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ATHENS 2004 | Mike Penner / THE DAY IN ATHENS

Just When You Think It Can't Get Any Weirder

August 29, 2004|Mike Penner

ATHENS — It's all a bit of a haze now, but I can remember covering another Olympics in a foreign land -- Atlanta in '96, it was -- and watching an American colleague traipse all around the mountain bike venue, asking every mountain bike official he could find, with a straight face, "Is everybody in this sport on dope?"

He was talking about marijuana, and he was joking, of course. It was something to do to pass the time while searching the mountain bike course for an actual mountain.

He didn't find many officials who wanted to answer that question. We didn't find a mountain, either.

Atlanta had some glitches.

As interviewing techniques go, that's an opening line that's hard to forget. It popped quickly to mind here Saturday, a weird day in Athens, when:

* They had to hold up the United States-Lithuania bronze-medal men's basketball game because both teams showed up with white uniforms.

Rather than go shirts versus skins, officials delayed the start of the game about an hour while someone was dispatched to find the United States' red uniforms.

* American taekwondo player Steven Lopez began his first-round match by handing opponent Raid Rasheed of Iraq, a goodwill gift: a U.S. taekwondo T-shirt.

There probably are better ways for an American athlete to break the ice with an Iraqi opponent. The move also didn't endear Lopez to the fans, who booed Lopez and chanted, "Iraq! Iraq!" during Lopez's 12-0 victory.

* The U.S. men's 400-meter relay team, after talking of world records about to be broken, wound up finishing second to Britain. Part of the problem was a reshuffled American lineup, caused when John Capel, world 200-meter champion, failed a doping test.

For dope.

Capel tested positive for marijuana at a meet in Munich, Germany, this month. Marijuana is considered a minor drug by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and one positive test would not have prevented Capel from finishing these Olympics.

But U.S. track Coach George Williams played it safe and benched Capel.

Result: Williams' relay team proved in-Capel-ble of passing the baton smoothly. Shawn Crawford to Justin Gatlin was a little shaky. Gatlin to Coby Miller wound up with Gatlin spiking Miller's foot and Miller completing his 100-meter leg with a torn shoe.

It can be tough, trying to sprint 100 meters with a hole in your shoe.

The U.S. ended up losing the race, 38.07 seconds to 38.08.

The world record, the gold medal, up in smoke.

Some bad craziness was going around. But that was the tone of the day, and not just when U.S. athletes were involved.

Argentina, which hadn't won an Olympic gold medal in 52 years, won two in the same day.

First, Argentina defeated Paraguay, 1-0, in the men's gold-medal soccer match. Surprising? Well, yes. How could it be that Argentina had never before won the Olympic soccer tournament?

Later, Argentina won the men's basketball championship, defeating Italy in a basketball final that sounded like a soccer final.

Meanwhile, in a third-place basketball game that sounded like a bad joke, the United States scored more points in one game than any other team in the tournament -- 104 -- and defeated Lithuania for the bronze medal.

There's nothing like peaking at just the right time.

It was a remarkable performance, considering how much better the other option -- tank this thing and get out of town -- must have looked to the Queen Mary 2 gang.

But you have to hand it to them: In the game they seemed most likely to lose here, the Americans stood up and showed some pride.

And afterward, some anger.

Fourteen NBA players -- nearly three all-star teams -- turned down invitations to join Allen Iverson in Athens.

When it was finally over, Iverson complained about the no-shows, telling reporters, "Any person that's selected to a team like this, it shouldn't be a question in your mind. It shouldn't even be something to think about. You're honored to get a chance to represent your country, and what's better than that?

"Anybody that grew up in the U.S. and is able to be a basketball player in the NBA, you understand what that country has done for you and your family. It gave you an opportunity to support your family and be recognized as a household name. I mean, it's just an honor to be able to do something like that, and I would advise anybody that's selected to a team like this to take that honor and cherish it."

Some American professional basketball players get it. Their names are Dawn and Lisa and Sheryl and Tina, and they wouldn't dream of missing the chance to represent their country at Olympics, making them the real dream team here.

The U.S. women's basketball team defeated Australia for its third consecutive Olympic championship. The team's record in its last 25 Olympic games: 25-0.

When it came to team events, these Olympics will be remembered as the Games in which the American women came to play and the men didn't. Along with the contrasting basketball programs, consider this:

* On the soccer field, the U.S. women won gold, the U.S. men were eliminated in qualifying by Mexico.

* On the diamond, the U.S. women won gold in softball, the U.S. men's baseball squad was eliminated in qualifying by Mexico.

* On the sand, the U.S. women won beach volleyball gold, the U.S. men didn't get out of the quarterfinals.

A 47-year-old Olympic rookie named Martina Navratilova put it like this on the eve of the opening ceremony: "Women have been underestimated for a millennium. We do give birth. So right there, we have to be pretty tough."

Toughness counts at the Olympic Games. Attendance too.

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