Several countries in the modern Olympics would look to one sport and perceive it to be ‘their’ domain, the place where their Olympians traditionally excelled against the opposition. For the Swedes and the Hungarians it could be said they both share the modern pentathlon as ‘their’ Olympic sport. Kenyans and Ethiopians have come to dominate long distance running, whilst India still feels great attachment to men’s field hockey. In the Winter Olympics the Canadians are emotionally and historically attached to ice hockey, whilst Norwegians look to cross-country skiing as a particularly strong part of their Olympic identity. And for Australia the overwhelming sport of interest at the Olympics is swimming. Unfortunately for Gary Hall Jnr and his American compatriots at the Sydney 2000 Olympics a quote that smacked of arrogance provoked the most memorable response from an Australian men’s 4×100 metres freestyle relay team that was determined to make the greatest swimming power in Olympic history show some respect in the Aussie’s own home pool.
Prior to the Sydney 2000 Olympics the 4×100 metres freestle relay was literally American property. First contested as an Olympic event in 1964 at Tokyo, with a short interregnum over the Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980 Olympics, the record stood at seven finals and seven team golds for the US. Australian male swimmers in this period came closest to defeating an American team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when the so-called “Mean Machine” of Greg Fasala, Neil Brooks, Mark Stockwell and Michael Delany swam beneath world record time in coming second behind the US swimmers Chris Cavanaugh, Michael Heath, Matt Biondi and Rowdy Gaines. For a sporting nation proud of their legendary swimmers such as Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose, John Devitt, Mike Wenden and Shane Gould the 4×100 metres freestyle relay was akin to a holy grail; to win that event’s gold would show the world that Australian swimmers meant to show up the brasher, bigger, more successful Yanks.
Leading up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics the swimming stocks of several nations in the men’s sprint distances were very strong; perhaps stronger over a wider range of nations than had been seen for some time. For the Russians the legendary Aleksandr Popov led their 100 metres charge, having successfully defended his Barcelona 100 metres title in Atlanta, hence aiming for a third gold in Sydney. Lars Frolander was a well credentialled Swedish swimmer who had clocked a sub-49 second time for the 100 metres, whilst Dutch favourite Pieter Van den Hoogenband was a candidate for individual sprint glory and could be the decisive factor for a Netherlands relay team. Yet when it came down to the previews before the Sydney 2000 swim program the battle for 4×100 metres relay gold was expected to be a fight between the underdog Australia and the traditional top ranked Americans.
In the Australian Olympic swimming trials held at the Homebush Aquatic Centre (venue for the Sydney 2000 swim meet) the top four finishers in the men’s 100 metres freestyle were Michael Klim (48.56 seconds), Chris Fydler (48.85), Ashley Callus (49.46) and Ian Thorpe (49.74). Of these swimmers Klim and Thorpe had the highest profiles, as the former was a world record holder in the 100 metres butterfly plus a four times world champion two years earlier, whilst the latter was emerging as the greatest male swimmer seen in Australia since Murray Rose. Michael Klim and Chris Fydler had both swum as part of the Australian men’s 4×100 metres freestyle relay team in Atlanta where they came sixth, whilst ‘The Thorpedo’ had set three world records in three days at the Australian swim trials. Callus had won gold with the Australians in the 1998 Kuala Lumpar Commonwealth Games, and so the four leading sprinters in the green and gold had a very respectable aura surrounding them leading into Sydney 2000.
Across the Pacific the US swim trials for the 100 metres men’s freestyle were held as late as August 13th 2000 in Indianopolis. The first four finishers in this event’s final were Neil Walker (48.71), Gary Hall Jnr (48.84), Scott Tucker (48.95) and Jason Lezak (49.15). Far and away the most famous of these men was the outspoken Gary Hall Jnr. Hall’s family had a history of Olympic swimming, and during the 1996 Atlanta games the brash American had duelled both in and out of the water with Russian gold medallist Popov. Like Hall, Tucker was a member of the 1996 US 4×100 metres freestyle team that had won gold, whilst Lezak and Walker were looking to debut in Sydney. On paper these times meant there was less than a second between the leading four swimmers from Australia and America; the upcoming relay was looking to be a highlight of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
Then, in an article posted via the CNN/Sports Illustrated website by Gary Hall Jnr in his online diary on August 22nd a supposed joke or even qualified sign of respect poured oil on the flames of the rivalry between the US and Australian swim teams. Hall Jnr wrote:
“I like Australia, in truth. I like Australians. The country is beautiful, and the people are admirable. Good humor and genuine kindness seem a predominant characteristic. My biased opinion says that we will smash them like guitars. Historically the U.S. has always risen to the occasion. But the logic in that remote area of my brain says it won’t be so easy for the United States to dominate the waters this time. Whatever the results, the world will witness great swimming.”
The Australian media and in turn the Australian swim team grabbed this quote, highlighting the ‘guitar smashing’ section particularly and then using it to both pour scorn on what was considered American arrogance and motivate further a very driven Australian swim team. After the event and even as recently as the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics Gary Hall Jnr’s comments drew attention for their role in the build up to the gold medal relay race in the Sydney Olympic pool. However before the final there were three heats, all swum on the morning of Saturday 16th September, the day after the spectacular opening ceremony.
The first heat saw Dutch hopes crash when their team was disqualified, and though Van Den Hoogenband didn’t participate it destroyed his chances of leading the Netherlands to a relay gold. The German men won this heat in a time of 3.18.70, against a relatively weaker team, with the Italians in second and Belarus third. The next heat saw Australia, Russia and Sweden debut their teams with Ian Thorpe and Michael Klim not racing. Thorpe was swimming in the 400 metres freestyle heats and final on the first day of the Sydney 2000 program, and if there was one potential weakness in the make-up of the Aussie team it was whether or not the 17 year old could back up after his main individual event. Todd Pearson and Adam Pine stepped into the team and registered both first place and a time more than two seconds faster than second place team Russia (including Popov). Sweden, France and South Africa filled the third to fifth positions in this heat. The final heat was won by the Americans who rested Hall and Walker, bringing in Josh Davis (an Atlanta relay gold medallist) and Anthony Ervin. Ervin’s participation in the heat was in itself an historic event, as he was the first US Olympic swimmer with an African American background to swim at the Olympics. The US team swam the fastest time of all three heats, beating the Brazilians home in 3.15. 43. Scott Tucker’s time as the lead was somewhat disappointing, and when the US relay team was confirmed for the final he was dropped for Ervin. It appeared that with the Americans bringing in Hall Jnr and Tucker who were both faster than the second best Australian (Callus), and with Thorpe having to swim the 400 metres final, the gold logically should go to the US. Yet logic doesn’t always contribute to the make up of an Olympic Games gold medal final.
Come the finals on the first night of the Olympic swimming program in Sydney and 17,500 spectators filled the Aquatic Centre, with all Australians there plus millions at home watching to see how Ian Thorpe would swim in his 400 metres final. The current world record holder the ‘Thorpedo’ was never really threatened by his rivals, winning gold in a time of 3.40.59; a new world record (breaking his own mark) and streeting his nearest competitor Massimiliano Rosolino by almost three seconds. As his competitors finished the race Thorpe signalled his satsfaction with a determined two handed fist pump slightly betrayed by a small grin, and then it was time to prepare for the 4×100 metres freestyle relay final.
Meanwhile the Americans had changed their line up for the final, dropping Tucker in favour of Ervin. Ervin’s time in the relay heat earlier that day was the quickest of the four Americans who swam, whereas Tucker’s time was slightly slower than Chris Fydler who had swum the first leg for the Australians in their heat. The teams who then lined up were matched as follows:
- Klim versus Ervin
- Walker versus Fydler
- Lezak versus Callus
- Thorpe versus Hall Jnr
As the eight finalist teams lined up at the blocks for the start of the 4×100 metres freestyle final there was one man missing. Thorpe was struggling with his swimsuit which required 4 people to help him change, and unlike his compatriots who were able to leisurely (if nervously) prepare, greeting the announcing of their names to the massively pro-Aussie crowd, Thorpe had to race out, making the start just in time. Mounting the blocks and under the starter’s orders the shaved down Michael Klim was ready for the swim of his life.
With the starter’s signal sending the relay teams down their respective lanes for 8 laps Klim went out hard and very, very fast. By 15 seconds into Klim’s leg he had already established half a body length on Ervin, and when Klim touched the wall at the end of the first lap the Australian’s time of 22.83 seconds was looking good for a new world record. The gap extended as the second lap continued, and by the time Klim reached the end of his leg he had swum a new world record time for the 100 metres freestyle for men; 48.18 seconds. Then it was the turn of Fydler and Walker. Chris Fylder kept the lead for his first 50 metres, but then in the back half of his leg Neil Walker grabbed the lead. This would have possibly been the time in past Olympic men’s freestyle relays when the US team would storm to an unassailable claim on gold. Yet Fydler responded, no doubt spurred on by the deafening screams of the Australian fans. As the rest of the field slid further back in the wake of the Australian and the American the first half of the relay ended with Chris Fydler touching the wall for an aggregate time of 1.36.66; 1.77 seconds under world record pace.
Lezak for America and Callus for Australia were the third pair into the pool for their respective teams, and within th early stages of their respective legs Lezak took the lead. Keeping this for almost three quarters of the 100 metres that he swum the American was matched near the end, then surpassed almost imperceptably by Anthony Callus. The third ranked Aussie male over 100 metres had given Ian Thorpe what he need; a lead (if small) over the man who had made the not-so-funny now jibe about smashing the Australians like guitars. The 4×100 metres freestyle title would either be won by a man who was at his first Olympics, and had just won a gold medal in the 400 metres whilst breaking his own world record. Or it would be won by an extroverted and experienced sprint swimming expert who already had relay gold from Atlanta, plus he swam for a country with an undefeated relay history at the Olympics.
Hall began excellently and with a dramatic turn of speed and high stroke rate almost instantkly caught then passed the Thorpedo. The Aussie’s arms seemed to move in slow motion, languidly curving into the water as his size 8 feet acted like flippers; but at the end of the seventh lap it was the Americans with the lead, and Gary Hall Jr had them still under world record time. Again, in another Olympics and with other swimmers the US could have, would have…nay should have swum away for a tight gold medal victory. Yet with about 20 metres to go Thorpe’s inexorable momentum took hundredths of a second away from the brash American. The crowd in the Sydney Olympic swimming venue literally shouted through the roof as their home town hero (who lived as a boy only half an hour’s drive from Homebush, Sydney’s Olympic precinct) swam the race of his lifetime, if not of anyone’s lifetime. As the two leaders swam under the false start rope at 15 metres to go it looked almost dead level between them. The wall approached and with a final surge of his amazingly powerful teenage body Thorpe grabbed the lead; Hall swept to the finish too but in a result which broke the world record, ended American Olympic dominance and defined this 4×100 metres relay as probably the greatest team swim ever seen at an Olympic Games Ian Thorpe beat the American home by 0.19 of a second. The Australian men had won gold with a final time of 3.13.67, the Americans were second in 3.13.86, and almost as an afterthought the Brazilians took bronze.
Then came the exuberant Australian ‘get square’ to the now not-so-brash Gary Hall Jr; as Thorpe climbed out on the pool deck Chris Fydler, Anthony Callus and a surly Michael Klim formed an air guitar trio that strummed a silent but pointed note of ‘take that’ to the Americans. It was in the opinion of legendary Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser “probably the greatest race I have ever seen”, whilst Thorpe was to say later the relay gold medal meant more to him than his 400 metres. He said “being able to share that experience with three other swimmers was incredible,” and for Michael Klim he had the good fortune to have Thorpe confirm he had swum a world record time for his first 100 metres leg.
In the silver medal winning American team the reaction was understandably ruefull. Hall looked back on the race and said:“I don’t even know how to play the guitar,” but he was gracious in defeat: “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.”
At the Summer Olympic Games which then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch called the best ever, this 4×100 metres men’s freestyle relay was the best team swim in the entire history of the modern Olympics.