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, Marion Jones, failed to qualify in her signature events -
the 100 and 200 meters (she withdrew from the 200, citing fatigue). …