4 August 2002

Magnificent Australian’s bid to make Commonwealth Games history is halted on another dramatic day in Manchester

For Ian Thorpe defeat was still a victory. The 100 metres backstroke was one final even he could not win. Australia’s world champion, Matt Welsh was more than half a second too strong for his countryman. But Thorpe powered home in a personal best time and it was the fact that he had wanted to undertake this unfamiliar discipline at all that was remarkable.

Five gold medals might already have been won, but the `Thorpedo’ simply wanted to compete. “I think the backstroke has helped with my training,” was his engaging explanation. “It made me think more about feeling my way through the water. You can get complacent doing the same thing.”

It had been late on Friday night that Thorpe had come through to talk to us. He was tall, elegant and charming, with just a hint of the dolphin about the face. That evening’s super-fish achievements may have taken their toll but he was looking forward to the morning – to having the chance to cheer for the others on the team. It was what he had been missing.

Thorpe is by some margin the ultimate, glamorous, superstar of these Games but he too has been caught up by the spirit brilliantly encompassed by the opening ceremony slogan: `Manchester – where ordinary people do extraordinary things’. The most remarkable sporting teenager that most of us will ever see is extraordinary enough – but yesterday morning he had wanted to do the ordinary thing – to cheer others along.

There was plenty for England’s swimmers to cheer about last night as they added a remarkable 11 medals to their haul, including two clean sweeps. James Gibson led the way as England claimed all three medals in the 50 metres breaststroke, then Sarah Price, already a gold medallist, swam a Games record as she spearheaded another 1-2-3 in the 100 metres backstroke.

To be around Manchester these past 10 days has been a profoundly humbling experience. To those of us accustomed to the increasingly cynical world of sport, it was nothing less than a shock to find that the Games really could be returned to their very roots. That they could be discussed and enjoyed without constant reference to exactly how many millions were being earned, without endless hyper recriminations at human error, without, except for that brief, touching but over-glitzy David Beckham cameo on opening night, any reference to glowering religion of the Premier League.

For top attractions of course, in Sunday’s 5,000 metres Paula Radcliffe rode a wave of acclamation which even her London Marathon triumph had not surpassed. But it covered lesser lights too – a lap-and-a-half behind Pauline came 17-year-old Catherine Chikwakwa (whom we featured here last week) who took no less than 34 seconds off her personal best.

Respect in great arenas and in small. Crowds watching hockey under a Manchester monsoon; cheers echoing around the G-Mex Centre as the weight-lifting took off; enthusiasts wrapt up in the intricacies of bowls whatever the weather.

If you have been locked on to the BBC’s brilliant but sometimes over excessive cheer-leading, you may think this all sounds rather worthy but on the ground we have to call what we see. Here was a city that wanted to help and knew how to do it. Here were events where they publicly thanked the officials and meant it. Where at the table tennis one volunteer even insisted I borrowed his umbrella to get me through the downpour – how shameful that it was never returned.

The main Manchester stadium must have had the briefest but best life of any athletics venue in history. Yet its memories will last just as they will all across the other disciplines, all the way back to the pool. And the best of them will include several which could never have happened before with disabled athletes as part of the team, their own efforts understood and lauded as the towering achievements that they represent.

Friday night in the pool did not belong only to Thorpe. For this was when Natalie du Toit made history. Taking part in the 800m freestyle half an hour after winning her 100m Women’s Disability final, sharing the rostrum with Stephanie Dixon, her fellow amputee. Time was when seeing her remove her false limb and hopping towards the start board would have been seen as a freak show. Now it is inspiration in the highest sense.

Time was also when many of us did not believe Manchester when its supporters banged the drum for it to be an Olympic venue. How ironic that when we have been so totally converted we are told that only London – the mind boggles at even the word `North Circular’ – could be considered for a British bid. Yet these past 10 days in Manchester – the athletes, the city and its citizens – have restored the belief that sport can still be the simple challenging life enhancement it was first meant to be. They have given us back our dream.

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