SPORTS

Australia’s Craig Stevens steps aside for Ian Thorpe in 400m

BRISBANE (AP) - Australian swimmer Craig Stevens announced his withdrawal yesterday from the 400-meter freestyle at the Athens Olympics, giving defending Olympic champion Ian Thorpe the chance to defend his title. Thorpe failed to qualify for the 400-meter at the Australian Olympic trials last month after being disqualified for a false start in the qualifying heats. The multiple world-recordholder qualified for the 100 and 200 freestyle, but his best chance for a gold medal is the 400. Stevens qualified for the 400, placing second to Grant Hackett at the trials. «The decision I've made is to stand aside in the 400 in the hope that I'll get to see Ian swim that race in the final on Day 1 at the Olympic Games,» Stevens said yesterday. Australia Swimming Inc media spokesman Ian Hanson issued a press release saying no comment would be forthcoming from either the national swimming body or from Thorpe until today. According to Australian Swimming criteria, if one of the selected swimmers for the Olympics withdraws from an event, that place goes to the next ranked swimmer, who must be a member of the team. Josh Krogh placed third in the 400, but didn't make the team because he wasn't first or second in any event. Stevens said there was no pressure from Thorpe to withdraw. «No, none whatsoever,» Stevens said. «He's not the type of person to put pressure on anyone.» Stevens, paid about US $45,000 to tell his story on the Seven network's «Today, Tonight,» show yesterday, also qualified for the 1,500-meter race behind Hackett, an event in which he has a medal chance. Hackett said he looks forward to facing Thorpe in Athens. «I'd love to race Ian and, of course, I'd like to have the opportunity to race him at the Olympics more than anything,» Hackett said. «Ian being the No. 1 man in this event and defending world champion and world recordholder, the opportunity to try and beat him at this level, of course, you would want to have that.» Dawn Fraser, a triple gold medalist for Australia in the pool, said yesterday that Stevens may have been pressured into making the decision. «I honestly think that Craig has had a lot of pressure put on him, not only by his own sporting association, but also from AOC [Australian Olympic Committee] boss John Coates and David Leckie from Channel Seven,» said Fraser, who won three straight 100-meter freestyle Olympic gold medals beginning in 1956. «They should have let it lie,» she added. Fraser said Stevens deserved to swim the 400 at Athens but admitted he was unlikely to win a medal. «Being very frank now... OK, no, I don't think [he could win a medal].» Coates issued a statement on behalf of the AOC praising Stevens's decision. «Craig Stevens has shown great mateship and won the admiration and support of all Australians,» said the statement. «His decision to stand aside is unselfish and typifies the spirit and camaraderie within the swimming ranks.» Stevens said he'd been forced to take sleeping pills over the past month as he dealt with the issue. «In the end, it's all just been based on me,» Stevens said. «This would have to be the toughest moment of my life, whether to swim at an Olympic Games or to look after one of your best mates. There was a lot of stress, there were a lot of assumptions made without me even saying anything, which was very upsetting... but the decision I've made has come from my heart.»

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