Performance Segment: 2004 Olympics – Men's 200 Free Gold Medal

By the time the Olympics came to Athens in 2004, Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband were already legends in the swimming world. Their 200 freestyle rivalry had been established four years previously in Sydney, when the Dutchman defeated Thorpe in his own backyard in world-record fashion. In those same 2000 Games, Michael Phelps was a relatively unknown 15-year-old butterflier, but he quickly rose to fame as one of the fastest swimmers in the world in multiple disciplines.

When news broke that all three of these stars – the Australian world-record holder and world champion, the Dutch former world-record holder and defending Olympic champion, and the up-and-coming American phenomenon – would face off in Athens, the hype for the men’s 200 freestyle grew exponentially. With speculation about Phelps’ potential fuelling the excitement, the race became more than just a rematch between Thorpe and van den Hoogenband. It was a showdown spanning three continents and two eras. Indeed, the media labelled it the “Race of the Century.”

On August 17, after advancing comfortably through the prelims and semifinals the day prior, the three challengers dove in for the final in the middle lanes of the pool. The first 100 meters belonged to van den Hoogenband, who out-split his competitors on each length. He turned in a blistering 50.42, which was more than a second under world-record pace. However, his distance per stroke (DPS) was lower than Thorpe’s – on the second length, Thorpe travelled 0.06 m further with every pull. Their stroke index metrics indicate that van den Hoogenband was consistently less efficient than his Australian competitor, and this extra energy expenditure over the duration of the race would cost the Dutchman in the end. 

Thorpe closed the gap considerably on the third length, splitting 0.42 seconds faster than van den Hoogenband. While van den Hoogenband averaged a longer amount of time on his first three underwaters, Thorpe crushed him off the final wall, with an additional 0.59 seconds of propulsive dolphin kicks. This marked the turning point in the race. Thorpe surged ahead and out-split van den Hoogenband by 0.72 seconds on the last 50, touching the wall in an Olympic-record time of 1:44.71. Conserving his energy on the first half of the race paid off.

While Phelps was stuck in third position for the entirety of the race, he spent far longer underwater than any of his competitors, and actually had the fastest split on the last 50 with a stroke index nearly equalling Thorpe’s. This momentous finish is perhaps symbolic of the fact that his career was only on the rise.

There was never another showdown between Thorpe, van den Hoogenband, and Phelps after the 2004 Olympics. Considering the star-studded field and level of hype leading up to the race, the men’s 200 freestyle final in Athens stands as one of the most epic races in swimming history.

See the results, along with the complete metrics here

Check out our analysis of Michael Phelp's performance through the years here.