The true winners in Athens

Updated: August 29, 2004, 12:03 PM ET
By Jim Caple |

Best competition
Medal Reason
Women's soccer, final. It was the final game for several of the veterans who formed the soul of women's soccer the past 15 years and it also was one of the most dramatic they've ever played, with the U.S. winning 2-1 in double-overtime on a header by Abby Wambach. "These 120-minute games are making me think about retirement, too," Kristine Lilly said.
Swimming, Men's 200 freestyle. It was the race that prevented Phelps from matching Mark Spitz's mark of seven gold medals but this race matched three of the greatest swimmers in history -- Phelps, Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband -- with Thorpe winning in Olympic record time. "How can I be disappointed?" Phelps asked. "I swam in a field with two of the fastest freestylers of all time, and I was right there with them."
Track, Men's 100 meter. The day before the race, Maurice Greene said, "We're going to have a party tomorrow night -- and everybody's invited." Everybody but world record holder and BALCO-stained Tim Montgomery. No one missed him. The premiere event of track and field was one for the ages with American Justin Gatlin winning by one-hundredth of a second and the top four finishers separated by four-hundredths of a second.

Best Olympic gesture
Medal Reason
Athens taxi driver. Drivers can be rude -- if they don't like your shouted destination, they'll just roll up the window and ignore you -- but one cabbie did them proud by returning a silver medal that a Dutch passenger had left in the back seat.
Michael Phelps. Phelps gave up his spot on the final relay team so that teammate Ian Crocker could race instead and salvage what had been an otherwise disappointing Olympics for Crocker. True, it was of little sacrifice to Phelps -- because he had raced in the prelims, it allowed him to win a gold while sitting in the stands for the U.S. victory -- but it's a damn sight better than anything we saw from the gymnastics federation.
Israeli first. Israeli windsurfer Gal Fridman won his country's first-ever gold medal and dedicated it to the 11 Olympians slain at the 1972 Munich Olympics. "I felt like the whole country was watching me and pushing me from behind."

Least Olympic gesture
Medal Reason
President Bush campaign ad. There is nothing wrong with mixing the Olympics and politics. Happens all the time. But before using a team as a shining example of foreign policy, it might be best to first check to see whether the athletes share your view. And the Iraqis, most certainly, did not.
American media. For scaring so many away over the possibility of terrorism. Remember, the last act of terrorism at an Olympics took place in the United States and it was an American who set off the bomb.
Gymnastics officials. Rather than take responsibility for their own judges' mistakes, they pointed the finger at Paul Hamm and asked him to clean up their mess.

Best venue
Medal Reason
Beach volleyball. It was a non-stop party here, with sand, sun, music, cheesy PA announcers in three languages, superb athletes, great competition and, oh yes, the bikini dancing team.
Panathinaiko Stadium. The grand marble stadium was the site of the first modern games in 1896 and again this year when it served as the finish for the marathon.
Shot put. After an absence of more than 1,600 years, the Olympics returned to their ancient home of Olympia and it was wonderful. Whoever thought of holding the shot put here deserves a medal -- no one has had a better idea regarding the Olympics since Baron Pierre de Coubertin. (Runner-up for best idea was the olive wreaths, which became the biggest fashion hit at the Olympics next to Roots caps.)

Best performance (individual)
Medal Reason
Fani Halkia, Greek sprinter. Greece's Olympic icons, sprinters Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, were disgraced before the Games began by "missing" a drug test but Halkia gave her nation a moment to savor with an inspiring win in the women's 400 hurdles. When she crossed the line ahead of everyone else, Kenteris and Thanou could have heard the crowd from wherever it is they're hiding. "I wanted to show the world that the Greeks are high up there," Halkia said. "The Greeks are born to be winners."
Hicham El Guerrouj, men's 1,500. The Moroccan has been the world's best middle-distance runner for the past decade but he failed to win the gold in Atlanta or Sydney, losses that devastated the runner. He stayed with his sport and rallied to win this year, then rolled around the track, overcome with pure joy.
Michael Phelps, U.S. swimmer. Although he fell short of his goal to beat Mark Spitz's mark of seven gold medals, Phelps had the best Olympics of anyone by winning six golds and eight total medals. As U.S. swimmer Erik Vendt said, "Just because it's not Spitzian, doesn't mean it's not history."

Most embarrassing performance
Medal Reason
Gymnastics judges. In a performance that made figure skating seem like it was on the up-and-up, judges incorrectly scored the men's all-around, leaving gold medalist Paul Hamm to dangle in the wind of world opinion. Then the gymnastics federation made things even worse by refusing to correct the mistake, instead shifting the blame to Hamm by asking him to please give up his medal.
Kenteris and Thanou. They were the pride of Greek athletics but missed a drug test on the eve of the Olympics, used a suspicious motorcycle accident as an excuse and eventually dropped out of the Games.
U.S. men's basketball team. Despite a roster worth $678 million in combined NBA salaries, they opened with a 19-point loss to Puerto Rico -- Puerto Rico! -- and it never got better. The United States, which stayed apart from the rest of the athletes on the Queen Mary, also lost to Lithuania, needed to rally to beat Greece and Australia, and finally lost in the semifinals to Argentina. In the lowest moment in U.S. basketball since the international release of "Juwanna Mann," they became the first U.S. men's basketball team to not reach the gold medal game.

But hey, we trounced Angola.

Best view
Medal Reason
Baseball Stadium. From the concourse, you could look out and see the sunset reflecting on the Aegean Sea and its nearby islands. Or you could look around and see fans from across the globe standing to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Monastrikaki Square. With fears over security, fans stayed away from Athens in droves, driving down ticket prices. Their loss. There may be no grander sight for a fan without a ticket than to see scalpers filling a town square trying to unload tickets for half-price and less.
The Acropolis. The Parthenon, sitting majestically atop the Acropolis, is one of those sites you saw on virtually every broadcast from here -- it may be the most famous man-made object in the world -- and yet it always compels you to look at it, especially when brightly lighted at night. Like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley and Jennie Finch, you simply cannot stop staring at it.

Most disappointing result
Medal Reason
Paula Radcliffe, women's marathon. The heavy favorite to win the marathon, she instead broke down under the relentless heat and was forced to stop four miles from the finish line.
Tom Pappas, decathlon. The great-grandson of a Greek emigrant, Pappas had two countries pulling for him to win the title of world's greatest athlete. Instead, he ruptured his minor fascia, was unable to finish the event and left the Olympics in a walking boot.
Attendance for women's team sports. Yes, it was great the way the U.S. women's soccer and basketball teams won the gold medals. But it would have been nicer had someone gone to the games. In stark contrast to the sellouts the U.S. women enjoyed while winning the 1996 Olympics and the 1999 World Cup in America, the stadium wasn't even half full for their exciting gold medal game here. The Girls of Summer did much to boost interest and participation in women's sports in America but sadly, that hasn't carried over to the rest of the world.

Best performance (Team)
Medal Reason
Iraqi soccer team. A year removed from the torture of Uday Hussein's notorious Olympic system, the team inspired Iraqis around the world -- as well as many other world citizens -- by reaching the medal round. "It means a lot in our heart," Mena Shinawa said after the 3-1 loss. "Because of the war and everything, it means a lot to have a little bit of happiness in Iraqi hearts."
Lisa Fernandez and U.S. softball team. The three-time gold medalist not only went 3-0 with a 0.29 ERA, she also hit an Olympics-high .545. The run she allowed in the sixth inning of the gold medal game was the only one the U.S. allowed the entire Olympics. They dominated so much you would have thought their shortstop was Derek Jeter, not Natasha Watley.
Greece. We were supposed to be afraid of these Olympics. They were supposed to be the target of terrorism. The Greeks were supposed to be so behind in construction that they wouldn't have the venues completed until the 2104 Olympics.

It all turned out to be as reliable as a Greek's estimate on time. The venues were completed on time, were first-rate -- some had marble floors, for crying out loud -- and were convenient to reach. Transportation was almost never a problem -- though that public bus to Olympia could stand some improvement -- and despite all the fears of terrorism, the Olympics felt as secure and safe as the backseat of your parents' car on the drive home from a long trip.

The official slogan of these Olympics was "Welcome Home." May there be another homecoming soon.

Although, maybe you could hold it in September when it's just a shade cooler?

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer,