Making a name for themselves
ATHENS, Greece -- It's not that doping isn't a serious issue, but we're ready to watch athletes who are running toward a finish line rather than running away from allegations.
We're ready to see the world's best sports competitors building legacies rather than hearing about what the Greeks are building, or nearly building.
It's not that we're not appreciative of the job the security forces are undertaking, but let them watch us, and we'll watch the Olympians.
At 19, Michael Phelps is the chosen one. The rap music-loving American is the face of the 2004 Games because he is a swimmer of proven ability and virtually unlimited potential, and his youthful vitality is easily integrated into sponsors' marketing strategies. In other words, Phelps' smile helps them sell stuff.
The Baltimore-born world champion will compete in five individual events and in as many as three relays, which gives him a mathematical -- but highly unlikely chance -- of surpassing the record of seven swimming gold medals (four individual) established by Mark Spitz in 1972. One of Phelps' sponsors, Speedo, has committed to pay him a $1 million bonus if he matches or surpasses Spitz's record this summer or at Beijing in 2008.
It's apparent Phelps' time has come, but there are plenty of other athletes with potetential to become the hero of these Games. Soon they could be the face staring back at you as you eat cereal in the morning.
Brendan Hansen: One sure way not to be overshadowed by a teammate such as Phelps in Athens will be to break a couple of world records on the way to winning a couple of gold medals.
Hansen, who turns 23 on Sunday, Day 3 of the Games, recently established those records at the U.S. swim trials in Long Beach, Calif., clocking a 59.30 in the 100 breaststroke (beating the former mark by .48 of a second) and a 2:09.04 in the 200 breast.
Hansen's a low-key outdoorsman from rural Pennsylvania, but he fits right in with the dominant Longhorn Aquatics brigade at the University of Texas under coach Eddie Reese, who also is the U.S. Olympic men's coach.
Reese said Hansen found out how good he really is four years ago, but it was too late. Hansen finished third in both events and did not make the 2000 Sydney Olympic team.
"I took something that was a disadvantage [the 2000 trials] and turned it into an advantage," Hansen said in July after claiming the world records. Then he put a subtle warning on the table, adding: "You never swim a perfect race. You take something from it you can learn for a future race. I'm not going to say I can't swim faster in Athens."
Natalie Coughlin: A California-Berkeley psychology major, Coughlin is taking a measured approach to her first appearance in the Games, resisting the temptation to load up on events and raise expectations for no reason.
She qualified and will compete in the 100 backstroke -- Coughlin's showcase event in which she was the first in the world under one minute -- and the 100 freestyle. Then she'll turn her energy to the relays, where Australia-U.S. showdowns await.
"We'll be working closely with Natalie to make the right decisions for the team," U.S. women's Olympic coach Mark Schubert said. "She could obviously swim any relay on the program."
Schubert said Coughlin probably would have quit the sport after suffering a left shoulder injury in 2000 but couldn't resist riding her talent in the pool to something she valued more -- a paid-for education at Cal. Everything was on schedule until 2003 when Coughlin was stricken by a high fever at the FINA World Championships. She still contributed to gold and silver finishes for the United States in two relays.
"Natalie is a young lady that has an ability to re-frame a negative experience, to make lemonade out of lemons," said Teri McKeever, Coughlin's Cal coach.
OTHERS TO WATCH IN THE POOL: Based on the recent U.S. trials, gold medal or world record performances are to be expected from several Americans this month, including Amanda Beard (200 breaststroke), Ian Crocker (100 butterfly), Gary Hall Jr. (50 freestyle), Aaron Peirsol (100 backstroke), Kaitlin Sandeno (three events) and four-time Olympian Jenny Thompson, who qualified in two individual events and already owns eight Olympic gold medals as a member of relays, giving her status as "America's greatest teammate."
Maurice Greene: Naturally, many Americans who tune in to track only in an Olympic year probably have made radar contact ahead of schedule in 2004. The off-track news out of northern California, home of a federal steroids distribution probe, and Colorado Springs, home of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, has bombarded the sports page reader with facts about designer steroids, sealed grand jury testimony and a rash of alleged or confirmed positive tests.
Greene, 30, has not been implicated by any of the BALCO proceedings, and he won the 100 meters at the recent U.S. trials in 9.91 seconds to set himself up for a possible repeat Olympic gold in the event. No American sprinter has done that since Carl Lewis in the 1980s.
In Greene's career, which was derailed in 2002 by a left leg fracture caused by a minor motorcycle accident, he has run a sub-10-second 100 an incredible 47 times.
Healthy again, Greene no longer has to worry about the man who has in recent years usurped his "world's fastest" title, Tim Montgomery. Montgomery was seventh at the trials after emerging as one of the accused in the BALCO investigation.
Greene knows his sport is darkened by clouds of unethical, if not illegal, practices, but he also knows this: "Every time we step on the track we're going to bring some positive energy to our sport."
OTHERS TO WATCH IN TRACK AND FIELD: Justin Gatlin is a genuine threat to deny Greene a second 100 Olympic gold. The former Tennessee NCAA champion also qualified for Athens in the 200. Only 18, Allyson Felix is headed to the Games off a 22.18 in the 200, second-fastest time in the world as of mid-July.
Veterans with medal shots include Marion Jones (long jump), five-time Olympian Gail Devers (100 hurdles) and pole vaulter Stacy Dragila, the defending Olympic champion.
Tom Pappas, the decathlete, is one of the overwhelming great stories of these Games. The grandson of a Greek immigrant to the United States, Pappas was an unremarkable high school athlete who was a physical late bloomer and ended up a University of Tennessee and NCAA star. Now, he will contend for an Olympic medal in Athens with a name that rolls off Greek tongues.
Pappas gets a run from colorful javelin specialist Breaux Greer, a Louisiana native who lives in Athens (Georgia), gave up baseball and took up javelin on a whim. Today, he's a five-time U.S. champion who seeks balance in his life by performing in an alternative rock band.
Paul Hamm: Joined by his twin brother Morgan on the U.S. team, Paul is viewed as a legitimate threat to win an all-around medal in Athens. Although he was an Olympian in 2000, he gained renewed attention last year by becoming the first American male to secure an all-around title at the World Championships. He's a small-town Wisconsin guy with a boyish face you might find in a Norman Rockwell portrait. But those wide eyes grow steely when he competes.
Paul Hamm is a three-time national champion.
OTHERS TO WATCH IN GYMNASTICS: Vitamin "C" has USA Gymnastics feeling confident it can win an all-around gold in Athens 20 years after Mary Lou Retton's golden emergence in Los Angeles. The "Cs" are Courtney (Kupets), Courtney (McCool) and Carly (Patterson). The Pattersons didn't receive the suggested names memo, evidently.
Just like two decades ago there also is a Karolyi connection. In 1984, it was Bela Karolyi, denied a place on the U.S. staff, coaxing student Retton from behind a barrier and wearing a press credential (it was a different time, obviously). Today, Bela has stepped into the shadows to be a Texas rancher and his wife, Martha, is the public figure with the title of national women's coach.
Shane Hamman: He is the odds-on favorite to be the 2004 Olympian every radio and TV talk show wants to book first. Hamman is a mammoth kid from Oklahoma who grew up -- and then some -- working hard on a produce farm, picking watermelons for his father, while developing a proportionally large personality.
The 370-pound Hamman was 10th in the 2000 Sydney Games, and ninth in the most recent world championships (later elevated to 8th after a competitor was disqualified for a drug positive). No American lifter had ever surpassed 400 kg (881+ pounds) until Hamman came along.
The man from Mustang, Okla., has a million-dollar grin, a 62-inch chest, an appetite that defies the imagination, a funky, braided strand of beard, an extremely respectable golf game and a few endorsement deals (PowerBar among them). He also is among selected Olympians featured in the NBC/General Motors Olympic promo spot airing in movie theaters nationwide. (He removes -- hurls, actually -- a fallen tree from a roadway.)
Hamman has consumed 13 pieces of pizza in one sitting. In August, he'd settle for one slice of Olympic glory.
Abby Wambach: At 24, Wambach is emerging as a future leader on a U.S. women's soccer team that will need one after this year when pioneer superstars like Brandi Chastian, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Shannon MacMillan step aside.
Wambach is an imposing 5-11 forward who scored goals in each of the USA's two most recent victories on American soil (versus Australia and China) before it headed to training camp in Greece.
After arriving in Athens, Wambach agreed that the 2004 team is on a mission to send the so-called "1991ers" out on top. The '91ers are the living legends who established the Americans as an emerging power at the inaugural 1991 Women's World Cup. The United States has fallen short of the past two major titles, however, placing second in the 2000 Sydney Games and third in the 2003 World Cup.
"We're having an added sense of responsibility," said Wambach, who has 28 career goals with the national team. "We're using whatever these (veteran) women have taught us. We are feeling responsible and will feel responsible for whatever happens (at the Games)."