The Athens extravaganza

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

High-voltage competition at the Athens Olympics keeps sports lovers the world over enthralled for sixteen days.

recently in Athens

THE 28th Olympiad held in Athens, Greece, has now become history. To say it was memorable is a classic understatement. Every component that goes to make the Olympics a summit of human endeavour and achievement was there this time too. Excitement, tension, drama, drugs, controversies, and fresh conquests gave the 2004 Olympics its share of spice and substance.

Sifting through the maze of facts and figures in the 28 disciplines can be daunting, even Herculean. At the end of it dawns the reality that the United States, with a haul of 103 medals, 35 of them gold, continues to be the powerhouse of sport, way ahead of its archrival Russia. However, this time the Asian giant China inched closer to the U.S. in the medal hunt, with a gold medal tally of 32. Interestingly, the Athens Olympics reflects the heartening trend of sport becoming more universal and a medium for projecting national identity. It explains the presence of a country like Eritrea on the medal board.

What set the tenor for 16 days of sporting extravaganza was the grand opening ceremony, clouded though by the drug probe involving Greek sprinters Kostas Kenderis and Katerina Thanou. And once the show unfolded, the quest for glory was relentless.

It is futile to identify a hero from the 10,000-plus competitors. Every discipline displayed one or even two. But the one projected as a would-be hero was the U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps. Aquatics enjoys special attention at the Olympic Games. And sure enough it did in Athens. As many as three world and 17 Olympic records were made in the discipline, mirroring the rare intensity that characterised aquatic events at Athens.

It was not statistics alone that kept the fervour up. The duels were absorbing, even sensational. Phelps came to win eight golds and overhaul fellow American Mark Spitz's record of seven golds made at the 1972 Olympics. But that did not happen. Instead the 19-year-old won six gold and two bronze medals. While his classic battle against the Australian Ian Thorpe in 200 metres freestyle brought him only a bronze, he established his authority in individual medley (IM), especially with his world record of 4:08.26s in the 400m IM.

But more than Phelps, it was the achievement of American Jenny Thompson that needs to be commended. Her 10-medal haul in the Olympics was historic, and surpassed those of compatriots Spitz and Matt Biondi. The U.S. dominance in the pool was absolute with 28 medals, 19 of them gold, followed by Australia with 15 (including 12 golds). China's 11th place in aquatics was somewhat shocking.

But when it came to diving, the Chinese were outstanding - they claimed nine medals, six of them gold, three silver and one bronze. Bo Peng won the gold in the three-metre springboard and Hu Jia in the 10 metres platform.

YELENA ISINBAYEVA of Russia symbolised the new face of athletics in a difficult event like pole-vaulting. She set a world record of 4.91m. in women's pole vault. Equally enchanting was Xiang Liu's performance in the 110m hurdles to level the world record of Briton Colin Jackson at 12.91 seconds; he set an Olympic record too in the process.

The U.S. sweep in the 200 m race was led by Shawn Crawford and in 400m by Jeremy Wariner. Kenya maintained its dominance in steeplechase by making a clean sweep of the three medals with Eziekel Kemboi claiming the gold. Russian women, with Tatayana Lebdeva at the vanguard, did the same in long jump.

Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia won the 10,000 metres gold from compatriot and double Olympic champion Haile Gabreselassie, who finished fifth this time.

El Guerrouj, the Moroccan sensation, etched a new page in history when he took a rare golden double in 1500m and 5000m. The four-time 1500m world champion claimed the metric mile from Kenyan Bernard Legat, while in the latter event he beat Bekele, the world record holder, in a tight finish.

There were great moments such as the Czech athlete Roman Sebrle realising his dream of an Olympic gold in decathlon and the glorious double of Kelly Holmes of Britain in the 800m and 1500m. But it was disappointment for the Czech champion Jan Zelezny, who came with the hope of bagging his fourth javelin gold in five Olympic appearances and faded away to the ninth position. The defeat of the U.S. in the men's 4 x 100 m relay by Great Britain for the second time in Olympic history was shocking; the U.S.' last defeat in the event was in 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics. The resilience of the 44-year-old Jamaican athelete Merlene Ottey, competing for Slovenia in her seventh Olympics and making it to the semi-finals, was commendable.

Stefano Baldini of Italy won the men's marathon, hours before the closing ceremony, in a bizarre race that placed Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil in the third position. De Lima's substantial lead in the race was compromised when a spectator entered the road six kilometres from the finish and pushed him into the crowd. It took more than a minute for the Brazilian to tear himself away, join the race and strike rhythm. But he could eventually manage only a bronze. The IOC, however, honoured him with the Baron Pierre Coubertin medal for fair play.

Apart from producing a few surprise results here and there, the Athens Olympics witnessed the traditional powers holding fort, although alive to new and emerging challenges. Archery is one area where South Koreans found the gap narrowing. For six Olympics in a row, Korea's domination has been unchallenged. At Athens, it won three of the four gold medals in men's archery. The Korean image suffered when Marco Galiazzo of Italy slotted gold in the men's individual competition, becoming Italy's first Olympic champion in the sport. As for the Korean women, they have won all the 11 gold medals on offer since 1984 when the discipline was introduced. Interestingly, 11 of the 43 nations that took part in archery had Korean coaches.

The Chinese found their dominance challenged in table tennis, badminton and gymnastics, but managed to extend their authority in weight-lifting, shooting and volleyball (in which they scored a nerve-tingling victory over the Russians to grab gold). In table tennis, China lost the men's singles to Korea's Seung Min Ryu, but took the rest of the four golds. Singapore's Li Jia Wei caused a great upset in the women's singles when she outplayed the Olympic and World Champion, Nan Wang of China, in the quarterfinal. The women's singles gold went to Zhang Yining of China.

In badminton, too, Chinese women took the three available golds. The prestigious men's singles title went to Indonesia's Taufiq Hidayat, while South Koreans won both the doubles gold and silver; Ha Tae Kwon and Kim Dong Moon won the doubles title.

China excelled in shooting, bagging four out of the nine golds. Even on day one, China asserted its supremacy with the 22-year-old Li Du winning the gold in the women's air rifle competition. The contests were close and exhilarating. The other medals were shared by Russia, Germany, the U.S. and South Korea. For India, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore's silver in men's double trap shooting was memorable.

In gymnastics, Romanian girls held the stage with remarkable performances. The star was Catalina Ponor with three gold medals in the team, beam and floor exercises. The media hype surrounding the U.S. sensation Paul Hamm somewhat overshadowed the Romanian symphony. In the end, he could show only one gold (men's individual all round) and two silvers (team and horizontal bar). The other U.S. star was Carly Patterson with three medals, one gold (team), and two silvers (all round and beam). Hiroyoki Tomita and Takehiro Kashima of Japan were two other excellent performers.

The popularity rating of beach volleyball was striking. The matches stretched to the wee hours, but the crowds did not mind and enjoyed every bit of the action. The game, introduced at the Atlanta Olympics, was a U.S. preserve but this time Brazilians Ricardo Santos and Emmanuel Rego, the reigning world champions, anchored the gold shutting out the surprise Spanish finalists, Javier Bosma and Pablo Herrera. Kerri Walsh and Misty May of the U.S. won the gold in the women's beach volleyball.

The final rankings in both men's and women's hockey pleasantly shocked many. Australia realised its golden dream, beating the defending champion, the Netherlands, with a golden goal by Jaime Dwyer. The Aussies thereby prevented a Dutch hat-trick in the Olympics. The Dutch, striving to take both the men's and women's titles, had to be content with two silvers. Surprising was the maiden victory for Germany in the women's hockey final. Australia, hunting for the third successive gold, tumbled to the fifth slot, failing even to make the grade. A matter of distress, however, was the failure of the three Asian teams - Pakistan, India and Korea - to make it into the semi-finals.

One discipline that attracted enormous attention both for the good and the ugly was weightlifting. Statistically, 47 world and Olympic records were rewritten at Athens 2004. Turkey's Halil Mutlu became the fourth man to win three successive gold medals in three consecutive Olympics. China gathered five golds and three silvers. Nineteen-year-old Young Liu Chonghong of China created records in each of her five lifts and ended the event holding six world records in the 69 kg division. But the suspension of five competitors - two from India - for testing positive clouded the event. The President of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), Dr. Tamas Ajan, summed up the situation with a touch of poignancy when he said: "One of my eyes is smiling at the good competition, the presence of 261 athletes from 79 countries, the excellent facilities at the Nikaia Olympic Weightlifting Hall, and the Olympic spirit is here. The other eye is crying because of drug-taking by competitors."

The tennis singles gold went to Chile's Nicolas Massu. Massu along with compatriot Fernando Gonzalez, took the doubles gold, bringing Chile its first two Olympic golds. The best in the field in both men's and women's tennis did not survive the rigours - they included, apart from reigning Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, the Indian duo of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, who lost 14-16 in the final set of the match for the bronze medal. World No 1. Justine Henin-Hardenne won the first gold for Belgium in this Olympics, beating Amelie Mauresmo of France in straight sets (6-3, 6-3).

There were surprises in basketball, too, with the U.S. losing to Puerto Rico in the pool stage and to Argentina (81-89) in the semi-final. Argentina beat Italy 84-69 to clinch the gold.

If excellence is measured in golds, rower Matthew Pinsent of Great Britain is a sure candidate. When his squad beat Canada in the men's coxless fours, it gave Pinsent his fourth consecutive gold. As many as 22 countries won medals in rowing. The Aussies performed well overall, winning nine gold medals in swimming and five in cycling. Australian cyclist Ryan Bayley was the outstanding performer both in sprint and keirin events.

The U.S. women won the soccer gold beating Brazil 2-1, while Argentina beat Paraguay in the men's final to reaffirm the supremacy of South America in the sport. Similarly, Brazil won the volleyball gold in a tense contest against Italy in four sets (25-15, 24-26, 25-20, 25-22) while Russia picked up the bronze beating the U.S. (25-22, 27-25, 25-16).

Not surprisingly, Cuba, the nation that produced such outstanding pugilists as Teofelo Stevenson and Felix Savon, dominated the boxing ring, cornering five gold medals, two silvers and one bronze in the 11 weight categories. Mario Cesar Kindelan Mesa,the triple world champion, won his second Olympic gold beating 17-year-old Amir Khan of Britain. Another Cuban who held centre stage was Rogondeax Ortiz, the double Olympic gold medallist.

THE Athens Games will also be remembered for the war declared by the International Olympic Association (IOC) against those who cheated on drugs. As many as 3,000 samples were tested. Anyone refusing or trying to avoid providing samples were stripped of their medals. Hungary's Robert Fazekas was disqualified after he won the gold in discus throw for attempting to tamper with the samples. Shotputter Natalya Khoroneko tested positive. On the final day of the Games, IOC disqualified Hungary's Adrian Annus, a week after he won the hammer throw gold. Annus was deprived of his gold for avoiding an IOC directive to appear for a second test. And the war continues. "Keep the sport clean," declared IOC President Jacques Rogge at the closing ceremony.

The 75-member Indian contingent presented a miserable show, save for Rathore's silver. None of the Indian competitors can complain that they did not have enough opportunities to train. Almost in every discipline they had enough, probably more than they needed, exposure to international tournaments and training. The athletes were trained in Ukraine, the weightlifters in Belarus, the hockey team in the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands, and the shooters in every world-level event.

While Anju Bobby George's failure in long jump was a big let-down for sports lovers in India, a note of appreciation is well deserved for K.M. Binu who set a new national record in 400 metres (45.48s) and J.J. Shoba who came11th (6,172 points) in heptathlon. The 4 x 400m relay team made it to the final (3:26.89, national record) but finished seventh.

The Athens Games was remarkable for the enormous strides made in every aspect of sports planning and programming. It remains to be seen when India can match these organisational skills to host an Olympics.

The Games, which had returned to Greece, the land of its origin, came to a close on August 29. The next Olympics will be held in Beijing in 2008.

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