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Athens 2004

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Commentary & Perspective

Sunday, August 15

Phelps, menís hoops team prove that defeat is relative

ATHENS, Greece ó Michael Phelps swam the second leg of the 400-meter relay last night, and yet his hopes of breaking Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympics was already shattered before his head hit the water.

Ian Crocker led off the American effort with a ghastly 100 time of 50.05, the slowest leg of the night, leaving his team in dead last and reducing Phelps' Mission Nearly Impossible to a completely lost cause. After winning the 400-meter individual medley, the best Phelps can do now is win a mere seven gold medals, or seven more than what's now expected from the American men's basketball team.

Defeat is always a relative state. On a night when Larry Brown's NBA All-Stars embarrassed themselves in a 19-point loss to Puerto Rico, Phelps won his second medal by starting a rally that moved the Americans from eighth to third, landing them behind the world-record-breaking winners from South Africa and the silver medalists from the Netherlands.

"It's a lot different swimming in the wake," Phelps said. "The South Africans are all fast and they took everybody by surprise. They went out fast and we tried to play catch up. It's difficult in those waves. I'm not used to swimming in them."

He's not used to having his place in the pool challenged, either. But Gary Hall Jr., an eight-time medalist and member of the team that finished second in the morning qualifier, believed he should've been swimming instead of Phelps, who had never competed in an Olympic relay. Hall didn't bother showing up to watch the Americans turn in their worst performance ever, a performance made possible by a leadoff man who was said to be under the weather.

"If someone had told me Crocker was going to go that slow, there's no way I would have believed it," said Eddie Reese, the American coach. "You can't go that slow. Not in my mind or his mind."

Phelps won't be negotiating any such handicap when he faces Ian Thorpe in Monday nightís 200-meter freestyle final, wrapped in Race-of-the-Century hype. America's teen wonder has to defeat Thorpe and win his final five races to tie Spitz and collect Speedo's bonus offer of $1 million.

"The seven-gold-medal quest, I don't believe it's his," Reese said. "If it happens, it happens. Speedo made that offer. I honestly don't believe that's on Michael's mind here, or he would've skipped the 200 free. ... He's really a racer, and he's really a sportsman, and he wanted to race Ian Thorpe, which not many people in their right mind want to do.

"Michael wants to race him before Ian's time is up. That's the true nature of being a sportsman."

Of course, defending Olympic champ Pieter van den Hoogenband, who beat Thorpe in Sydney, could crash the party. Van den Hoogenband swam a 46.79 anchor for the Netherlands, the fastest time of the night.

But the Americans had bigger problems last night than worrying about Phelps' chances in the 200. Asked after the relay what he would tell his team in its next meeting, Reese said, "Don't do that again."

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COMMENTARY AND PERSPECTIVE

CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY

Phelps' big win: Taking the challenge

BOB KRAVITZ | The Indianapolis Star

Americans have forgotten how to play as a team

DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic

Bade guns for gold, but comes up short

IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Phelps, menís hoops team prove that defeat is relative

MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service

U.S. basketball supremacy is ancient history

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