Commentary

Theatrics, gymnastics and that guy Phelps highlight Week 1

Updated: August 16, 2008, 5:12 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- Fittingly for the first Olympics held in China, the first week has been all about walls.

We've seen cyclists ride past the Great Wall, a torch-bearer actually run on another one and a swimmer try to break through yet another in the pool. Of course, we've had to squint occasionally to see it all through the haze, but the first week provided some heart-pounding views.

Five highlights from the first week:

[+] EnlargeGarrett Weber-Gale/Michael Phelps
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireGarrett Weber-Gale and Michael Phelps celebrate after Jason Lezak edged out Alain Bernard in the last leg of the 4x100 free relay.

1. Michael Phelps
You might have heard of this guy. Spends more time in the water than the Queen Mary. Has more gold to hang around his neck than Rickey Henderson. Pulls his swimsuit down waaayyyyy, waaayyyy too low. (What is the deal with that, anyway?)

Phelps came into the Olympics with the audacious -- though (wink, wink) unofficial and unannounced -- goal of surpassing Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Games. And after six events, that goal isn't looking so audacious anymore. Phelps broke multiple world records while winning the 400-meter IM, the 4x100 relay, the 200 free, the 200 fly, the 4x200 free relay and the 200 IM. And, as teammate Aaron Peirsol said, "He's not just winning, he's destroying the competition."

If we were Spitz, we would be feeling very nervous right now.

2. Opening Ceremonies
The Opening Ceremonies at the Olympics are usually a very, very long evening of bizarre (think Yoko Ono singing in Torino in 2006) and tedious presentations designed to showcase the host country's "culture" (think of the monster trucks in Atlanta). Then there was Beijing's show, a stirring artistic production overseen by acclaimed director Zhang Yimou and filled with spectacular acrobats, human pyramids recreating the Bird's Nest, dancers levitating and one very memorable athlete, Li Ning, running along the wall of the stadium to light the torch. It all made Cirque du Soleil look like a junior high performance of "West Side Story." Good luck topping it, Vancouver and London.

Oh, and the fireworks were nice, as well (even if some of the ones seen on TV were computer-generated).

3. Men's 4x100 free relay
That Phelps' drive for eight gold medals is still alive is thanks to Jason Lezak's epic leg in the men's 4x100, a finish that is among the most thrilling in Olympic history. Swimming the last leg, Lezak was half a body length behind France's Alain Bernard. That's so far behind in swimming that he might as well have been on an inflatable mattress with a drink in his hand. While Phelps saw his gold-medal quest sinking, Lezak briefly considered that the race was over, then rid himself of such thoughts and went all out those final 50 meters to catch Bernard and just outtouch him at the wall, winning the race by eight-hundredths of a second.

"That's the most exciting race I've ever seen, not just in swimming, but in all sports," said American teammate Matt Grevers, who won silver the next day. "The way Lezak finished really moved me inside and made me think that everything is possible. It made me think, 'Why not?'"

4. The Great Wall
For all the talk about the spectacular Bird's Nest (main stadium) and Water Cube (aquatics center), the most dramatic Olympic venue was at the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall, where the cycling road race and time trials were held. We love Boston's Green Monster, perhaps the most iconic landmark in American sports. But when you're talking walls, it's hard to beat one that is more than 3,000 miles long and has been around even longer than Fenway Park.

[+] EnlargeYang Wei
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireYang Wei plays with the hometown crowd after winning the gold medal in the men's all-around event.
Not that American cyclist Dave Zabriskie was that impressed. "If I had been in charge back then, I wouldn't have built something like that," he said. "It seems like a waste of time. I would have put the research into something else. I mean, you can get over it with a grappling hook and a ladder, right?"

We prefer Fabian Cancellara's take after he won the gold in the time trial.

"I guess maybe I saw so much of this Wall, maybe this Wall was giving me the power and the strength today," the Swiss rider said. "Because when you see it's more than 4,500 kilometers long, and see how hard the work and the years that went into building it, maybe it inspired me to do the same and work harder."

5. Chinese gymnasts
While Phelps has dominated the pool, the Chinese got off to a roaring start on the mats, rings and bars, winning the first three gold medals in gymnastics. They won the men's and women's team finals, and Yang Wei won the men's individual all-around. You have to love Yang, who is such a ham. While waiting for his final score in the men's all-around, he flexed like a pro wrestler for the cameras, then cupped his ears, begging for more applause, when he won.

But, in the individual event finals, the Chinese need to watch out for Americans Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, who won gold and silver, respectively, in the women's all-around Friday.

And while they're watching those two, here are five things for you to watch this week:

1. Phelps (Saturday and Sunday mornings Beijing time)
Like you were expecting us to single out that intriguing 50K race walk next Friday? Phelps has two races left -- the 100 fly, which would tie him with Spitz, and the 4x100 medley relay, which would make him the early favorite for "Most Endorsements You'll See From One Athlete Not Named Tiger Woods" in the next six months.

2. The fastest men in the world (Saturday)
Track and field got under way Friday, and the marquee event is Saturday's showdown between American Tyson Gay and Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell. Bolt broke the world record this May, but Gay ran the fastest 100 in history -- albeit wind-aided -- at the U.S. track trials. He's coming off a slightly injured hamstring, however. Ready, set …

3. Johnson and Liukin (multiple days)
Is either one the next Mary Lou Retton? We'll find out in the next few days when the gymnasts compete to add to their all-around medals.

4. Liu Xiang (Thursday)
You know the pressure on Phelps? Multiply it by three for Chinese hurdler Liu. He won the gold medal in the 110 hurdles in Athens, and 1.3 billion Chinese citizens want him to repeat the feat here.

5. Kiss 'Em Goodbye (Thursday)
This is the last year for softball and baseball in the Olympics, though there is a chance they'll be brought back in 2016. Can the U.S. women continue their gold-medal dominance? We'll see (as long as the haze clears).

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com