20 things to watch

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 Games—and 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 Thorpe—or weighing him down—at 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 medleys—which use all four strokes—both 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'] advantage—narrow 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 short—Thorpe 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 Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain have become icons in their native sports culture since they starred for the gold-medal U.S. women's soccer team at the 1996 Olympics and the 1999 Women's World Cup, both held in the U.S. These Olympics are the last tournament in which all five will play together, as Lilly, Foudy and Hamm have said this is their finale in international play. After losing in the final of the 2000 Olympics and semifinals of the 2003 World Cup, they are hoping to go into a golden sunset. They unofficially opened the Olympics with a match Wednesday--two days before the Opening Ceremonies--against Greece on the island of Crete.

3. Men's 200-meter dash: The 200 meters normally is a poor relation to the 100 (world's fastest human) and the 400 (fastest around a lap of the track). But the final of the 200, scheduled Aug. 26, was the first Olympic session to sell out because it features home boy Kostas Kederis, the defending champion. Kederis, a surprise winner in 2000, has made a habit of running infrequently, then mysteriously blowing the doors off everyone in big meets, spurring rumors of doping. The 200 also has a historical component worthy of attention: A 192-meter footrace was the only sporting event in the first 14 ancient Olympic Games.

4. China's table tennis players: China won every title in the last two Olympics, and that utter dominance should continue. The Chinese have the top two Olympic seeds in men's singles, top three in women's singles and top two in men's and women's doubles. And that doesn't even count émigré women like sixth-seeded Li Jia Wei of Singapore, eighth-seeded Liu Jia of Austria and 10thseeded Gao Jun of the U.S.

5. The marathon: No event captures the romantic element of having the Olympics return to their ancient and modern roots than the marathon. When the Games were revived in 1896, so was the legend of Pheidippides, who was said to have run some 24 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce that a badly outmanned Greek army had defeated the Persians at the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. The 1896 race, retracing those storied footsteps, took on added local significance because no Greek athlete had won a track and field event until Spiridon Louis--variously described as a shepherd, a farmer, a soldier and a messenger--beat 16 other men for the title. The 2004 men's race Aug. 29 and women's race Aug. 22 will follow most of the same same hilly, hot course used in 1896, although the distance was lengthened to the current 26 miles 385 yards at the 1908 Olympics. While weather and course difficulty will slow times, world record-holders Paul Tergat of Kenya and Paula Radcliffe of England are among the favorites.

6. Maurice Greene, U.S., sprinter: After a couple of injuryplagued seasons in which he was derided as "Slo Mo,'' Greene has an excellent shot at becoming the only man to cross the 100- meter finish line first in two Olympics. (Carl Lewis won two golds in the 100, but the second came after winner Ben Johnson was disqualified for steroid use). Were Greene to win consecutive golds, he would live up to the acronym "G.O.A.T'' tattooed on his arm. G.O.A.T? It stands for "Greatest of All Time.'' The 100-meter final is Aug. 22.

7. Sada Jacobson: U.S., fencer: In this most cerebral of Olympic sports, it figures that a Yale junior could be the first U.S. woman to win a fencing medal. The last U.S. medalist, period, was Peter Westbrook in 1984, who took bronze. Jacobson comes into the Olympics as the world's top-ranked fencer in saber, a debut event Aug. 17 for women at the Olympics. Saber is the most swashbuckling of fencing's three disciplines, the one most resembling the fencing seen in movies, and the only discipline in which points are scored with the tip and the blade edge. Jacobson's younger sister, Emily, 10th-ranked saberist in the world, also will be competing in Athens before enrolling at Columbia in the fall.

8. Hicham El Guerrouj, Morocco, track: El Guerrouj is trying to avoid becoming his country's version of Jim Ryun, a legendary miler without an Olympic title. El Guerrouj was so haunted by his fall in the 1,500-meter final at the 1996 Olympics that he kept a picture of it on his wall until the 2000 Olympics. He had not lost a single mile race from 1998 through the 2000 Games, when he succumbed to the weight of enormous national pressure and finished second to Kenya's Noah Ngeny. After that defeat, El Guerrouj went unbeaten until early July of this year, when he finished eighth at an invitational meet in Rome. Bothered by breathing problems all this year, El Guerrouj waited until early August to decide for certain that he would run in Athens, where the metric mile will be Aug. 24.

9. Lauren Jackson, Australia, basketball: Jackson has what one could call naked ambition. The most valuable player in the WNBA last year and leading scorer last year and this, the 23-yearold forward for the Seattle Storm caused a firestorm by posing nude for an Australian magazine. The athlete-sex object dichotomy is only one of those in Jackson's persona. On her back she has a tattoo honoring her mother, Maree, who holds the single-season women's scoring record at LSU. On her hip she has a tattoo honoring Marilyn Manson, the bizarre, androgenous rock star. Jackson was the leading scorer and rebounder for the Aussie team that won a silver medal in 2000. The Aussies open group play Aug. 14 against Nigeria. The gold-medal match is Aug. 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 female Olympic champions of a certain age. Gymnast Chusovitina, 29, is the reigning world champion in vault and a gold medalist in the team event 12 years ago. In the Aug. 22 vault final, she could become the oldest Olympic women's gymnastics champion since 1968. Cyclist Longo, 45, already the oldest women's champion in her sport and winner of 13 world titles, is a medal contender in the time trial Aug. 18 and road race Aug. 15. Flatwater canoeist Fischer, 42, who said she had retired after the Sydney Games, has as many distinctions as Longo. Fischer was the youngest Olympic canoeing champion at 18 in 1980, and her gold in Sydney made her the only woman in any sport to win golds 20 years apart. She has seven golds and 10 medals, totals that undoubtedly would have been higher had her former country, East Germany, not boycotted the 1984 Games. Canoe finals are Aug. 27-28. Columbia medical student Thompson, 31, is the most decorated U.S. female Olympian, with eight golds and 10 medals. Another medal would make Thompson the second-oldest female swimmer to win one, after Dara Torres, 33 when she earned gold in 2000. Thompson has qualified in two individual events, the 100 butterfly, whose final is Aug. 15, and the 50 freestyle, with the final Aug. 21. She also may swim on two relays, the 400 free Aug. 14 and 400 medley Aug. 21.

11. Dr. Don Catlin, Drug tester/pharmacologist: Catlin's scientific spadework at his UCLA lab uncovered the steroid THG at the center of the biggest doping scandal in U.S. sports history. Will he have more tricks 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 two bronze medals at 14, van Almsick has won four more Olympic medals but still is looking for her first gold in the 200 freestyle final Aug. 17. Her performance at the 2002 European championships raised expectations, as she won five events and broke her 8-year-old world record in the 200 free. Born in East Germany, she became the first star of the unified Germany after the four medals in 1992.

13. Dmitry Sautin, Russia, diving: At 30, Sautin is the sport's man of nine lives and its best male athlete since the legendary Greg Louganis retired in 1988. Stabbed repeatedly in an attack on a Russian street 13 years ago, Sautin came back from two months in the hospital to win a springboard bronze at the 1992 Olympics. With an injured wrist that would need surgery after the 1996 Olympics, he won the platform gold in Atlanta. Two years after back surgery, he won four medals in 2000, when synchronized diving made its Olympic debut. This year, when he hopes to win his first springboard gold Aug. 24, Sautin has been sidelined by a bad shoulder.

14. Pyrros Dimas, Greece, weightlifting: Greece's reincarnation of Hercules will really look superhuman if he can win an unprecedented fourth gold medal in his sport. Injuries kept 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. And he isn't even a native son: Dimas was born in Albania, although his grandparents are Greek.

15. Women's wrestling: In the only new sports discipline on the program, women will make their Olympic wrestling debut in four freestyle classes Aug. 22-23. Watch the 105.5-pound class, where Ukraine's Irina Merlini likely will meet Patricia Miranda of the U.S. in the final, as they did in last year's world meet. Merlini, a three-time world champion, won that match 5-4 over Miranda, the Stanford Phi Beta Kappa who has deferred her entry to Yale Law School until after the Olympics. She has overcome a daunting opponent, her father, a doctor who tried to keep her from wrestling because he thought it would detract from her schoolwork. Miranda cut a deal: I get straight A's in high school, Dad lets me wrestle. She did, as captain of the boys team.

16. Gymnastics team finals: Can the U.S. sweep? The men were second to China at the 2003 worlds, while the women won the gold. An improving U.S. program and the precipitous decline of Russia-- which, as the Soviet Union/Unified Team is the 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 are less. The men's team final is Aug. 16, the women's Aug. 17.

17. Ryoko Tamura Tani, Japan, judo: Judo is a national obsession in Japan, which introduced the martial art into the Olympics at the Tokyo Games of 1964. And a woman nicknamed "Softie'' has become a national hero in a sport that first appealed to her because she thought it would give her a chance to throw her big brother around. Tani, who competes in the 48-kg class, won an Olympic silver medal at 16 in 1992, another silver in 1996 and gold in 2000. She also has won six straight world titles. Tani was married last year in a Paris ceremony to Japanese baseball league player Yoshitomo Tani, who will be in Athens trying to win their country's first baseball gold.

18. Return to the roots: shot put, archery, marathon: In the ancient Olympics, cheaters were fined by having to pay for golden statues of Zeus that lined the path athletes took from the sacred temples of Olympia to the stadium. Only the bases from some of the 16 statues remain, but they could be a sobering reminder for the men's shot putters who compete Aug. 18 at Olympia. After all, the three medalists in the 1992 Olympic shot put previously had served doping suspensions, and two of the three medalists in 1996 had previous suspensions that turned into lifetime bans when they tested positive for steroids a second time. The women putters also compete Aug. 18 at Olympia as part of Athens' Olympic organizers attempts to recapture the past spirit of the Games. The archers are linked to both ancient festivals and the first modern Olympics, the 1896 Athens Games, by having their events Aug. 15-21 in the Panathanaic Stadium, also known as the Marble Stadium. It was built on the excavated ruins of a 4th Century B.C. arena used for the track events in the ancient Panathanean Games. Both marathons also will finish in the Panathanaic Stadium.

19. Kenenisa Bekele, Distance runner, Ethiopia: Bekele, 22, is the latest marvel from a country that is one of the world's poorest economically and one of the richest in distance-running talent. In 2000, Ethiopian men and women won eight of the 24 medals in the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon, including all three men's golds. Bekele could win two by himself if he abandons his stated plan to run only the 10,000, where he likely will contend with legendary countryman Haile Gebrselassie, winner of the race the last two Olympics. Bekele broke Gebrselassie's world records for the 5,000 and 10,000 within nine days in late spring, and the Olympic schedule lends to a 5-10 double. There will be just one 10,000 race, the Aug. 20 final, and the first of two 5,000 races is not until Aug. 25, with the final Aug. 28. Bekele, who won the 10,000 and was third in the 5,000 at the 2003 world meet, could become the first since countryman Miruts Yifter in 1980 to win the track races his country prizes most.

20. Men's soccer: Iraq vs. Portugal: Its players were tortured and imprisoned for poor results when Saddam Hussein's sadistic son, Udai, was head of the Iraqi soccer federation. Less than a year after Udai Hussein and his brother, Qusai, were killed by U.S. forces, and with their country still in turmoil, the Iraqi soccer team miraculously earned the last Asian qualifying spot in a 16-team field for the Olympics. "Now we don't think about any punishments. We're playing comfortably and freely,'' said goalie Ahmed Ali, 23. The Iraqis, who had not qualified for Olympic soccer since 1988, open against Portugal on Aug. 12 at Patras. To advance, they must make the top two in a group that includes Costa Rica and Morocco.