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Athens 2004

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Commentary & Perspective

Monday, August 16

Phelps' big win: Taking the challenge

ATHENS, Greece - The big race has given us the big letdown. Michael Phelps has lost. Mark Spitz is safe. You all are free to start paying attention to gymnastics now.

That hissing sound you hear is the air being let out of the most hyped story coming into these Olympic Games. Phelps, the 19-year-old so full of hope heading into his eight events here, was left muttering about how "emotionally draining'' these Olympics already have been after winning his second consecutive bronze medal at the swimming venue. He now has one gold medal and two bronze medals, with five events left to go.

"It's definitely a whole lot different from (the U.S.) trials,'' a subdued Phelps said after finding out just how difficult it is to beat the Thorpedo, Ian Thorpe, in one of the Australian's beloved events, the 200 freestyle. "It takes a lot out of you, race to race.''

Now that Phelps cannot reach Spitz's seven gold medals, the most compelling question left at the swimming venue is exactly how America - from Peoria to Madison Avenue - will view his performance at these Olympics. His sponsors and his agent took a calculated risk, trying to attach themselves to Spitz in a quest that was all but impossible from the get-go.

But now that Phelps and seven golds have been inextricably linked for weeks by his publicity-seeking sponsors - and in countless covers and headlines splashed around the world - how does Phelps escape the mantle that has awaited others who have failed to reach Spitz, the terrible label of "disappointment?''

Whatever Phelps' medal haul becomes - from his one certain gold to the possibility of a magnificent six - there will be those who think of seven and do the math. It happened to Matt Biondi in 1988, when he entered seven events in Seoul and came away with five golds, one silver and one bronze. It will happen to Phelps here. It's simply the nature of great expectations in sports in America.

The buildup to the 200 freestyle, the ultimate Olympic battle, was like that of a title fight. Saturday night, the first day of swimming at these games, was a majestic display of two sportsmen reveling in the moment - and also jockeying for position with Monday very much on their minds.

Less than one hour after Phelps won his first gold medal in the 400 individual medley, Thorpe won his in the 400 freestyle. Organizers might as well have played "Anything you can do, I can do better ...'' over the public-address system.

They held separate interviews, but it was as if they were linked in everything they did. They were asked what they thought about each other. They looked ahead to racing each other in 48 hours. They were two men inexorably racing to a place and time that both wanted to call their own.

Phelps, two years Thorpe's junior, seemed different than he was even a month ago. In July at the U.S. trials, he was the gangly teenager next door, the young man still living with his mother, whiling away the days eating, sleeping and swimming.

By Saturday night, he had been transformed into some kind of Coubertinian creation. When he and the second-place finisher, who happened to be his American teammate, Erik Vendt, came together in the pool after the race, it was Phelps who lifted Vendt's arm in triumph, not vice versa.

"This is a dream come true to me,'' Phelps said. "But it means even more with Erik winning the silver medal.''

Maybe it's just me, but I have trouble imagining some of the multimillionaire U.S. men's basketball players being as respectful of a vanquished foe.

With so much talk of Spitz's seven golds, Phelps for the first time sounded genuinely thrilled with just one. "My goal is right here,'' he said, tugging on the gold medal. "I'm perfectly happy right now.''

Phelps didn't even have to swim the 200 freestyle, which is not his best event, not at all. He didn't have to accept this challenge, and yet he did. He could have taken the easy route and avoided Thorpe. But he chose not to. "One of the things I've wanted to do,'' Phelps said, "is to race Thorpe in a freestyle event before either one of us is done.''

Who knew athletes talked like this anymore? What kind of medal do you hand an athlete who simply wants to test himself? And, in defeat, isn't he also some kind of winner?

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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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