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EDITOR'S NOTE: In the days leading up to the Opening Ceremonies, the Page 2 staff is taking a look at several of the deep, burning issues surrounding the 2004 Summer Olympics. Today, we look ahead to what will be the defining moments of these Games.

Big assumption here.

We're blithely assuming that we won't have to remember the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad for something tragic. Let's all hope. These are games, after all.

So what'll it be? Who will be the Jesse Owens of 2004? Who, or what, will capture our hearts the way Kerri Strug did in 1996?

Hey, nobody looks into the future better than the mystics here at Page 2. So here we go ...

The Dreams | From Eric Neel
Coming in, Michael Phelps is big. But even if he pulls a Spitz, everyone except Bud Greenspan will forget about him as soon as it's over.

Allen Iverson
Will it be Captain Iverson to the rescue?

The tale that will resonate, at least in the States, is the USA hoops story.

After the loss to Italy, they're almost underdogs right now; so if they manage to win gold (or any medal), we can be reasonably excited.

Not "Miracle on Ice" excited, but pretty excited.

Plus, you've got all the subplots. Can Iverson rise up and be counted a captain? Can he and Larry Brown win together? Will LeBron and Carmelo have a definitive, carved-in-the-stones-of-history fortnight that makes their legends grow, or will they come out of this looking, for the first time in their young lives, just plain-old young? Is there a hungry heart beating inside of Duncan, and will he let it loose? Can anybody shoot? Is the American game in crisis if they lose this tournament, or do we just need to re-think the selection process enough to include, you know, a pure point and a shooting guard?

This is the stuff sports fans will be talking about for the next couple of weeks.

Well, this, and how hot the beach volleyball players are ...

Its time has come | From Kieran Darcy
The sports world will change, for the better, on Aug. 29.

Why, you ask? Well, at 11:45 a.m. ET, the men's gold-medal match will be contested.

Olympic Skin
Check out Wednesday's debate about all the Olympic athletes posing in the nude (or close to it) in several magazines.
In team handball.

Seems like every time the Summer Olympics rolls around, a couple people speculate that team handball might finally take off.

I think this is going to be the year.

I actually used to play the game in high school, in gym class. It's nothing like the game of handball you're thinking of. It's really fun. For a detailed description of the game, click here. But basically, it's a lot like indoor soccer -- except the ball is smaller, and you throw it instead of kick it.

Over the course of two weeks, the world is going to become obsessed with the sport. Soon after the Games, professional team handball leagues will pop up around the globe. Young kids will have a new sport to play, and new idols to look up to.

The men's gold-medal match will be the icing on the cake.

So, get to a TV at 11:45 a.m. ET on Aug. 29, and be a part of history. Tune in to NBC.

Or MSNBC. Or CNBC. Or the USA network. Or maybe Bravo?

Gamble on | From Bill Simmons
The defining Olympic moment will be when Andy Roddick wins the gold medal match, then falls to the ground on the game-winning point and tries to make himself cry. It will be like the scene in "Top Gun" when Meg Ryan tells Cruise that Goose's death wasn't his fault, and he stands there pursing his lips trying to get the tears to come out for two solid minutes. Only better.

The other defining Olympic moment will be when Argentina and Lithuania are playing for the Gold Medal in men's hoops -- and I'm rooting like hell for Argentina because I wagered on them in early-August to win the tournament. In the words of the Iron Sheik, "America, hock-ptew!" Next time, let me pick the team and we won't have this problem. I couldn't care less about any other Olympic sport, unless one of the male gymnasts goes flying head first into the pommel horse again.

I'd have more to say, but I wanted to write less than Patrick Hruby did yesterday, and I've already quintupled his word count.

Surprise me | From Patrick Hruby
For me, the defining moment of the Olympics will come when I step from gate to plane and get the heck out of Athens, destination Anywhere Else.

Just kidding. In fact, I can't tell you what the Games' signature moment will be. And with all due respect to my esteemed colleagues -- except Caple; after all, how esteemed can you be when you can't even score an Olympic press credential? -- neither can they.

Granted, Michael Phelps collecting seven or eight gold medals would be a very big deal, no matter how many times he insists he will be satisfied with just one. (Was MJ satisfied with just one ring?) And I've got a soft spot for the men's 100-meter dash, even though it only settles the question of the World's Fastest Man Whose Blood Contains More Chemicals Than the Peroidic Table.

That said, the most memorable Olympic moments are always the ones that surprise. Who saw the Miracle on Ice coming? Who thought a father would leap from the stands to help his injured son cross the finish line? Who could distinguish Rulon Gardner from Private Pyle in "Full Metal Jacket?" Memory is a lazy thing; the mind recalls most vividly the things it least expected.

In short, the Games' defining moment will be a lot like pornography -- not to be confused with Amy Acuff's spread in Playboy. You'll know it when you see it.

Love for the losers, too | From Melanie Jackson
My first, and I'll admit one of my fondest, Olympic memories is Mary-Lou Retton's perfect 10 on the vault. It's easy to remember. During those 1984 Games, I must have seen Retton fly through the air dozens of times as TV made the most of its newest golden girl.

In 1996, bad ankle and all, Kerri Strug nailed her own landing off the vault -- and pretty much stole the show in Atlanta. Nobody could get enough of Strug and her Magnificent Seven teammates that summer. And it was a reminder, particularly during the Summer Games, how much America really loves its winners.

Kerri Strug
Kerri Strug's performance might have been the defining moment of the '96 Games.

But in these Olympics, I fear that disappointment will become NBC's latest must-see drama. As we head into the Athens Games, Michael Phelps' quest to win eight gold medals -- and get one up on Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Olympics -- is getting so much attention, that if Phelps wins four, five or only six golds, it'll be considered a failure. If Mia Hamm and the U.S. women's soccer team should fall short in their attempt to regain their golden glory, I'm sure every camera will be pointed Hamm's way, capturing the tears that will no doubt flow as she walks off the field for the final time. And if the U.S. men's basketball team doesn't win gold, well, I don't even want to imagine what all the we-told-you-so folks will say.

So much negativity has surrounded sports lately -- BALCO, anyone? -- that it's stealing the very aspect of why we fell in love with sports in general. You can excel. You can be the best. You can team with 15 other women for the ride of your life. Nothing beats that camaraderie or the spirit of competition.

Phelps, the teenager that he is, says he can't wait to just win one gold medal and get a chance to stand up there on that podium and hear the Star-Spangled Banner played to honor his win. I hope he savors that moment, and that it's enough for him. And that we all remember that whether one gold or no medal at all, these are the greatest athletes in the world.

A grand finale | From DJ Gallo
Like any Olympics, the storylines are many.

By now, we all know them: Can the veteran U.S. women's soccer team make one last run, and will we see Brandi Chastain's bra? Can Paul Hamm become the first U.S. male gymnast to win the all-around gold in a non-boycotted Olympics, and will he subsequently make enough money in endorsement deals to get a real haircut? Will Michael Phelps be able to back up the most intensive publicity campaign since the writers of the Old Testament created buzz with their prophesies of a Messiah? Will Dan Jansen fall again during the speed-skating finals?

To be honest, I have no idea.

What I do know is that, for me at least, the defining moment of the Athens Games will come on Aug. 29 when the Olympic flame is extinguished at the Closing Ceremonies. That will mark the end of an Olympics that went off incident-free and kept the focus on the athletes, not on the ugliness found elsewhere in the world that has threatened to ruin the global celebration that is the Olympic Games. When that happens, when these Games come to an end without a single athlete or spectator harmed, we'll know, regardless of what country we're from, that the good guys won.

(And, of course, by "good guys," I mean the ones who aren't evil-doers or French.)

Let's talk about us! | From Graham Hays
As an American, I've been raised on the Ptolemaic notion that this country is the center of all world events. Nowhere is this more true than in our coverage of the Olympics, where we'd rather show documentaries about an athlete's grade-school antics than just about any track event over 800 meters. If Americans aren't competing and winning, it's a damn silly sport, anyway.

So of course, the defining moment of these Olympics will be the reaction of fans in Greece to American triumphs. Will they rain down boos on our athletes as a protest for American foreign policy? Or will they cheer commanding performances from athletes like Michael Phelps and Tim Duncan? Because while we're secure in our superiority as a nation, we still seek the validation of our inferiors.

The world gathers together at the Olympics. And as we all know, the important thing is what they think of us.

Loneliness of the long-distance runners | From Jeff Merron
Well, it will be a huge surprise if none of the sprint medalists tests positive.

But I think the memorable moment -- if you can call it that -- will come during the last six miles of the men's marathon. The course is point-to-point and has a huge elevation gain from start to finish. Add to that a 6 p.m. start, when the temps are likely to be in the mid-80s, and you're going to see a lot of suffering out there.

Which also means we're going to see some great drama. Marathoners have never been faster (39 sub-2:07's since 1999), and so tightly packed. Paul Tergat of Kenya, who set a new world mark of 2:04:55 last fall in Berlin, is the man to beat; but the heat and the hills are going to take a mighty toll. It's going to be a slow, slow race, and you just can't predict who will wilt in the heat and who will be feeling ... not good, but okay, during that long home stretch.

In other words, it will be a race of attrition. Which means an agonizing race for the competitors. But a great one for the spectators.

My prediction: Someone you've never heard of in a huge upset. And no positive drug tests.

A week before the men's marathon, a memorable moment (for Americans, at least) will come when Deena Kastor, the American record-holder in the women's marathon and one of the best in the world, circles the track in Athens all by herself in first place.

Tough losses | From Dan Shanoff

Michael Phelps
What if Michael Phelps only wins, say, five golds?

Losing will overshadow winning, not to put too fine of a fatalistic point on things:

  • Unprecedented losses in track, where deflated athletes will return to the rest of the pack.

  • Unprecedented losses in hoops, where our pros will be humbled, taking us from "Dream Team" dominance to "Now what?!" hysterics in only 12 years.

  • And, the biggest of all, an unprecedented loss in swimming:

    Michael Phelps IS as good as advertised, but his bid for that record eighth gold will fall short. Knowing he has to win every race he enters in order to reach the goal, that makes him must-see every time he steps on the starting block. His near-miss (like matching Spitz's seven golds is nothing!) will fuel the hype for his return in 2008. He'll only be 22, after all.

    The pessimist | From Dave Schoenfield
    We can applaud Michael Phelps' attempt to break Mark Spitz's record and win eight gold medals, except he's not going to win eight, will settle for maybe five and will be remembered sort of like we remember Matt Biondi.

    We can root for the U.S. men's basketball team because we're good Americans, or we can root for it to lose to make the tournament more interesting, but the defining moment of the Olympics will not come with a U.S. defeat, because it will go unbeaten and win the gold.

    We could watch track and field for a defining moment, but there is no Michael Johnson or Carl Lewis to watch this year and, anyway, the sport has a little image problem to deal with.

    I'm sure there will be plenty of inspirational moments from athletes from other countries, but we're Americans and don't really care about them, unless they're from Australia and pose nude in a calendar or "men's" magazine.

    There are a lot of sports, like equestrian or archery or field hockey that we don't seem to pay much attention to.

    Are beach volleyball players good enough to play regular volleyball? I'll eliminate those two sports as well.

    What are the odds Rulon Gardner wins gold again? Slimmer than his waist, surely.

    Gymnastics? Pass. Baseball? Pass. Women's soccer and softball? Didn't we gush all over them in '96? (Yes.)

    That leaves ... the closing ceremonies, when the Olympics mercifully end without any terrorist acts, major doping controversies or a Team USA basketball player stepping on the chest of some poor Greek.

    The crying game | From Michael Knisley
    Maybe I'm a sadist. (Shuddup!)

    I like to see people cry.

    And nowhere on television -- outside of a Barbara Walters special, anyway -- are there more tears than at an Olympics. So I relish the medal ceremonies, as the anthems play and the flags fly and the teardrops fall.

    Doesn't much matter who is doing the sobbing. I simply appreciate the emotion. That's what I've always loved about the Olympics. It brings out the hopes and fears and pain and suffering and triumph of the human spirit better than any other sport going.

    I'm always a little disappointed when the winner can maintain composure, can remain stoic as he hears the anthem start.

    So my defining moment? It'll be Allen Iverson breaking down into uncontrollable blubbering as he leans down to accept his bronze medal.