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SPORTS EXTRA: SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Fueling The Fire

The Home Team Is Awash With Anticipation Over Its Upcoming Battle With U.S. Swimmers

September 10, 2000|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Japanese women's 800-meter relay team relieved the Olympian intensity of the swimming ready room at the 1996 Games in Atlanta when it sauntered through, wearing Ronald McDonald fright wigs.

Australians Susie O'Neill and Nicole Stevenson sat in a corner and laughed at the sight, feeling pretty relaxed, despite the task ahead--swimming against a U.S. relay team anchored by Jenny Thompson. Stevenson, in fact, got up and started doing the hokey-pokey.

Never mind that the American women were drop-dead serious, forming a tight circle to psych themselves up. Stevenson danced around the circle, putting her right foot in and her left foot out, turning herself all around.

"The American girls kept shushing me, saying, 'Go away! Go away!' " said Stevenson, who is now a TV commentator, chuckling at the memory.

"It just shows the difference in cultures."

Yeah, and it has almost served as a metaphor--on that day, the U.S. won the gold, the Australians the bronze--for a budding Australian-American swimming rivalry. The Aussies have been around the pool for years, grabbing at the Americans' heels, causing a moment or two of consternation but never mounting a serious, lasting threat.

All it took was one teenager with huge feet and a spree of world records to turn that concept upside down. Seventeen-year-old Ian Thorpe, along with O'Neill, another world-record holder, and the home-pool advantage, have an entire nation eagerly awaiting Olympic swimming in Sydney, almost like kids on the night before Christmas.

For three weeks, Australia will have the rest of the world's attention. Australian pride runs deep--the hosts are desperate to impress--but most of what the Aussies do best did not make the Olympic sports menu. No cricket, no scuba diving, no Aussie Rules Football, no boomerang toss.

But there is swimming. Swimming is big in Australia, as big as baseball is in the States, which carries a certain amount of logic. What, after all, is Australia if not an oversized island?

And now the Aussies have a swim team to match the public passion, featuring a roster that includes four world-record holders--Thorpe, O'Neill, Michael Klim and Kieren Perkins.

"We respected them for being so knowledgeable about swimming, but we never really respected them as a major powerhouse in the world of team swimming," U.S. freestyler Josh Davis says. "After last year, that all changed. Now they're a major team, vying for the title of the world's great team."

To become that, the Aussies will have to gun down the world's greatest team, and Down Under, they spell thatU-S-and-A.

Already, the first salvos have been fired.

American sprinter Gary Hall Jr. said in his CNN/SI.com diary that the the Americans would smash the Australians "like guitars."

Perkins shot back by saying he didn't "take notice of drug cheats," a reference to Hall's 1998 three-month suspension after testing positive for marijuana.

O'Neill dismissed Hall's remark as so much hazy smoke.

"Nothing they say will motivate us more than we already are," she said.

"They are still the No. 1 swim nation, but have all the pressure at the moment. That's probably their reaction to it. Hopefully, they are a bit worried."

Aussie freestyler Grant Hackett said, "It's good for a bit of a laugh, I guess, but at this stage, talk's talk. Let's see what happens when we got in the water."

And when that happens, you can already predict the rest. Every heat, every race will be analyzed, dissected and second-guessed in the local media. The papers will print Australia-versus-USA tales of the tape, the television news will keep track of the medal standings, scoreboard-watching will become a national obsession.

"I don't know what kind of point system or medal total they'll use to determine [No. 1]," Davis says. "But I guarantee, they'll be keeping track of it.

"We kind of joked around that they weren't too worried about keeping track of it before. Now that they've got a shot, they'll put down every number, every medal they can think of.

"It means a great deal to them. If you wrap the NFL, baseball and basketball all into one, that's swimming there right now."

Also, the home team needs a foil. Unless it's Tiger Woods in golf, a rivalry helps propel and sell a sport--Cowboys-Redskins, Dodgers-Giants, Lakers-Trail Blazers, Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi.

The U.S. swimmers have been appointed official antagonists of the Sydney Olympics.

"The Olympic Games always benefits when you have somebody to root for and somebody to root against," said TV commentator John Naber, who won four gold medals for the United States at the 1976 Games. "This rivalry is clearly designed to feed that frenzy. Historically speaking, the Aussies have been very good at the sport of swimming and so has the U.S.

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