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Australia hails Athens hero Thorpe

• Olympics 2004: Special report 

ATHENS, Greece -- Ian Thorpe was hailed as his nation's "greatest Olympian ever" by Australian Prime Minister John Howard following his dramatic victory in the 200 meters freestyle final at the Athens Olympics.

The 21-year-old edged out Dutch defending champion Pieter van den Hoogenband and rising American Michael Phelps in a clash dubbed swimming's "race of the century" on Monday.

It was Thorpe's second gold of the Games following his victory in the 400 meters freestyle and the fifth Olympic title of his career.

"It's a huge honor to be the greatest Olympian in Australia ever," said Howard. "It is a tremendous performance."

Thorpe's five gold medals places him ahead of fellow Australian swimmers Dawn Fraser and Murray Rose and athlete Betty Cuthbert, who all won four.

He has the chance to add to that total on Tuesday when the dominant Australian team defend their 4x200 meters freestyle relay title.

Fraser, one of Australia's favorite sportswomen after she won two of her four Olympic titles at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, said Thorpe could go on to win more medals in Beijing in 2008.

"I don't think we've actually seen the best of him yet," said Fraser. "If he is hungry enough to do it, he will win the 200 and 400 in Beijing."

The Sydney Morning Herald declared that Thorpe would return home "with the title of the world's best swimmer," regardless of how many gold medals Phelps goes on to win.

The teenager from Baltimore's bronze medal ends his dream of emulating Mark Spitz's 1972 haul of seven gold medals.

Heavyweight bout

Sydney's Daily Telegraph hailed Thorpe's victory as revenge for his defeat by van den Hoogenband in Sydney four years ago.

"This was a heavyweight bout," said the Telegraph of a race which featured the four fastest men in history in the event.

"They say revenge is a dish better eaten cold. Thorpie was the ice man. Thorpie was back on the throne."

Thorpe whipped off his rubber cap and punched the air three times in triumph, flashing a smile, after chasing van Hoogenband down on the final length.

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

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

"That's the best I've ever seen him swim," former Australian head coach Don Talbot told Reuters.

"It wasn't a world record but the way he handled it, he couldn't have done any better.

"He's much more mature now, both as a swimmer and a person and he knows how to handle himself. He's been under all sorts of pressure and I don't know if he could have handled that in Sydney."

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