Seeking gold standard

Sun Staff

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.

At the U.S. Olympic trials, Phelps became the first American to qualify in six individual events. Wanting on all three relays, he dropped the 200 backstroke from his Olympic program.

When is five greater than seven?

Phelps will become the first man -- Australian woman Shane Gould tried it in 1972 -- to tackle five individual events at the Olympics. Spitz won four and remains the only male swimmer to win more than two individual events at the Olympics. Phelps is favored in the 400 IM, 200 butterfly and 200 IM. Thorpe and Crocker are formidable adversaries in his other races, but he's not racing for second.

One of his friends in the business explained what Phelps is up against.

"At the end of the day, it's difficult to achieve, but when a competitor like Michael Phelps comes along, you have to pay attention," Australian freestyler Grant Hackett said. "I'm not saying whether he can do it or not, but with all the expectation, if you win six gold medals [total], then it's almost a disappointment."

Team Phelps embraces and promotes the challenge. He has been hardened by 12 years with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, seven under Bob Bowman. The past year has been designed to put Phelps in the best condition of his life, a must considering that he could race as many as 18 times.

"All of the stuff I crammed into the last two years was to get ready for this," said Bowman, who has lessened the load in the past month, a practice called tapering. "Last year, we prepared for the world championships, but left something in the training base to prepare for this. Meets like the worlds are steppingstones, but we want his tank to be completely empty on the last day at the Olympics."

The midday temperature could soar to 100 Wednesday, when Phelps swims the preliminaries of the 200 IM, but the rounds are simply about survival. Some of his finals will come after dark, and other factors also bode well.

His roommate in the athletes' village is Lenny Krayzelburg, a cool co-captain who was the most decorated American swimmer in Sydney. Brian Campbell, the burly massage therapist who kneaded Phelps in Barcelona, is back on the U.S. staff. Bowman is an assistant to Reese, the head coach who will make the relay lineups.

Phelps is too busy to visit with his mother, Debbie, staying in a luxury hotel on a circle in Omonia, Athens' answer to Times Square, or his father, Fred, berthed in a cruise ship docked in Piraeus.

Tomorrow's demands will keep Phelps out of tonight's opening ceremony. He could be long gone come the Aug. 29 closing, but the setting has added to his inspiration.

"Whenever you come to the Olympic Games, you always get excited," Phelps said. "Being where it all started, wow, over 100 years ago, it's a great city, an old city, and that adds to the atmosphere."

As does Phelps.

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