ATHENS -- Alexander the Great was unable to conquer the world, but his influence endures. The people here still speak of him in the present tense.

Will the global village that is the Olympic Games remember Michael Phelps a century from now?

Can a teenager from the Baltimore suburb of Rodgers Forge fulfill the promise that has made him the most distinctive swimmer of his generation and turn in the greatest performance in the history of the modern Olympics, which began here in 1896?

The Games of the XXVIII Olympiad start tonight with spectacle, an opening ceremony of overwrought production values and no reference to the troubles that hung over preparations.

During the next eight days, a daily drama featuring a 19-year-old graduate of Towson High could consume OAKA, the Cyrillic-flavored acronym for the Athens Olympic Sports Complex.

Can Phelps open with another world record in the 400-meter individual medley? Will two of his teammates rise up in the preliminaries of the 400 freestyle relay and bump him from the spot in the final that is presumed to be his?

Can Phelps beat Australian Ian Thorpe in "The Race of the Century," Monday's 200 freestyle? Can he out-duel Thorpe on the anchor leg of the 800 relay the next night? Can he catch Ian Crocker in the 100 butterfly and thus earn a berth in the Olympics' climactic race, the 400 medley relay on Aug. 21?

"I've never felt this good going into a meet," Phelps said Wednesday.

He has good reason to feel so.

Phelps hopes, and probably expects, to become the first swimmer to compete in eight events at the Olympics. He has provided the makings of a pretty good miniseries, as any questions about financial incentives cloud the fact that, in an age of lowered standards, Phelps could be a bargain for his sponsors and NBC.

Which dollar figure has received more media coverage, Athens' $1.5 billion security budget or the $1 million that Speedo will pay Phelps if he matches the record seven gold medals Mark Spitz won in 1972?

Every day, Spitz plans to be among the 10,500 watching Phelps at the Aquatic Center, an open-air facility where a planned mesh roof was scrapped last spring.

Baltimore natives Carmelo Anthony and James Carter are also looking for their first Olympic medals, and Phelps passes off his goals as if they are no different from those other local guys made good. Coy, Phelps continues to say he just wants one gold medal, which doesn't wash with his accomplishments and aspirations.

"Mark [Spitz] was truly incredible," Olympic head coach Eddie Reese said, "but Michael Phelps is beyond that."

In a sport in which the stage is the thing, that reality is the reason he was goaded before the 2003 world championships by an Australian coaching sage who, in his own way, understands what Phelps means when he says he just wants to get one gold medal.

"Michael is a terrific swimmer, and I wasn't disparaging him," Don Talbot said. "The fact remains, greatness is judged by longevity and doing it at the Olympics."

Phelps was America's youngest male Olympian since 1952 at Sydney in 2000, when he finished fifth in the 200 butterfly.

An unprecedented performance on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Barcelona, Spain, at last summer's world championships, continued the curve of a career that has spiked upward regardless of the setting.

The chlorine in Barcelona was masked by cigarette smoke. He has set world records in the sterility of Indianapolis and College Park, in a choppy pool in Santa Clara, Calif., and in the open air of Long Beach, Calif., the site of his most recenthistoric feat.