Here are Tribune Olympics reporter Philip Hersh's Top 20 moments not to miss. Set your TiVo for the last hurrah of the icons of U.S. women's soccer. Don't miss the drama as the marathon returns to, well, where it began. And, the big moment, Thorpe vs. Phelps.
1. 'The race of the century': Michael Phelps has said a big reason he is trying to make Olympic swimming history is to promote the sport.
The decision he made about which events to swim in the 2004 Athens Games shows he is a young man of his word.
Of course, it helped that what is good for swimming also is good for Phelps in his $1 million quest to win seven gold medals, matching Mark Spitz's feat at the 1972 Olympics.
After qualifying for an unprecedented six individual events at the U.S. Olympic trials, Phelps learned it would be too hard to swim all six in the Games. He dropped the 200-meter backstroke, in which he finished second at the trials to world record-holder Aaron Peirsol.
Phelps kept the 200 freestyle, in which he will race not only one of the sport's legends, Ian Thorpe of Australia, but could be in a final that includes the four fastest 200-meter swimmers in history.
Phelps knew all along a confrontation with Thorpe would be sure to attract plenty of attention.
"One thing I have always wanted to do is take on Ian Thorpe in a freestyle event," Phelps said.
No sooner had he announced his choice of events than Australian papers called it "The race of the century."
The century may be young, but the hyperbole seems justified. The Aug. 16 final of the men's 200 freestyle is, at least for a U.S. audience, the most compelling event of the 2004 Olympic Gamesand the Tribune's choice to begin this otherwise random list of 20 Olympic events, people and stories worth watching.
Phelps is No. 4 on the all-time list, with a personal best of 1 minute 45.99 seconds. He will be an underdog not only to Thorpe, the world record-holder in 1:44.06 who has swum the four fastest and eight of the top nine times in history, but to defending champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, whose best is 1:44.89. Grant Hackett of Australia, the third fastest ever in the event at 1:45.84, also is a medal contender.
Thorpe, still only 21, may have been upset by van den Hoogenband in the 200 at the Sydney Olympics, but that hardly slowed Thorpemania in Australia, the one country in the world where swimming is a major sport. He already had won two Olympic gold medals at that point, one with a scintillating anchor leg to hold off Gary Hall in the 4x100 freestyle relay, ending the U.S.' unbeaten streak in that Olympic event.
"The status that Thorpe has in Australia is absolutely enormous," Phelps said. "He has played a big part in swimming history."
Thorpe is everything Phelps, 19, wants to be: a multimillionaire athlete who has transcended the sport to become a major personality.
With that comes some unwanted attention. No sooner had Thorpe been seen at a fashion show in Milan, Italy, than he was asked about his sexual preferences in a radio interview upon returning to Australia. Phelps apparently is ready to live with that downside of fame.
"I can go out in public right now and live my life how I want to live it," Phelps said earlier this year. "In that case, I'm very happy and excited with how things are.
"But to change the way the sport of swimming is seen, which Thorpe did in Australia, there are going to be some things you have to go through that you don't like. You just have to do them."
Like Phelps, 16 when he became the youngest men's world record-holder in history, Thorpe was a child prodigy. At 14, he was the youngest ever to make Australia's national team. At 15, he became the youngest men's swimming world champion in history. At 17, going into the 2000 Olympics, he had nine sponsorship deals worth an estimated $1.5 million. The entire nation was behind Thorpeor weighing him downat the Sydney Games, when he won three gold and one silver.
When Thorpe fell from the blocks in a heat and was disqualified for a false start from the 400 meters at the Australian Olympic trials in March, apparently costing himself a spot in that race in the 2004 Olympics, the mishap became a national catastrophe.
Even Prime Minister John Howard chipped in, saying, "I bet [Aussie swim officials] are tying to find an honorable way of handling what is a real tragedy for the country."
Someone was. Craig Stevens, who had earned the second spot in the 400, withdrew in favor of Thorpe after reportedly being paid from $40,000 to $90,000 for the TV interview in which Stevens announced his decision. Stevens will swim the 1,500 and a relay.
"Nothing can prepare you for this," Thorpe said of his celebrity before the 2000 Olympics. "But things don't startle me anymore. I don't have normalcy when I walk down the street, but I have to be able to accept it and understand it is a normal part of my life."
As swimmers, the difference between Thorpe and Phelps is their strokes. Thorpe is Rembrandt, a master of essentially one art form. Phelps is Michelangelo, equally brilliant in a number of arts.
Phelps qualified for the Olympics in both individual medleyswhich use all four strokesboth butterfly races, the 200 backstroke and the 200 freestyle. Few ever have been so versatile at the top level of the sport.
Thorpe swims only freestyle, but none ever has been better in a stroke he revolutionized, swimming the entire 400 free with the six-beat kick only sprinters used. He will swim the 200 and 400 free and relays in Athens.
At last year's world championships, where Thorpe won the 200 and 400 freestyles, the Aussie did the reverse of what Phelps is trying this summer by taking on Phelps in one of his best events, the 200 individual medley.
Thorpe, who rarely swims the event, finished second, but he was 3.62 seconds behind Phelps' world-record time. It was by far the largest winning margin in the 17 times the 200 IM has been on the Olympic and world programs. Phelps even overwhelmed Thorpe in the race's 50 meters of freestyle.
Said Finland's Jani Sievenen, who held the 200 IM world record for nine years before Thorpe broke it, "Everything physically is to his [Phelps'] advantagenarrow hips, short legs, long upper body, long arms and big feet."
The perfect physical specimen? "Yes," Sievenen said. "Much better than Mr. Thorpe."
Before the 200 IM in Barcelona, Phelps' mother, Debbie, met Thorpe's mother, Margaret. They had chatted about things of little consequence, Debbie Phelps said, until Mrs. Thorpe came to the point. This is how Debbie Phelps remembered it:
"The papers say your son and my son are rivals," Mrs. Thorpe said. "My son has no rivals."
Such a rivalry would, of course, be a huge boost for swimming, even if it seems Thorpe should easily beat Phelps in the 200 free. The Aussie's best time this season, 1:45.07 in winning his Olympic trials, is more than a second faster than what Phelps swam, 1:46.27, in winning his trials.
But Thorpe swam just six times in his Olympic trials, while Phelps swam 17. The 200 free final was Phelps' sixth swim, and he clearly was saving energy.
They should come into the Olympic 200 free final with equal energy.
Before that race, if all goes to plan, Phelps will have swum preliminaries and the final of the 400 IM, heats and final in the 400 freestyle relay, and prelims and semifinal of the 200 free. Thorpe will have swum prelims and final of the 400 free, prelims and final in the 400 free relay and prelims and semifinal of the 200 free.
The 400 IM is more demanding than the 400 free, but Thorpe may face more of a challenge than Phelps.
A year ago, Phelps took motivational umbrage at comments of veteran Aussie swim coach Don Talbot before the world meet. Talbot said calling Phelps the successor to Thorpe as the world's leading swimmer was a rush to judgment.
"It put a lot of fire [in me]," said Phelps, who set an unprecedented five world records in four different events, three of which he won, at the 2003 worlds. Thorpe won his two individual world meet races last year in pedestrian times, by his standards.
Thorpe repeatedly has said he doesn't think anyone can win seven golds. Phelps retorted, "It just means he is saying he can't do it."
The Aussie media pounced on that exchange. "Phelps Dismisses Thorpe," headlined the Australian Associated Press. "Cocky U.S. Ace Aims Gibe at Thorpe," said the Queensland Courier Mail. "Phelps falls shortThorpe still a class above at 200m," wrote the Sydney Daily Telegraph of Phelps' time in the U.S. trials.
Phelps shares the last opinion.
"Ian has been so dominant in that race, and I'd like to race the best," he said of the 200 free.
He will. Even if it turns out to be Pieter van den Hoogenband.
2. The Golden Girls: Thirtysomethings MiaHamm, Julie Foudy, JoyFawcett, Kristine Lilly andBrandi Chastain have becomeicons in their nativesports culture since theystarred for the gold-medalU.S. women's soccer teamat the 1996 Olympics andthe 1999 Women's WorldCup, both held in the U.S.These Olympics are the last tournament inwhich all five will play together, as Lilly,Foudy and Hamm have said this is their finalein international play. After losing inthe final of the 2000 Olympics and semifinalsof the 2003 World Cup, they are hopingto go into a golden sunset. They unofficiallyopened the Olympics with a matchWednesday--two days before the OpeningCeremonies--against Greece on the islandof Crete.
3. Men's 200-meter dash: The 200 meters normally is a poor relationto the 100 (world's fastest human) andthe 400 (fastest around a lap of the track).But the final of the 200, scheduled Aug. 26,was the first Olympic session to sell outbecause it features home boy Kostas Kederis,the defending champion. Kederis, asurprise winner in 2000, has made a habitof running infrequently, then mysteriouslyblowing the doors off everyone in bigmeets, spurring rumors of doping. The 200also has a historical component worthy ofattention: A 192-meter footrace was theonly sporting event in the first 14 ancientOlympic Games.
4. China's table tennis players: China won every title in the last twoOlympics, and that utter dominanceshould continue. The Chinese have the toptwo Olympic seeds in men's singles, topthree in women's singles and top two inmen's and women's doubles. And thatdoesn't even count émigré women likesixth-seeded Li Jia Wei of Singapore,eighth-seeded Liu Jia of Austria and 10thseededGao Jun of the U.S.
5. The marathon: No event captures the romantic elementof having the Olympics return to their ancientand modern roots than the marathon.When the Games were revived in1896, so was the legend of Pheidippides,who was said to have run some 24 milesfrom Marathon to Athens to announcethat a badly outmanned Greek army haddefeated the Persians at the battle of Marathonin 490 B.C. The 1896 race, retracingthose storied footsteps, took on added localsignificance because no Greek athlete hadwon a track and field event until SpiridonLouis--variously described as a shepherd,a farmer, a soldier and a messenger--beat16 other men for the title. The 2004 men'srace Aug. 29 and women's race Aug. 22 willfollow most of the same same hilly, hotcourse used in 1896, although the distancewas lengthened to the current 26 miles 385yards at the 1908 Olympics. While weatherand course difficulty will slow times,world record-holders Paul Tergat of Kenyaand Paula Radcliffe of England are amongthe favorites.
6. Maurice Greene, U.S., sprinter: After a couple of injuryplaguedseasons in whichhe was derided as "SloMo,'' Greene has an excellentshot at becoming theonly man to cross the 100-meter finish line first intwo Olympics. (Carl Lewiswon two golds in the 100,but the second came afterwinner Ben Johnson wasdisqualified for steroid use). Were Greeneto win consecutive golds, he would live upto the acronym "G.O.A.T'' tattooed on hisarm. G.O.A.T? It stands for "Greatest of AllTime.'' The 100-meter final is Aug. 22.
7. Sada Jacobson: U.S., fencer: In this most cerebral ofOlympic sports, it figuresthat a Yale junior could bethe first U.S. woman towin a fencing medal. Thelast U.S. medalist, period,was Peter Westbrook in1984, who took bronze. Jacobsoncomes into theOlympics as the world'stop-ranked fencer in saber,a debut event Aug. 17 for women at theOlympics. Saber is the most swashbucklingof fencing's three disciplines, the onemost resembling the fencing seen in movies,and the only discipline in whichpoints are scored with the tip and theblade edge. Jacobson's younger sister, Emily,10th-ranked saberist in the world, alsowill be competing in Athens before enrollingat Columbia in the fall.
8. Hicham El Guerrouj, Morocco, track: El Guerrouj is trying to avoid becominghis country's version of JimRyun, a legendary miler without anOlympic title. El Guerrouj was sohaunted by his fall in the 1,500-meterfinal at the 1996 Olympics that hekept a picture of it on his wall untilthe 2000 Olympics. He had not lost asingle mile race from 1998 throughthe 2000 Games, when he succumbedto the weight of enormous nationalpressure and finished second to Kenya'sNoah Ngeny. After that defeat,El Guerrouj went unbeaten untilearly July of this year, when he finishedeighth at an invitational meetin Rome. Bothered by breathingproblems all this year, El Guerroujwaited until early August to decidefor certain that he would run in Athens,where the metric mile will beAug. 24.
9. Lauren Jackson, Australia, basketball: Jackson has what onecould call naked ambition.The most valuable playerin the WNBA last yearand leading scorer lastyear and this, the 23-yearoldforward for the SeattleStorm caused a firestormby posing nude for anAustralian magazine. Theathlete-sex object dichotomyis only one of those inJackson's persona. On herback she has a tattoo honoringher mother, Maree, who holds the single-seasonwomen's scoring record at LSU. On her hip shehas a tattoo honoring Marilyn Manson, the bizarre,androgenous rock star. Jackson was the leadingscorer and rebounder for the Aussie team that won asilver medal in 2000. The Aussies open group playAug. 14 against Nigeria. The gold-medal match isAug. 28.
10. The Grandes Dames: Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan, Jeannie Longo of France,Birgit Fischer of Gernany and Jenny Thompson of the U.S. are femaleOlympic champions of a certain age. Gymnast Chusovitina,29, is the reigning world champion in vault and a gold medalist inthe team event 12 years ago. In the Aug. 22 vault final, she could becomethe oldest Olympic women's gymnastics champion since1968. Cyclist Longo, 45, already the oldest women's champion inher sport and winner of 13 world titles, is a medal contender in thetime trial Aug. 18 and road race Aug. 15. Flatwater canoeist Fischer,42, who said she had retired after the Sydney Games, has asmany distinctions as Longo. Fischer was the youngest Olympic canoeingchampion at 18 in 1980, and her gold in Sydney made herthe only woman in any sport to win golds 20 years apart. She hasseven golds and 10 medals, totals that undoubtedly would havebeen higher had her former country, East Germany, not boycottedthe 1984 Games. Canoe finals are Aug. 27-28. Columbia medical studentThompson, 31, is the most decorated U.S. female Olympian,with eight golds and 10 medals. Another medal would makeThompson the second-oldest female swimmer to win one, after DaraTorres, 33 when she earned gold in 2000. Thompson has qualifiedin two individual events, the 100 butterfly, whose final is Aug.15, and the 50 freestyle, with the final Aug. 21. She also may swimon two relays, the 400 free Aug. 14 and 400 medley Aug. 21.
11. Dr. Don Catlin, Drug tester/pharmacologist: Catlin's scientific spadework at hisUCLA lab uncovered the steroid THG atthe center of the biggest doping scandalin U.S. sports history. Will he have moretricks up his sleeve in the Athens lab?
12. Franziska van Almsick, Germany, swimming: The wunderkind of the 1992 Olympics,when she won two silver and twobronze medals at 14, van Almsick haswon four more Olympic medals but stillis looking for her first gold in the 200freestyle final Aug. 17. Her performanceat the 2002 European championshipsraised expectations, as she won fiveevents and broke her 8-year-old worldrecord in the 200 free. Born in East Germany,she became the first star of theunified Germany after the four medalsin 1992.
13. Dmitry Sautin, Russia, diving: At 30, Sautin is the sport'sman of nine lives and its bestmale athlete since the legendaryGreg Louganis retired in1988. Stabbed repeatedly inan attack on a Russian street13 years ago, Sautin cameback from two months in thehospital to win a springboardbronze at the 1992 Olympics.With an injured wrist thatwould need surgery after the1996 Olympics, he won theplatform gold in Atlanta. Twoyears after back surgery, hewon four medals in 2000,when synchronized divingmade its Olympic debut. Thisyear, when he hopes to winhis first springboard goldAug. 24, Sautin has been sidelinedby a bad shoulder.
14. Pyrros Dimas, Greece, weightlifting: Greece's reincarnation of Hercules will really look superhuman ifhe can win an unprecedented fourth gold medal in his sport. Injurieskept Dimas, 32, out of action for three years after the 2000 Olympics,and he finished just fourth in the European championships this year.Dimas, a national hero, will carry the Greek flag in the Opening Ceremonies,reprising the role he played eight years ago in Atlanta. Andhe isn't even a native son: Dimas was born in Albania, although hisgrandparents are Greek.
15. Women's wrestling: In the only new sports discipline on the program, women will maketheir Olympic wrestling debut in four freestyle classes Aug. 22-23.Watch the 105.5-pound class, where Ukraine's Irina Merlini likelywill meet Patricia Miranda of the U.S. in the final, as they did in lastyear's world meet. Merlini, a three-time world champion, won thatmatch 5-4 over Miranda, the Stanford Phi Beta Kappa who has deferredher entry to Yale Law School until after the Olympics. She hasovercome a daunting opponent, her father, a doctor who tried to keepher from wrestling because he thought it would detract from herschoolwork. Miranda cut a deal: I get straight A's in high school, Dadlets me wrestle. She did, as captain of the boys team.
16. Gymnastics team finals: Can the U.S. sweep? The men were secondto China at the 2003 worlds, while the womenwon the gold. An improving U.S. programand the precipitous decline of Russia--which, as the Soviet Union/Unified Team isthe only country to sweep since World War II,having done it five times--gives the U.S.teams a shot, although the men's chances areless. The men's team final is Aug. 16, thewomen's Aug. 17.
17. Ryoko Tamura Tani, Japan, judo: Judo is a nationalobsession in Japan,which introduced themartial art into theOlympics at the TokyoGames of 1964. And awoman nicknamed"Softie'' has become anational hero in asport that first appealedto her becauseshe thought it wouldgive her a chance tothrow her big brotheraround. Tani, who competes in the 48-kgclass, won an Olympic silver medal at 16 in1992, another silver in 1996 and gold in 2000.She also has won six straight world titles. Taniwas married last year in a Paris ceremonyto Japanese baseball league player YoshitomoTani, who will be in Athens trying to wintheir country's first baseball gold.
18. Return to the roots: shot put, archery, marathon: In the ancient Olympics, cheaters werefined by having to pay for golden statues ofZeus that lined the path athletes took fromthe sacred temples of Olympia to the stadium.Only the bases from some of the 16 statuesremain, but they could be a sobering reminderfor the men's shot putters who competeAug. 18 at Olympia. After all, the threemedalists in the 1992 Olympic shot put previouslyhad served doping suspensions, andtwo of the three medalists in 1996 had previoussuspensions that turned into lifetimebans when they tested positive for steroids asecond time. The women putters also competeAug. 18 at Olympia as part of Athens'Olympic organizers attempts to recapturethe past spirit of the Games. The archers arelinked to both ancient festivals and the firstmodern Olympics, the 1896 Athens Games, byhaving their events Aug. 15-21 in the PanathanaicStadium, also known as the Marble Stadium.It was built on the excavated ruins of a4th Century B.C. arena used for the trackevents in the ancient Panathanean Games.Both marathons also will finish in the PanathanaicStadium.
19. Kenenisa Bekele, Distance runner, Ethiopia: Bekele, 22, is the latest marvel from a countrythat is one of the world's poorest economicallyand one of the richest in distance-runningtalent. In 2000, Ethiopian men and womenwon eight of the 24 medals in the 5,000,10,000 and marathon, including all threemen's golds. Bekele could win two by himselfif he abandons his stated plan to run only the10,000, where he likely will contend with legendarycountryman Haile Gebrselassie, winnerof the race the last two Olympics. Bekelebroke Gebrselassie's world records for the5,000 and 10,000 within nine days in latespring, and the Olympic schedule lends to a5-10 double. There will be just one 10,000 race,the Aug. 20 final, and the first of two 5,000races is not until Aug. 25, with the final Aug.28. Bekele, who won the 10,000 and was thirdin the 5,000 at the 2003 world meet, could becomethe first since countryman Miruts Yifterin 1980 to win the track races his countryprizes most.
20. Men's soccer: Iraq vs. Portugal: Its playerswere torturedand imprisonedfor poor resultswhen SaddamHussein's sadisticson, Udai,was head of theIraqi soccer federation.Lessthan a year afterUdai Husseinand his brother,Qusai, werekilled by U.S.forces, and withtheir countrystill in turmoil,the Iraqi soccerteam miraculouslyearned the last Asian qualifying spotin a 16-team field for the Olympics. "Now wedon't think about any punishments. We'replaying comfortably and freely,'' said goalieAhmed Ali, 23. The Iraqis, who had not qualifiedfor Olympic soccer since 1988, openagainst Portugal on Aug. 12 at Patras. To advance,they must make the top two in a groupthat includes Costa Rica and Morocco.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times