By DOUG CONWAY and TODD BALYM
IAN Thorpe will be back, bigger and better than ever, according to Australian swimming great Kieren Perkins.
Thorpe yesterday pulled out of next week's Melbourne Commonwealth Games due to a de-bilitating bronchial and viral illness which has left him a shadow of his world-beating self.
Speaking at a press conference, a pale, drained and gravel-voiced Thorpe confirmed the worst fears of Commonwealth Games organisers.
"I'm not with it, I'm so far off my best it's not worthwhile," a dejected Thorpe said.
His absence from the Pan Pacific championships later this year means he won't make a major international return until the world championships in March next year.
The 23-year-old last raced on the international scene at the 2004 Olympic Games, and this latest setback means he will only have the one world championship meet at the highest level before the 2008 Bejing Olympics after a 2005 sabbatical.
But two-and-a-half years out of international competition won't affect Thorpe's long term Olympic ambitions, according to Perkins.
Thorpe is attempting to make a successful transition from middle distance to sprinting and the lack of racing could be a concern when he heads to Beijing. But Perkins believes Thorpe can bounce back, as he is determined to prove he can get back to the highest level.
"I am not particularly concerned about Ian long term," said Perkins.
Thorpe's withdrawal eight days before the opening ceremony deals a massive blow to the Games. It compounds the absence of Grant Hackett, the other giant of Australian men's swimming, following shoulder surgery.
Thorpe did everything in his power to get on the blocks in Melbourne, but succumbed to an infection which has left him feeling weak and lethargic.
In a curious twist which sug-gests there is such a thing as karma, his spot in the Australian team goes to Craig Stevens, who selflessly gave up his 400m place at the Athens Olympics so that Thorpe, disqualified by a false start at the selection trials, could compete.
Australia's head swim coach Alan Thompson described Thorpe's absence as a "huge loss".
But Thorpe said there was no other decision he could have made.
"I was struggling actually to swim up and down," he said. -AAP