Does crown fit?

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING - On the dais, side by side, sat the king and queen of the XXIX Olympiad. His excellency, Michael. Her majesty, Dara.

If there was any doubt about who had been anointed the respective titles of Golden Boy and Golden Girl of these Games, consider it gone.

The opening ceremony isn't until tonight. Not a single swimming event has been contested. No one has stepped onto a medal stand. And no athlete has been the first across the finish line. Yet one pair of Olympic royalty is already certifiably gold. One half is the real deal and deserving, the other masked with made-for-TV glitter and a rather dull luster.

Even if you tie an anchor to one of his ankles, Michael Phelps will be deservingly portrayed as the king of these Games. And over the next several days, he'll validate that honor.

But Dara Torres is Team USA's female athlete most worthy of our praise, devotion and adulation? Feel free to furrow your brow.

We don't know whether Torres is more Marion Jones or Mary Lou Retton, yet you should prepare to be force-fed her story line ad nauseum over the next week. Pardon the cynicism, but we could do better. In fact, you don't even have to let your eyes wander off the swim team roster to find a more worthy candidate.

She probably wouldn't even want it, but Katie Hoff, who like Phelps came through the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, is more deserving of the attention, the praise and the spotlight. The U.S. Olympic Committee, NBC and every housewife, swim fan and Dara-backer heaping praise on the 40-something swimmer, has really missed the boat.

Earlier this week, USA Swimming held two introductory news conferences for reporters all around the world. Phelps and Torres made up the elite A Group. Hoff was mixed in with the second team, one of eight on the podium - almost an afterthought, even though she stands to win more medals than just about any other athlete at these Games.

Yet it was Torres who drew the curiosity and the cameras. It was Torres who flashed that smile for Billy Bush of Access Hollywood. It was Torres who was not only given top billing but who actively wanted it.

"I just want to go out there for those 40-something-year-olds and show them age is just a number," Torres said, knowing her audience and nailing her talking points. "It's a great feeling to go out there at my age and do what I'm doing."

Maybe it's unfair to blame Torres. She's just capitalizing on the intrigue. She's 41 years old. She's the mother of a 2-year-old girl. And she's competing in her fifth Olympics. She's also a master at public relations and has two book deals already signed.

Rest assured, though Torres is twice Hoff's age, Torres is not half the swimmer.

Before we travel much farther down this path, let's point out that Hoff doesn't feel snubbed at all. In fact, it's somewhat of a relief for her that there's someone else to shine brightly and draw international cameras and tape recorders like needy flies.

"I'm totally fine just flying under the radar," Hoff said. "It kind of just takes the pressure off me a little bit. I'm not dealing with all the media hype or that kind of pressure, so it's kind of nice."

But the Olympics aren't about who's oldest. Whose hair highlights best match Bush's. Or who can smile on command.

What happened to fastest, highest, strongest?

Hoff is the most dominant female representing the United States these next couple of weeks. While Torres competes in just one individual event and a pair of relays, Hoff is scheduled for five individual races, plus a relay. And she legitimately has a shot at winning a medal in all six events.

Starting tomorrow night, Hoff is scheduled to swim 13 times over the next eight days. She'll likely leave China with more medals than anyone other than Phelps. And yet, Torres is on center stage.

I don't mind honoring a mom, an athlete who has aged and still manages to compete near the top of her game. Basketball star Lisa Leslie is 36. Like Torres, she has spent time modeling. She has a beautiful daughter, less than 14 months old, and she has won gold at the past three Olympics.

But Torres? Around the pool, many in the swimming community have their suspicions about the exact validity of her accomplishments. There's no evidence that she's cheating, other than the fact that she's nearing midlife and swimming faster than ever before. To quell questions, she has volunteered for a special drug-testing program, but even that offers no guarantees. (Here's what Mark Spitz said recently to the Los Angeles Times: "She's obviously drug-free of what they test for." Whether he intended it or not, the implication seems to be that if Torres is doing something wrong, she's likely light-years ahead of the testers.)

If Torres ever is caught, it might not matter. She'll have basked in the Beijing spotlight. She'll have cashed those checks (Toyota, Speedo, plus at least a couple of million for the books). She'll serve out her reign before anything can come close to tainting her crown.

It's just too bad. Hoff is a better fit, a better candidate. She's younger - only 19 - so she doesn't necessarily have the seasoned charisma. But she isn't in Beijing to flirt with cameras, cater to corporate sponsors or woo mainstream America.

Hoff is here to win.

There once was a time when the Olympics rewarded athleticism, not self-promotion. While Hoff rides in the back seat during the next several days, her reward will have to be medals.

While they might be a pain to get through the airport security, at least they offer some semblance of permanency, which is more than anyone can feel comfortable saying about Torres' reign as the Golden Girl of these Games.

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