SYDNEY, Australia - The trash-talking extends even to trash bins.
"Golden Aussies Rule" was scrawled on a restroom container at the Sydney International Aquatic Center. Nightly over the next week, that's what nearly 18,000 people will scream at the "Thunderdome," where Australian swimmers will challenge the team from the United States, which, with few exceptions, has owned the sport at the Olympics.
One exception was in 1956, in Melbourne, the only other Olympics contested in Australia, or south of the equator, for that matter. The great Dawn Fraser led Australia to eight gold medals in the pool. The United States took only three.
The host nation is itching for a repeat. What women's gymnastics was to Atlanta in 1996, swimming is to Sydney, the Olympics' marquee event and a ticket scalper's dream.
"This is the country that gives the most respect to swimming," said American Jenny Thompson, who could establish several cumulative gold medal firsts.
Thompson's idol? Fraser.
"This is an honor for us," said Tom Dolan, the Virginian who will try to retain his mantle as the world's best all-around swimmer in the 400-meter individual medley. "In the U.S., swimming is way down on the popularity ladder. We have had so much fun down here. Swimming isn't just on the cover of the sports page; it's on the cover of the paper, period. We know we're the No. 1 show in Sydney, and that only motivates us more."
Coaches from both teams have tried to downplay the rivalry between superpower and a nation of fewer than 20 million, but the drums have been beating over their battle since the Pan Pacific Championships here last year.
It will begin with a bang tonight, as Australian Ian Thorpe tries to lower his world record in the 400 freestyle and the United States attempts to maintain its dominance in the men's and women's 400 freestyle relays.
Gary Hall, the fastest American sprinter ever, figures to be in the relay. After he said that the Americans would smash the Australians "like a guitar," Aussie long-distance freestyler Kieren Perkins countered that "I don't take a lot of notice of drug cheats."
Hall hasn't exactly gotten ahead with performance-enhancing substances. He served a three-month suspension in 1998, when he tested positive for marijuana. The free spirit has since been found to be diabetic and is never without several doses of insulin.
Swimmers and other endurance athletes were targeted by the International Olympic Committee when it added testing for EPO, which boosts the ability of oxygen-carrying red blood cells and is believed to enhance performance in endurance sports.
Hall, Thompson, and Dara Torres are among the dozens of world-class swimmers whose regimens include a wide spectrum of dietary supplements.
Thorpe and Susie O'Neill are the Australian stars. Thompson, 27, and Torres, 33, head an American women's team that for the first time is more mature than the men's. Dolan and backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg, another world-record holder, are 24, but they were surrounded by teen-agers in the men's team photo.
"The young guys on this team are great," said Tom Malchow, the world-record holder in the 200 butterfly. "They've revived the team a little bit, lightened up the atmosphere. In their naivete, they don't know enough to be scared."
The second American entry in Malchow's event is Michael Phelps, a 15-year-old from Towson's Rodgers Forge section who became the youngest male on the U.S. team since 1932 when he chopped seven seconds off his time between last year and the U.S. trials. A month later, he's in his first international competition.
Fellow Baltimorean Tommy Hannan will swim in the 100 butterfly, and he could pick up a gold medal in the 400 medley relay if he helps the United States in the preliminary or final next weekend.
He and Phelps have sought advice from veterans such as Dolan and Malchow on how best to deal with surroundings that could produce a crowd as rowdy as a basketball gathering at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"They tell us about the 'Pan Pacs' here last year and Atlanta four years ago," Hannan said before his Friday morning workout. "The noise is going to be a lot more deafening. No matter how much you prepare for it, you are going to be amazed by this place."
Australian men's coach Don Talbot poor-mouthed his team's chances. He pooh-poohed the rivalry, as did American coaches Richard Quick and Mark Schubert, who pointed out that sprinters such as Sweden's Therese Alshammar and Russia's Alexander Popov will keep the Games from becoming a two-nation test.
"This is not a dual meet," Schubert said. "There are a number of men from other countries [who] are seeded first. We are here to race the world."