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Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Phelps, 100 meters headline men's events

By Jeff Merron
ESPN.com

Thirty-four sports, hundreds of individual events, thousands of television hours. What's a sports fan to do? Grab a couple of screens with picture-in-picture, load up on snacks, and keep this handy guide right there on the coffee table.

Oh, and don't forget to get up once in awhile and get some exercise yourself. NBC plans to beam 4,700 holographed hours in 2048. You'll want to be around for that.

A look at the 10 best storylines in Athens among male athletes:

Feel-good phenom: Webb (1500 meters)

Alan Webb
One of the 10 best storylines in Athens among male athletes? Try Alan Webb, who has cut three seconds off his mile time.
No American miler has inspired more excitement since Jim Ryun's heyday, which was -- well, probably before your time. Alan Webb, who's only 21 and has been completely untainted by the track drug scandals, has a history of improving in chunks. Webb's 3:53 in 2001, which broke Ryun's prep record, was Webb's personal best by more than six seconds.

He returned to the headlines this year by twice running a 3:50, a 3-second improvement. Can he make another leap in Athens? Maybe. He has won three major races this year, and he has the speed to compete with the world's best in what's likely to be a tactical race.

Others to watch: Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, the world record holder, is in top form. He ran the second fastest 1500 in the world this year in Friday's close loss to Kenya's Bernard Lagat in Zurich. El Guerrouj has dominated the 1500 and mile for years, but he has never won gold. Lagat and Paul Korir of Kenya are also favorites.

When to watch: Round 1, Aug. 20; semifinals, Aug. 22; finals, Aug. 24.

Faster than a Thorpedo? Phelps takes aim at eight (swimming)

Can Michael Phelps win eight golds and top Mark Spitz's record? That seems to be the hot question pool side. The feat will be more difficult than the speculation implies; as of this writing, it's still up in the air whether he'll be on two or three relay teams. Phelps will compete in five individual events: the 200 freestyle, 100 butterfly, 200 Butterfly, 200 individual medley, and 400 IM.

Others to watch: Aussie Ian Thorpe goes for a 100-200-400 triple in the free, and will also be on three relay teams that will contend. American Ian Crocker holds the world record in the 100 fly, and could burst Phelps gold bubble.

When to watch: It's likely that Phelps will be competing every day between Aug. 14-21. The 200 free final is on Monday; the 200 fly final is on Tuesday.

The Answer? Gold ? maybe (basketball)

By now you've heard the news: the not-so-dreamy team isn't going to have a layup for the gold. The team has several worthy opponents, besides itself and that mysterious hotel operator who leaves wake-up calls.

Lithuania, last year's European champs, almost beat the Americans in Sydney and will be led again by guard Sarunas Jasikevicius.

Serbia and Montenegro has depth but will be competing without Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac.

Argentina, led by Manu Ginobili, will be hard to beat in the medal round.

And then there's China, a long shot that will be fun to watch, with a frontcourt featuring Yao and Yi, the next Yao, a 7-foot 16-year-old.

When to watch: The United States begins play on Sunday against Puerto Rico. Then it's U.S. vs. Lithuania on Aug. 21, and U.S. vs. China on Aug. 22.

The Midwestern golden boy: Hamm (gymnastics)

Paul Hamm
Paul Hamm is the first U.S. male athlete to win the World all-around championship.
Paul Hamm, 21, won the 2003 World all-around championship with a spectacular high-bar routine that gave him a slight edge over China's Yang Wei. He was first U.S. male to win the title, and will also contend for medals in the individual high bar and floor exercise events. Hamm's young, but he's a five-year national team veteran who competed in Sydney in 2000.

Others to watch: Russia's "Sexy Aleksei" Nemov, has pocketed a dozen medals in two Olympics, including a gold in the all-around in 2000. Paul's twin brother, Morgan Hamm, will be a strong contender for medals in the floor exercise (he finished seventh in 2000) and the high bar.

When to watch: All-around final, Aug. 18; floor exercise final, Aug. 22; high bar final, Aug. 23.

Does your ego count on the lean? If so, Mo Greene (100 meters)

The 100 is the most overrated 10 seconds in sports. There's too much false talk about this event determining the "world's fastest man," a long, long buildup on the night it's broadcast, and then, before you know it, it's over, and you're left wondering what the big deal was in the first place. Remind you of anything?

That said, this year's 100 is a must-Tivo because it could be a thousandth-of-a-second photo finish. All three U.S. qualifiers -- Maurice Greene, Shawn Crawford, and Justin Gatlin -- will make it to the final, and there's a chance the U.S. will sweep. Greene will preen, but we think he'll lose, as he has in his last three races. Jamaica's Asafa Powell, who beat Greene in Zurich last Friday, could win and is likely to break up the Americans.

The 200 is a more interesting event because it really decides the world's fastest human. You can actually see it unfold, and there's a turn and everything. The big deal here will be to see if the 100 winner can double up on gold (we like Crawford's chances best), but that will be a foregone conclusion before NBC runs it on delay.

When to watch: 100 meter final, Aug. 22; 200 meter final, Aug. 26.

Next has arrived: Bekele (5K and 10K)

Kenenisa Bekele, a 22-year-old Ethiopian, quietly (at least in the U.S.) has already set world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 this year. Within 10 days in late May/early June, he broke countryman Haile Gebrselassie's 5K mark by 2 seconds and his 10K mark by 2.5. You've probably never heard his name before, but he's not a newcomer on the international scene. In the 2003 world championships, he won the 10K and took silver in the 5K. But some think Bekele's world records mean he has peaked too early in the season. Gebrselassie, the gold medalist in both 1996 and 2000 and probably the greatest distance runner ever, will be running in his last Olympic 10K, and has clocked the third-fastest time in the world this year.

When to watch: 5,000 meter final, Aug. 28; 10,000 meter final, Aug. 20.

Hold on! Don't forget Gardner and Sanderson

Rulon Gardner scored the biggest upset in Olympic history in Sydney, beating the unbeatable Russian, Aleksandr Karelin, for the heavyweight crown. Gardner's back to defend his title despite a series of serious setbacks, including the loss of a toe, in the past few years. His toughest competitor will be Mihaly Deak-Bardos of Hungary, who has been a heavyweight bridesmaid for many years (thanks to Karelin and then Gardner). Also watch for Russian Khassan Baroev.

Cael Sanderson, a 185-pound freestyle wrestler, went 185-0 in college, an unprecedented feat. But he's not unbeatable: he lost in the 2003 world championships to Russia's Sazhid Sazhidov. And this year, Lee Fullhart beat him in the U.S. Nationals.

When to watch: Greco-Roman super-heavyweight final, Aug. 25; freestyle 185-pound semifinals, Aug. 28.

Where it's not just a pastime: Japan vs. Cuba (baseball)

No U.S. team? It's too bad the Americans won't be in Greece to defend the gold they won in Sydney, but that doesn't mean there won't be some great action on the diamond. Cuba and Japan are both strong, and though the game isn't the "national pastime" in either country, it is the national obsession in both. Cuba's a heavy favorite, but Japan has a chance to upset. Also fielding strong teams: Canada and Australia.

Some individual players to keep your eye on:

Japan: Second baseman Tadahito Iguchi has the power: 27 dingers in 2003. Pitcher Koji Uehara has faced Barry Bonds, and left him blinking three times in one game. Tsuyoshi Wada, a lefty pitcher, was last year's Pacific League rookie of the year who came through in the clutch in Game 7 of the 2003 Japan Series.

Canada: Adam Loewen, a 6-foot-6 lefty flamethrower, is a 20-year-old who can hit 96 mph on the radar gun. Picked fourth overall in the 2002 draft by the O's, Loewen was considered, in the spring, among the best mound prospects in the low minors.

Catcher Pete LaForest, a 26-year-old Devil Rays prospect, has been struggling at the plate for the Triple A Durham Bulls this season (.311 OBP, .366 slugging), but has played well in Olympic qualifying competition and has already seen some major league action.

Australia: Catcher David Nilsson will be a familiar face to Brewers fans; he played eight major league seasons in Milwaukee, hitting .284 lifetime with some power. He was an All-Star in 1999. In 1996, his best season, he hit .331 with 17 HR and 84 RBI in 123 games.

Pitcher Chris Oxspring is a top pitching prospect in the Padres organization; throwing for the Triple A Portland Beavers this season, he has gone 5-4 with a 3.87 ERA.

Cuba: The island has a slew of new stars, and at least a few will probably, over the next few years, try to make their way to the U.S. Among the best: Yuliesky Gourriel, a 20-year-old second baseman, and outfielder Osmani Urrutia, Cuba's top hitter.

When to watch: Cuba vs. Australia, Sunday; Cuba vs. Japan, Aug. 17; Japan vs. Australia, Aug. 18; Japan vs. Canada, Aug. 20; Cuba vs. Canada, Aug. 21; Australia vs. Canada, Aug. 22; semifinals, Aug. 24; final and bronze medal game, Aug. 25.

Return to Olympia (shot put)

Normally the shot put is not a "must see" event, but this year is different, and truly special, because the competition will be held at Olympia, among the ruins of the ancient Olympic stadium. Nobody has competed there for thousands of years, but 15,000 spectators will sit on grassy slopes to watch both the men's and women's prelims and finals all in one day of action, Nice bonus for U.S. viewers: Americans have a good chance to sweep, with Adam Nelson (2004 top throw: 71-1.5), Reese Hoffa (2004 top throw: 71-1.25) and John Godina (2004 top throw: 71-2.75) all potential gold medalists.

When to watch: Aug. 18, both prelims and finals.

The border is pain: Canada vs. U.S. in Men's Eight rowing

The Eight's the best, and most difficult, of all the rowing events; some would argue it's one of the most physically demanding events in all of sport, with teams going all out for 2000 meters. Canada's eight, coached by Mike Spracklen, won the 2002 and 2003 world championships, and is the gold medal favorite. But also watch the U.S. men, who were second in the world last year. They're led by veteran Bryan Volpenhein, who was on the World Championship crews of 1998 and 1999.

When to watch: Aug. 22.

Jeff Merron is a staff writer for ESPN.com.