation. This morning, he stepped onto his blocks in baggy blue trunks, drawstrings dangling and untied, to make his Olympic debut in the 100m freestyle.

It was a nervous moment for the 22-year-old, who fumbled with his goggles with the dexterity of a child handling a pen for the first time. Two lengths amounted to 100 metres but swimming’s answer to Eddie the Eagle, Eric the Eel, had only ever raced over 50m before – and that in a 20-metre pool.

The Olympic waters of the Sydney International Aquatic Centre stretched out before him like a marathon course.

Beside him were two bodysuited swimmers, Niger’s Karim Bare – who was anything but – and Farkhod Oripov, of Tajikistan, all three invited to Sydney under the friendship funding programme organised by FINA, swimming’s global authority.

The starter called the swimmers to their marks. Moussambani, 5ft 7in, held steady. The taller bodysuits wobbled, fell in and were cast out of the race under the no false-start rule, their Olympic Games over. The 18,000-crowd booed but the judge would have none of it.

Moussambani, one of 11 from his country in Sydney, ploughed a lonely lane for his finest 1 minute 52.72 second (40.97-1:11.75) though it felt like an hour. The gun fired and Eric the Eel plunged into the lane in which Ian Thorpe had raced to a silver medal in 1min 45sec over double the distance the day before.

At first, the crowd clapped politely. But the mood turned as the race for survival progressed. At the turn, Eric the Eel vanished. He was under a long time (a couple of seconds that felt like an hour). A hush descended on the crowd. Eric looked like he was caught in a riptide. Was he facing up or down, and did he know it himself? The sense of relief in the venue was tangible when the man from Molabu surfaced to take a breath.

The largely Australian crowd – nearly every man, woman and child probably capable of swimming faster than Moussambani – warmed to the occasion and lifeguards stood by poised to plunge in for the rescue as the
swimmer’s stroke shortened, and his legs sank from the surface.

Would he make it to the end wall? Touch and go. With a final desperate lunge, Moussambani was safe. It would be some while before he could get dry; an hour after clambering shattered on to the deck, he had still not made it through the gauntlet of cameras, microphones and media.

His time would have been a world Masters record – in the 100 to 104 year group, the speed of 97-year-old
Gus Langner from the United States still a target on his way to Athens 2004.

Moussambani, who works in information technology and carried his country’s flag at the Opening Ceremony, sent “kisses and hugs to the whole crowd”, and, speaking in Spanish and French, added: 

“I could hear them cheering and it helped me to get to the end. I didn’t want to swim 100 meters but my coach told me that I should do it anyway – I thought it was too much but thanks to the crowd, I made it.”

More famous than the Thorpedo for an hour at the Olympic Games in Sydney today.

A very funny take on events from the fat-arsed wombat duo:


‘B’ target times were introduced, the International Olympic Committee no longer prepared to have the Games used for learn-to-swim.

The Sydney programme, meanwhile, dropped the “B” finals in favour of a return to semi-finals in all events up to 200m, while, for the first time, worldwide audiences could log into to live timing, as races unfolded, via the Omega website.

On the anti-doping front, blood tests came in, though the USA complained that only 4 of its squad of 48 had been required to submit to the new tests. Subsequent to the Games, a report at the Italian Olympic Committee would reveal that several big names across several sports had tested positive for Human Growth Hormone (a substance doing the rounds among those seeking an elixir to success around the time of the 1996-2004 Olympic cycles and at the centre of the China doping crisis in 1998) in tests accompanied by an amnesty agreement in the interests of discovering the extent of a problem.

The Sydney 2000 Show

The spectacular Sydney showcase started on the first evening with an unprecedented five world records in four finals, led by a towering performance from Ian Thorpe, 17. As he rose to his blocks for the start of the 400m freestyle final, the excitement of a 17,000 capacity crowd in the city of his birth was fit to run the nation’s generators.

It set the mood for a stirring week of swimming.  Beyond the champions featured in our series, the following folk and moments wrote themselves into the history book:

  • an historic wins for Lars Frölander (SWE) in the 100m butterfly in a European record of 52.00 ahead of Michael Klim, an Australian on 52.18 and 0.04sec ahead of teammate Geoff Huegill, the hosts taking two bites of the podium.
  • Klim claimed two gold, two silvers and set a decisive world record of 48.18 leading Australia off to gold in the 4x100m freestyle, though he would finish fourth in the solo 100m final.
  • Massimiliano Rosolino (ITA) improved beyond recognition to win the 200m medley in an Olympic record of 1:58.98 in a week that saw him make vast progress on the clock for bronze in the 200m freestyle and silver in the 400m freestyle.
  • Tom Dolan (USA) cracked the world record in the 400m medley in 4:11.76, his victory a title retained four years after a 4:14.90 win in Atlanta. On both occasions Curtis Myden (CAN) took bronze, with the silvers went to Americans called Eric. In 2000, it was Eric Vendt. In 1996 it was Eric Namesnik, who died on January 11, 2006 from injuries sustained in a car accident the week before. He was critically injured in a crash on an ice-covered road in Pittsfield Township, Michigan. He was survived by his wife, former swimmer Kirsten Silvester from the Netherlands, and their two children, Austin and Madison. His former club team, Club Wolverine, hosts the Namesnik Memorial Grand Prix every spring in his honour and Eric Namesnik is honoured with a statue outside the Butler County YMCA along with his childhood coach John “Pump” McLaughlin.
  • Megan Quann claimed the 100 m breaststroke crown in an American record of 1:07.05, with a power to be Leisel Jones (AUS) second and a power passing, the 1996 double champion Penny Heyns (RSA) third.
  • The 200m breaststroke went to Ágnes Kovács (HUN) in 2:24.35, U.S. teammates Kristy Kowal and Amanda Beard completing the podium.

The joy of Quann – the arrival of Jones

Ian Thorpe on the podium after the 400m free - by Patrick B. Kraemer
 Ian Thorpe on the podium after the 400m free – by Patrick B. Kraemer

The relay world records:

4×100 m freestyle – Australia

  • Ian Thorpe
    Ashley Callus
    Chris Fydler
    Michael Klim
    Todd Pearson (r)
    Adam Pine (r) 3:13.67 WR

4×200 m freestyle – Australia

  • Todd Pearson
    Ian Thorpe
    Bill Kirby
    Michael Klim
    Grant Hackett (r)
    Daniel Kowalski (r) 7:07.05 WR
    (In third was the Dutch quartet, brought him by what was then the swiftest 200m free split ever, 1:44.80, courtesy of 200m champion Pieter Van den Hoogenband)

4×100 m medley – United States

  • Lenny Krayzelburg
    Ed Moses
    Ian Crocker
    Gary Hall, Jr.
    Neil Walker (r)
    Tommy Hannan (r)
    Jason Lezak (r) 3:33.73 WR

4×100 m freestyle – United States

  • Amy Van Dyken
    Courtney Shealy
    Jenny Thompson
    Dara Torres
    Erin Phenix (r)
    Ashley Tappin (r) 3:36.61 WR

4×100 m medley – United States

  • Barbara Bedford
    Megan Quann
    Jenny Thompson
    Dara Torres
    Courtney Shealy (r)
    Ashley Tappin (r)
    Amy Van Dyken (r)
    Staciana Stitts (r) 3:58.30 WR
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