For the past two weeks, Americans have gotten an early glimpse of the Summer Games. At opposite ends of California, the nation's elite runners and swimmers have gathered to book their places in Athens - and sketch the story lines that will soon become the grand narrative of these Olympic Games.
Yet a month before the Games begin, a major part of the American plot is already becoming clear. When the Olympic flame is eventually extinguished, the most enduring athletic images of these Olympics might well come from a group of goggle-eyed swimmers, not from the slick-suited sprinters who - to many Americans - have long embodied the Games themselves.
Backstroker Aaron Peirsol, after all, is not dogged by drug allegations. Michael Phelps is on track for his seven-gold goal. In contrast with the US Track and Field trials, which mixed accomplishment with equal measures of disappointment and doubt, the US swim trials seemed part carnival, part coronation, as one of the most talented squads in recent memory made an obvious statement of intent on the way to Athens.
The men, in particular, represent the strongest team in a generation, and perhaps the best since the 1976 team, which won every gold except one and swept the medals in five of 11 events. Almost certainly, their broad shoulders will be on the podium, their faces will be everywhere on American TV, and - with no drug scandal in sight - their names could be the most memorable of this Olympiad.
"I don't think there's any question that the swimmers have the potential - from a personality and performance perspective - to take center stage at these Games," says Dean Bonham of the Bonham Group, a sport-marketing firm in Denver.
Not that Phelps and Co. will lack for competition in the quest for American attention this summer. The women's gymnastics team is considered the best that the US has ever sent to an Olympic Games. And even with its problems, America's track and field team remains the strongest in the world, with the possibility of a US sweep in the Olympics' marquee event: the men's 100-meter dash.
Yet if the past fortnight is indeed a foretaste of Athens, swim caps and shark suits could replace track spikes and leotards as the ultimate Olympic power suit for two weeks in August.
Part of that comes from track's recent penchant for self- destruction. Just as the US Track and Field trials seemed to be emerging from the mist of scandal, one of the women who qualified for the 100-meter dash learned that she had tested positive for a banned substance. It also didn't help that the sport's premier superstar, …