I occasionally have little competitive voices in my head when I watch Phelps

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 August, 2008, 12:00am

Regrets, there are none - but little voices inside his head niggled the Thorpedo when he watched Michael Phelps storm to a world record in the 400m individual medley yesterday.

Quite what the voices were saying to Ian Thorpe, that other super-human flying fish who shocked the world by bowing out of the sport he dominated with five Olympic gold medals for Australia, is unclear.

But they could easily have been whispering 'you could had beaten him, mate', as Phelps touched home in a time of four minutes and 3.84 seconds to claim his first of a targeted eight gold medals.

'Yes, I occasionally have little competitive voices in my head when I watch swimmers like Phelps on the platform,' he says.

No doubt those 'occasional' whispers have become more regular with the incessant crack of the starting pistols and splashes in the Water Cube - familiar, evocative sounds that will be hard to miss wherever the busy schedule of this legendary Olympian-turned globe-trotting eco-warrior-cum-entrepreneur takes him over the next 10 days or so.

He attempts to negate their nagging, however, by maintaining Phelps' target of eight gold medals is unachievable in such a high-octane theatre.

'I have said before that I don't think he can do the eight, and I still believe that,' he says, as he fills a small interview room at the Omega pavilion on the Olympic Green. There's too much competition - too many other swimmers of ability - for Phelps to grab the magic eight, asserts Thorpe.

He adds: 'The standard is incredibly high. You've got to look at each of his individual races. He's up against incredible competition.

'Even some of his events that he has always been stronger in, aren't there any more. It's sad, but I just don't think it will happen.'

Then, as if one of those 'voices' suddenly reminded him of Phelps' remarkable talent and dedication, Thorpe pauses before offering a qualifier should he be proved wrong. 'Mind you, if there is any person on the planet who is capable, it is him,' he says.

'But he is going to blow the world away, even if he doesn't achieve what he sets out to achieve. He will wow the world with his incredible ability.'

And as if on cue, Phelps did just that yesterday.

At 25 and in demand, Thorpe remains a magnet for sports fans and won plenty of admiration in the Omega pavilion, which he helped open with IOC president Jacques Rogge.

These days, he carries out his sponsorship duties with aplomb, offering interview after interview. When not discussing his past achievements, and deconstructing those of others, he is trying to help clean up the planet.

'I have investments in environmental companies in China,' he says. 'There is a real will in this country to improve environmental standards, and I come here often, setting up companies, trying to raise awareness.'

Thorpe is known to have an apartment in Beijing and is active across East Asia.

'It's important to be involved in China. Australia is part of the region and is influenced by it,' he says.

'Stopping swimming was the most exciting thing in my life - after starting swimming,' he jokes.

The Speedos have been left at home and Thorpe is now dressed in the attire that signals his new calling. The lack of rigorous training has allowed one of the world's greatest athletes to put on a bit of weight.

But the burly yet gentle form is the picture of rude health, dressed in an elegant [think Armani] brown pinstripe, and what look like alligator-skin black brogues the size of a killer whale flipper.

But he has not turned his back on the watery domain that made him, and he still 'likes to dip my head under the water' for a de-stressing few laps after another board meeting or television appearance.

Sure, it was good to give up the monotonous training sessions - up and down, down and up the pool - retire at 23 and reinvent himself all before reaching 26.

But injury forced the decision to bow out at the top, he says - that and the glaring realisation that a full and active life could be led away from the goggles, towels, the tinny bang of locker doors, the whiff of chlorine - and the stepping on to podiums. And, of course, not to mention a certain French newspaper alleging you used performance-enhancing drugs?

But when Phelps steps up for his crack at gold number two this morning, won't one of those voices in his head pipe up with a loud 'you could beat him, mate'?

The Thorpedo pauses and you know a thought has just powered rapier-like through his head and hit a target he is trying to protect. No need to listen to the voices. The grin says it all.

Ian Thorpe is retired at age: 25