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Thorpe torpedoes his world rivals

Thorpe roars approval after his dramatic triumph in swimming's 'race of the century' in Athens
• Olympics 2004: Special report 

ATHENS, Greece -- Australia's Ian Thorpe struck gold in a dramatic men's 200 meters freestyle final dubbed the "race of the century" at the Athens Olympics on Monday.

Thorpe triumphed in one minute 44.71 seconds -- just 00.65 outside the world record he set at the 2001 world championships -- to claim his second title of the Games.

Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, the gold medalist in Sydney four years ago, took silver in 1:45.23 while American Michael Phelps collected the bronze in 1:45.32.

Monday's final pitted the four fastest men in history against each other -- and Thorpe was supreme as he added to the 400m freestyle title he won on Saturday.

He whipped off his rubber cap and punched the air three times in triumph, flashing a smile.

"It was tough," said Thorpe. "But I was able to produce a pretty good performance and I'm ecstatic about the result."

Van den Hoogenband set out at a cracking pace, leading the field through the first 150 under world record pace.

He was still in front turning for home but Thorpe, who had been second all the way, mowed him down to win by half a body length.

"I knew Pieter would go out quick and I just wanted to stay with him," said Thorpe. "It was a great result."

The bronze finish in Thorpe's wake ended Phelps' hopes of equaling Mark Spitz's 1972 record of seven gold medals.

"It was my best time by half a second," Phelps said. "When you have a star-studded field like that and those guys are going so fast, it makes it all so exciting."

Phelps, promised $1 million if he could match Spitz's haul, was fourth after 50 but moved into third at the halfway stage and was not able to improve his position despite a late surge.

Thorpe, van den Hoogenband and Phelps are the three most recognisable faces in swimming and their first three-way clash was always going to be treated like a heavyweight prize-fight.

Thorpe won his first world title as a 15-year-old and won three gold and two silver medals as a 17-year-old. He won a fourth gold at the weekend.

He has dominated the 200 over the past four years, winning the last two world championships, but his only defeat came at the last Olympics when he finished second to van den Hoogenband, who also won the 100 in Sydney.

The moment Thorpe struck more gold ahead of van den Hoogenband, center, and Michael Phelps, top

The flying Dutchman has failed to reach those dizzy heights since, settling for five silver medals at the past two world championships, but was the fastest qualifier for the final.

Phelps had not swum the 200 at a major international event before Athens but included it in his schedule after announcing he would try and better Spitz's record.

Unlike Thorpe and van den Hoogenband, Phelps was barely noticed in Sydney when he failed to win a medal competing as a 15-year-old. But he set five world records and won four gold medals at last year's world championships.

Phelps won the 400 individual medley on Saturday but had to settle for a bronze when the U.S. suffered a shock loss to South Africa in Sunday's relay.

He always considered the 200 freestyle his most difficult race but insisted on competing in it because he wanted to prove himself against the best.

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