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Taking the big plunge


SYDNEY, Australia - Women will fly in the pole vault, take kicks and punches in taekwondo. Those are some of the additions to an Olympic program that has bloated to 29 sports, and none of the newcomers will make as big a splash, literally and figuratively, as triathlon.

A sport that didn't exist a generation ago will take center stage tomorrow, the first full day of competition at the Games. As many as 100,000 spectators could rant and rave over a field of 48 women who will start and finish in the shadow of the Sydney Opera House. The fans fully anticipate that the first gold medal of the Olympics will be awarded to an Australian.

Joanna Zeiger, a 30-year-old Ph.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, is one of the three American women who will try to break up the planned domination of the Australian triumvirate of Loretta Harrop, Nicole Hackett and Michellie Jones, who's only regarded as the best practitioner the sport has ever seen.

The men follow Sunday on a challenge that will see the triathletes stretch and say their prayers beneath the most photographed symbol of these Games, the Sydney Opera House. They will dive into the 62-degree waters of Farm Cove and swim .9 of a mile, accompanied by six underwater divers on underwater scooters that will emit sonar waves designed to scare off the wayward shark.

After a transition, there will be six hilly laps on a bike course through the Royal Botanic Gardens and Hyde Park, adding up to 24.8 miles. The women will then run 6.2 miles on some of the same paths they biked, with the winner finishing some two hours after she started.

"It's going to be a great venue," said Hunter Kemper, an American entered in Sunday's men's race. "When you jump off the pontoon with the Opera House in the background, ride your bikes through the downtown streets and run around the gardens in that area, I'm biased, but I think it's the best venue of all the sports here."

The Australian trials were held over the same course in late April, and they turned into a fiasco. The concluding 10K run was actually only 8K for the women, closer to five miles than six, and the blunder had serious ramifications for competitors from nations which used the race as their Olympic trials.

Zeiger feels that the considerably longer Ironman distance is more her cup of tea. Considered a dark horse for the Olympics when the year began, she claimed the final American berth in May. Zeiger was second and within striking distance of Jones at the U.S. championship in Chicago last month, and she could be a better bet than teammates Jennifer Gutierrez and Sheila Taormina.

Jones makes her home far from here, in Carlsbad, Calif., and she's also a lone wolf on the course. While fellow Australians Hackett and Harrop sweated out a starting draw that finally saw them in their favored spot, alongside each other for the swim, Jones chose to start away from them. She's in pontoon position 39, three spots over from Zeiger. A solid swim is paramount in a competition in which bike drafting is legal.

The sport got its greatest notice in 1982, when ABC showed Julie Moss lose control of her bodily functions and crawl across the finish line for second at the Ironman in Hawaii. It hopes for more drama this weekend.

"I hope this brings it out into the mainstream," American Nick Radkewich said. "Hopefully, we can establish ourselves as better than an every-four-years sport. I think we have a lot to offer after the Olympics."

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