HIS mother, Margaret, said she ''didn't know what to expect'', which might also explain why huge audiences watched Ian Thorpe swim last night: they didn't know if they were acclaiming his return or bidding him farewell.
In the end, the uncertainty of sport was not so glorious and the five-time Olympic champion admitted ''the fairytale has turned into a nightmare'' when he failed to qualify for the London Games in his most likely event, the 200m freestyle.
Thorpe's day began with a promise that turned out to be false. His heat time of 1:49:16 was the fifth-fastest, putting him in line for qualification in the 4x200m relay team. Although five seconds outside his best, it outpaced anything he had produced since returning to the sport last year after a five-year absence. His comeback had always had an air of reality TV about it, and his survival of another elimination round brought a full house to the South Australian Aquatic and Leisure Centre.
By evening, however, the suspicions of the past year hardened into truth: the sport had moved ahead without him. The graceful Thorpe stroke was evident for the first 100m of his semi-final but he was swamped by younger rivals and recorded 1:49.91, four places outside tonight's final and two seconds outside the Olympic qualifying time. The last Olympic gold he could have won with this time was in 1976.
Where does Thorpe go from here? ''Hopefully faster,'' he said, referring to the 100m freestyle, the last shot in his locker. But his face was more realistic than his words, visible disappointment overpowering the programmatic positive talk of recent days.
Read more at Brisbanetimes.com.au