-- Ian Thorpe, the Australian swimming deity, gazed serenely from the interview table, his white and green shirt stretched tightly over his massive shoulders, his dark hair bronzed, his eyes languid.

Reporters clamored: Wasn't he excited about the monumental 200-meter freestyle competition against young American Michael Phelps? Wasn't it, with two other superstars entered, going to be a race for the ages? Wasn't it the matchup of the 2004 Olympics?

Tanned, unshaved and looking slightly bored, Thorpe said he guessed so. "I think I'm heading up against him in the 200 freestyle," he said of Phelps. But there were others in the contest, too, he said. It was more than just a two-man race.

If Thorpe was unsure last week about the gravity of the 200 freestyle competition that starts Sunday, no one else here is. The race's final is Monday night and has been billed in the land of the Greeks as the clash of the swimming gods.

The mighty Thorpe -- Zeus, the god of the gods -- towers over the pool. At 6 feet 5, 229 pounds, he is gigantic in size and ambition. He once said he hoped to become "the greatest freestyler there ever was."

He holds the world record of 1 minute 44.06 seconds and has broken the mark six times in five years. He also holds the world record in the 400 freestyle, an event in which he took the gold medal on Saturday. Thorpe has said Phelps's quest for seven or eight gold medals is impossible. "I don't swim for medals," he said last week. "I swim for performances."

Phelps has retorted that Thorpe should speak for himself.

"Thorpey," to the Australians, also has been anointed by the Fates. In 2001, he was in New York on Sept. 11 and was scheduled to visit the World Trade Center, but the buildings were attacked before he arrived.

Phelps is the 19-year-old Hermes, the fleet messenger bearing news from Baltimore County that the old gods better watch out for the new one, in the headphones, who has become the most talked about athlete in Athens.

Even though his best time, the American record of 1:45.99, is nearly two seconds off Thorpe's, Phelps sought out the race, saying in July that he believed it could be among the greatest 200 freestyles ever.

Yet the highly versatile Phelps also has god-like powers. He holds three world records, is entered in five individual events -- he won his first Saturday, the 400 individual medley -- and could win eight gold medals here, more than any Olympian ever.

And he beat Thorpe in the 200 IM at a meet last year.

Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, said Friday that Phelps was a clear underdog in the freestyle. "He's probably the fourth choice," Bowman said. "But I'm a betting man."

The Apollo of the race, the handsome sun god, is Pieter Cornelis Martijn van den Hoogenband, 26, of the Netherlands. Van den Hoogenband has a chin dimple and a brilliant smile. But he is 6-4, 183, and he electrified the Olympics four years ago in Sydney, where he beat Thorpe in the event in his home town in 1:45.35.

Not only had he won, the Dutch exulted, but he had done so in the "hol van de leeuw," the lion's den.

Van den Hoogenband is qualified fourth, with a time of 1:46.32. He is essentially a sprinter and is trained by a young, curly-haired coach named Jacco Verhaeren, 35, who walks the pool deck in bare feet and baseball cap and looks more like a swimmer than a coach.

Australia's Grant Hackett, 24, could be Ares, the son of Zeus, and father of Victory. Hackett, at 6-6, is the tallest of the four and is known as "the machine," because of his dominance of the 1,500 freestyle, in which he holds the world record.

The 2000 Olympic bronze medalist in the event behind van den Hoogenband and Thorpe, Hackett beat Thorpe on July 6 in Brisbane with a time of 1:49.18. But both played down the result.

Hackett looked forbidding with his head shaved last week but vowed that he would enjoy himself. He is qualified second, with a time of 1:45.07. "I don't get too serious about it all," Hackett said. "At the end of the day it's a sporting event. . . . It's not the be all, end all."

But according to the acolytes of swimming, gathered in this ancient metropolis of wisdom and sport, it could also be a heavenly struggle.

"I think it's going to be a fantastic race," Australia's former head swimming coach Don Talbot said, standing by the main Olympic pool last week. "And the people who are here are going to be privileged."

Verhaeren, the Dutch coach, said van den Hoogenband will start fast, Thorpe will need the second 100 to try to catch up, and "for Phelps it's a little bit in between."

He said Phelps and van den Hoogenband have never raced each other. "I'm very curious," he said.