Let the Games begin

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Let the Games begin

The Olympics have returned to their birthplace. Starting with the opening ceremony at 2:45 a.m. tomorrow (Korea time), billions will be watching the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, as new stars are born and old records shattered. There will be much to see.
In light of recent drug scandals, track and field records will take on new meaning. In basketball, some think longtime U.S. domination of the sport might be seriously challenged this year. In soccer, Greece’s recent win at the 2004 Euro has made the host country a dark horse (Greece fought Korea to a draw Wednesday in the first, pre-opening-ceremony round of competition).
Korea’s major broadcasters, KBS, SBS and MBC, will be providing coverage ― most of it tape-delayed, since the major events will mostly play out in the early morning, Korea time. KBS, which has two channels, plans to show tape-delayed coverage from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily on KBS 1, and highlights from 8 to 9 a.m. on KBS 2. MBC will air daily coverage from 8:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a 20-minute break around noon; it will also air selected events some nights after 10 p.m. SkyLife, a satellite TV provider, will have 20 hours of coverage daily, from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m., but it will only be available to subscribers who have high-definition TV sets. (For a comprehensive Olympic schedule, see the official site at www.athens2004.com.)
Today’s J-Weekend offers a glimpse of what’s ahead. On this page are previews of some of the major sports; turn to Page W3 for a breakdown of Korea’s best hopes for gold. Other Olympics-related stories can be found on Page W2.

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Basketball
Considering the United States’s 109-2 Olympic record in basketball, some viewers might wonder why they should bother to watch an event in which every country but one seems to be fighting for the silver medal. But if a couple of exhibition games are any indication, this year’s Olympics might offer much closer contests than expected ― maybe even a different gold medalist.
The U.S. team lost 95-78 to unheralded Italy, and squeaked by with a buzzer-beater against Germany, 80-77. While the United States undoubtedly has the most talent (and the highest payroll) of the 12 countries in competition, the diversity of the NBA has given other nations a talent pool which, though not equal, is surely competitive.
China’s Yao Ming, a two-time NBA All-Star playing for the Houston Rockets, and Manu Ginobili, the San Antonio Spurs’ swingman from Argentina, are two players who will try to rally their countrymen against the nation where they’re employed. Expect to see stiff defense and precise three-point shooting against the defending champions (the three-point line is about three feet closer to the basket than in NBA rules). The men’s gold medal match will be at 4:30 a.m. Aug. 29 (all times listed in this article are Korea Standard Time).

Weightlifting
Weightlifting will be closely watched by the Greeks, as two of their countrymen try to win a fourth consecutive gold medal each. Pyrros Dimas and Akakios Kakiasvilis, both of whom have been on gold-medal streaks since the Barcelona Games in 1992, will try to make history in the 85-kilogram and 94-kilogram classes, respectively. Both athletes changed their citizenship in the early ’90s (from Albania and Georgia).
In women’s weightlifting, which was introduced at the Sydney Games, China is a dominating force; of the seven available golds at Sydney, four were taken by China.
Hossein Rezazadeh of Iran is the clear favorite to win a medal in the men’s over-105-kilogram class, as he is the current world recordholder in snatch (213 kilograms), clean-and-jerk (263 kilograms) and total (472.5 kilograms).
The men’s over-105-kilogram competition will begin at 10:30 p.m. Aug. 25.

Soccer
Italy, Argentina and Portugal are expected to vie for the gold here, with Euro 2004 winner Greece as the dark horse.
Competition began Wednesday, two days before the opening ceremony; Korea and Greece fought to a 2-2 draw. Play will continue to Aug. 29, in five cities ― Athens, Volos, Heraklio, Thessaloniki and Patras. The finals will be in Athens Olympic Stadium.
In total, 16 men’s teams will compete in four rounds (preliminaries, quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals), and 10 women’s teams in three (quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals).
Mexico, making its ninth appearance, and Mali, which beat out defending gold medalist Cameroon in the qualifying rounds, are other medal hopefuls. Players must be under 23 years old, with the exception of three players per team.
On the women’s side, 2003 World Cup champion Germany, China, Sweden and the United States, which dominated women’s soccer in the ’90s and was the driving force behind it, are earmarked as potential medal winners in Athens.
The women’s gold medal match starts at 3 a.m. Aug. 27, the men’s at 2 a.m. Aug. 29.

Swimming
Records are meant to be broken, especially at the Olympics. In swimming, in which every split-second counts, athletes have been trying to break not only speed records, but the record held by Mark Spitz of the United States, who won seven gold medals in 1972 in Munich. At the Athens Games, all eyes will be on Michael Phelps of the United States, who has the potential to win eight golds.
But even without Phelps, the U.S. swimming team would be one of the best, if not the best, period. This year, it boasts world record holders in seven events: Phelps in the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medleys and the 200-meter butterfly; Brendan Hansen in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke; Aaron Peirsol in the 200-meter backstroke, and Ian Crocker in the 100-meter butterfly.
The Australians will offer stiff competition as Ian Thorpe, winner of three golds at the Sydney Games, competes in the 200-meter freestyle, while Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima, a former world record holder, will participate in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.
The finals for the men’s 100-meter breaststroke will be at 2 a.m. Aug. 16; for men’s 100-meter backstroke, 2 a.m. Aug. 17; for men’s 100-meter freestyle, 2:15 a.m. Aug. 19; and for men’s 100-meter butterfly, 1:30 a.m. Aug. 21.

Track & Field
In track and field (or “athletics,” as it’s also known), U.S. presence will be felt in the short- to medium-range running events, while long-distance events will be dominated by athletes from such African countries as Ethiopia and Kenya. The United States will field a formidable men’s 100-meter lineup consisting of Maurice Greene, Justin Gatlin and Shawn Crawford. Greene, a three-time world champion, will defend his gold medal.
In the men’s marathon, expect the Kenyans to bring finally bring home Olympic gold. More than half of the world’s top 20 male marathoners are from Kenya, including Sammy Korir, Martin Lel and Evans Rutto. Jaouad Gharib of Morocco, the 2003 world champion, is another strong contender.
Paula Radcliffe from Britain is the current world recordholder in the women’s marathon, but even here, Kenya has a few medal contenders. Catherine Ndereba, ranked first in the world, and defending bronze medalist Joyce Chepchumba should have strong showings. Elfensh Alemu of Ethiopia, who finished sixth at Sydney, is poised to go out with a big bang.
The finals in the women’s 100-meter will be at 4:55 a.m. Aug. 22, the men’s at 5:10 a.m. Aug. 23. The women’s marathon starts at midnight Aug. 22, the men’s at midnight Aug. 29.


by Brian Lee
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