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Progress Report on the Olympics in Athens

August 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: On the one hand after all the worry over security, drugs and incomplete facilities, the Olympics are underway. And the focus is mostly where it arguably belongs: On the athletics. On the other hand, for Americans at least, the athletic start has been shaky at best. Among the shakiest the U.S. men’s basketball team made up of NBA players, was trounced yesterday by Puerto Rico in its first game. It’s the first-ever loss for the U.S. with professionals playing.

Also yesterday the men’s swimming team had its worst showing ever in the 400-meter freestyle relay coming in third behind South Africa and the Netherlands. And today the most publicized of those swimmers, 19-year-old Michael Phelps, lost his much- anticipated showdown with Australian star Ian Thorpe in the 200-meter freestyle. Phelps finished third.

For an update from Athens I’m joined by Brian Cazeneuve, Olympics writer for Sports Illustrated now covering his 10th games.

And, Brian, welcome; let’s start at the pool where you were today. What’s the feeling among the swimmers about the competition so far?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Well, I think some of the U.S. swimmers have done very well. They got gold medals tonight from Aaron Piersal and Natalie Coughlin. I think as far as Phelps was concerned, he took on Australia’s Ian Thorpe in Thorpe’s premiere race or one of Thorpe’s best races, the 200 freestyle. Thorpe by contrast is not taking on Phelps in any of his good races. This was a personal best for Phelps in his attempt tonight. So I don’t think that he did all that badly. He has three medals in three races. The expectations were very, very high for him. He has done well. He is not going to break Mark Spitz’s record but it still could be a good performance for him nevertheless.

JEFFREY BROWN: The expectations were extremely high, weren’t they? I mean, he was the pre-Olympics… he was the story. So are people now thinking that this was over hyping of Michael Phelps?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Well, it might have been. Spitz won seven gold medals in 1972. That’s a feat that probably will not be duplicated in any of our lifetimes. Phelps went out to swim in eight races. He may still win eight medals. At this point the most he can win in terms of gold medals is six, four or five gold medals with eight total medals would still be an outstanding showing, one of the great performances in swimming history and Olympic history and because the expectations were so high, I hope that people don’t lose sight of that and keep it in its proper perspective.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now then there’s the basketball team; 12 years ago the so-called dream team trounced ever comer by more than 40 points a game. And now they’ve lost to Puerto Rico. What’s going on?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Well, first of all, back in 1992 in Barcelona when they trounced everybody, all of the top NBA players wanted to play, begged to play. This was a novelty so you had Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, some of the legends in the history of the game who were clamoring to be on that team. Isaiah Thomas one of the great players is probably still angry that he was not selected for that team. This time around some of the luster has kind of worn off. And some of the best players in today’s game– Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett– did not choose to play.

While there are NBA players on this team, it is not the first tier of players. And then to make matters worse along the way several players who had accepted invitations subsequently dropped out. So it with as very difficult for the coaching staff to plan ahead for other countries that have practiced together and played together in international competitions all over the world for a great many years. So this is a case of the whole being better than the sum of the parts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brian, another issue that we’ve been reading about is all the empty seats we see. It was very noticeable for those of us watching last night especially at the women’s gymnastics for example but I’ve seen it in other sports as well. Where are all the spectators?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Well, at the in-demand events, there are many people. The swimming was sold out. The opening ceremonies were sold out. I would assume that sports in which the Greek team is expected to do well such as weightlifting will be sold out. But there’s really been a drop-off between the in-demand events and some of the smaller events.

There have been crowds in the low hundreds in sports like archery and other sports and even in gymnastics which we in the United States consider to be a major sport. There were not big crowds. The Greeks have a couple of good gymnasts who will be competing later on in the games. And you can expect to see the crowds rise for that. But I think all along the Greeks were very sensitive about the lack of advance ticket sales and so they did not publicize very well the fact that there were a lot of tickets remaining. They’ve only done that in the last month or so and sales are picking up but again in the in- demand events — in the smaller events, very, very sparsely attended.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now what about some of the good news stories that perhaps were missing or not paying enough attention to? One I know that’s gotten some attention was the Iraqi soccer team — winning its first two games. Are there some individuals or teams that you’re watching for?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Well, I’ll start with the Iraqi soccer team that you mentioned. They’ve won their first two games against Portugal and Costa Rica. It was a real celebration, a real party on the field every time the Iraqis scored a goal their fans stormed the field and started celebrating, laughing, cheering. It’s a sort of liberation I think for some of the Iraqis, many of whom are recent expatriates. The Iraqi team as a matter of fact doesn’t even have a home to play in because right now their main stadium in Baghdad is being watched over by U.S. forces. Their home games have been played in Amman, Jordan.

So this has been, as I said, a real coming-out party for them, a real liberation for them. They’ve advanced because of their two victories into the quarter finals. And so that’s probably I think the real feel-good story of the games. As for something to look forward to that Americans, for example, may not be used to, the fencing team is very good here. We’ve never won a gold medal in Olympic fencing.

There’s a fencer named Sada Jacobsen who is an Ivy League student. She’ll be going for a gold medal. She’s the top ranked woman in the world in saber fencing. And later this week she’ll have a chance to win a gold medal and make history in a sport in which Americans are probably not that familiar.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brian, finally, after all the security concerns and concerns about not finishing all the infrastructure on time, what does it feel like there? Does it feel like an armed camp? Do things work?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Things have worked remarkably well under the circumstances. It doesn’t feel oppressive. There’s security where you’d expect there to be security in front of venues that are held for the sporting competitions in front of the major hotels. There is not an armed guard on every street corner. I don’t think the Greeks could afford to do that.

But also there’s a feeling of growing passion that’s sort of building with these games after I think the opening ceremonies that went off pretty smoothly. I think the closest comparison is the ’92 games in Barcelona. A smallish city in southern Europe that was very, very far behind schedule came through with wonderful games. People romanticize about those games and forget how far behind they were. The Athenians I think are hoping that their games will be remembered much as those were. So far they’ve off to a great start.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, and lots more action to come. Brian Cazeneuve from Sports Illustrated, thank you very much.