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Steve Kelley: At the Olympics

Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist for 25 years, is covering his eighth Olympics. He'll share news and tidbits as the Beijing Games unfold.

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August 23, 2008 8:32 PM

The Great Wall

Posted by Steve Kelley

At mid-morning Saturday, I was sitting on The Great Wall talking on my cell, doing a radio show back to Seattle on KJR and thinking how absolutely trippy this was. I was talking about Brandon Morrow and LeBron James on one of the most famous sites in the world. It was one of those moments when I realized how lucky I am.

It was affirming. I did, after all, make the right decision to leave the world of washer repair (which I was lousy at) to pursue a life as a sportswriter. (Insert your own joke here.)

I would have kicked myself all the way back to Seattle if I hadn't come here, to the Wall.

Once again, it was getting late in the Olympics and there was so much of Beijing I hadn't seen. That's the nature of the Olympics. It is consuming. The morning events are followed by the evening events, which are followed by a brief sleep and then the process is repeated. It happens like that for most of three weeks.

Let me make it clear, I'm not complaining. During the Atlanta Olympics, I didn't feel a compelling need to get out and about and away from the Olympics. But this is China. Who knows if I'll be back? And there is so much to see. How could I leave Beijing without a trip to the Wall?

Here's the good news. I have a friend, Karen Howard, who has cut my hair for more than 20 years. (The job is getting easier, as the hairline continues its rapid recession). She has a nephew named John Tracy, who is living in Beijing, learning the investment banking world. Like so many late-20-year-olds living over here, he is adventurous and full of energy.

We met at the Kerry Center Hotel, hired a cab for the day and went to the Wall.

I don't know what to say about it that hasn't been written about or said a thousand times, but it truly is remarkable, snaking along the mountain ridges for as far as the eye can see.

It is one of those ancient sights that, as hard as you strain to figure how this was constructed, it is impossible to envision. It's like the pyramids, or the hanging gardens, or the Space Needle.

"They say that the Wall wasn't built with stone, but with the bones of the Chinese workers, because so many of them died up here," John tells me.

Hundreds of thousands of workers built the wall. Many of the workers were prisoners sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for their crimes. Building the wall must have felt like a death sentence. Beijing's weather is so severe, workers died from the searing heat. They died from the bitter cold. And they died from the grueling and dangerous work.

Construction began 2,000 years ago. Separate walls were built and connected to protect China from "mauauders." Standing on the wall and looking at the rugged, lush, green mountains on the other side, however, the Wall seems almost superfluous. Just getting through the mountains should have been daunting enough. I was thinking they could have built a few lookout posts and saved a lot of lives and stone.

But then they wouldn't have this great place for tourists to come, just a little more than a half hour from the heart of Beijing.

The fact is, the Wall didn't work. Guards could be bribed. They could change sides, like baseball free agents. The Wall's most effective purpose turned out to be as a highway above the mountains that transported people and goods smoothly. It was a better freeway than a fortress. Or at least that's what I've been told.

Now it just transports tourists. Thousands and thousands of tourists. It attracts vendors who hawk goods, food, drinks and trinkets at the base of the Wall.

Still, you can get a moment of space in the sea of people and stare in either direction at the roller-coastering ribbon of stone, and just appreciate the Wall for the scale of the project that it was and the spectacular piece of architecture that it is. We got lucky. The day was clear and sunny and we could see forever.

John and I went to the Mutianyu portion of the wall. It is made of granite and dates back to the Ming Dynasty. (I can read a guide book with the best of them). The views are especially good here, and the Ming Dynasty towers really make you feel like you're at the part of the wall that you've seen so many times in pictures.

A cable car can take you to the top, but John, being young and in shape, insisted we climb. And me, not wanting him to think I'm some kind of wuss, agreed. (I tried to use the excuse that I broke my ankle just three weeks ago, which I did, but John wasn't buying that.)

The trip up was easy and the trip down was a blast. There is a tobaggan ride that looks like the luge run at a Winter Olympics that takes you down the side of the wall. It actually is as tame as a water park slide, but still fun, although I doubt it has much to do with the Ming Dynasty.

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August 21, 2008 9:09 PM

Life Without Lauren

Posted by Steve Kelley

Lauren Jackson was already gone from the Seattle Storm. She missed the final five games before the Olympic break, choosing to train for the Australian Olympic team.

But that loss was temporary. That was a leak that could be fixed.

In Jackson's absence, the Storm went 3-2 and four of those five games were on the road. That small success is the hope the players will cling to now that the news is official and Jackson is gone for the final eight games of the regular season and beyond.

She will have arthroscopic ankle surgery next week in Sydney and will be out a minimum of a month. For the Storm, who came into the Olympic break only a half game behind San Antonio in the WNBA West, the news is devastating.

It means everyone on this MVP-laded roster is going to have to play like an MVP if it has any hopes of getting to the league finals, when Jackson thinks she'll be ready to play again.

"We know we can do it," point guard Sue Bird said. "For me, I've been asked to do a lot even with Lauren on the basketball court. To be more aggressive, but I'm definitely going to have to turn that up a notch and try to bring everybody together.

"It's not going to take one person to fill her shoes. One person can't do it. That's impossible. She's Lauren Jackson. It's going to take a collective effort. But we have the pieces. Obviously I'm sure a lot of people are disappointed, because she's that good of a player. But we can still make the playoffs and we can still make some noise in the playoffs."

But you can't replace Lauren Jackson. You can't make up her numbers. You can't re-create her intensity. On a very good team that includes Bird, Swin Cash, Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes, she is the hands-down MVP.

"She's one of the best players the game has seen," said MIke Thibault, assistant coach on the U.S. women's Olympic team and the head coach of the WNBA's Connecticut Sun. "When I think about matchups that are hard to defend in our league, we spend a lot of time, a lot of time, worrying about how to play against her. She just changes the game."

The Sun will play the Storm in Connecticut in Seattle's second game back from the break.

"You have a player who's as big as she is, but is mobile. Can shoot threes. Can postup, pass, rebound and can block shots.You're talking about an elite, elite player," Thibault said. "You take her out of the Storm lineup, well, I know they'll be optimistic. They have a good team. They have people who know how to win, but she's great. She just is. If it were to have happened earlier in the year, maybe you could make some adjustments, but at this stage of the season, you're losing arguably one of the three best players in the league."

Jackson will take one last injection to fight off her pain, then play one final game, the gold medal game, for Australia Saturday against the United States, before she leaves for home and for surgery.

"You can tell when she plays how much she loves it," Thibault said. "I feel bad for players who have never had the chance to play fully healthy. But I think it isn't just the Storm that's going to miss her. Our league will miss her."

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August 20, 2008 8:08 PM

A chance Malawi meeting

Posted by Steve Kelley

The East African country of Malawi is one of my favorite places on the planet. It's home to one of my good friends, Lester Namathaka, one of the country's educational pioneers. I'm hoping to visit there again later this year.

The Malawians I've met are hungry for learning. They are voracious readers. When we visited villages there, my friends and I were greeted like royalty, because the Malawians knew that we shared their interest in education. Their appreciation of our help with the education system was heartfelt.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries on the poorest continent, but the people I met (and I met many) have this indomitable spirit that gives me hope that conditions will improve. At the heart of that improvement will be books and education, which will lead to better opportunities and greater hope.

It was my great good fortune this week to see a woman in the cafeteria at the Main Press Center wearing a Malawi T-shirt. Turns out Lucy Kadzongwe is a sportswriter for The Guardian, a paper in the capital city of Lilongwe. The paper is onwed by Duwa Mutharika, the daughter of the State president.

Lucy is here as part of the International Olympic Committee's Media Outreach Program, which helps journalists in smaller, poorer countries become part of the Olympic experience. This is her first Olympics and she said she is hoping to return to London in 2012. I told her she should come to Vancouver in two years and see a place much different, but equally as beautiful as her part of the world.

She has been covering her four Malawian athletes, none of whom made it past qualifying. Two were swimmers -- Charlton Nyirenda and Zahra Pinto. And two were runners. Chancy Master finished 10th of 12 in his qualifying race in the 1,500 meters. And Lucia Chandamale finished 15th in qualifying for the 5,000 meters.

Other than her country men and women, Lucy said Malawians are especially interested in coverage of volleyball and table tennis.

One of the joys of covering the Olympics is the opportunity for new friendships. I told Lucy that when we returned to Malawi, I would introduce her to Lester and we could travel around and see the advances the country has made in its education. I'm hoping she'll take me to a soccer match.

The circle widens.

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August 18, 2008 8:08 PM

Aretha Thurmond: My favorite athlete in Seattle -- or at least very close to it

Posted by Steve Kelley

After she had qualified for the finals in the Olympic discus, her first time qualifying for the finals in three Olympics, Aretha Thurmond stopped in the mixed zone and told stories and laughed and fizzed like champagne. This was an athlete completely enjoying the moment.

And after 15 delightful minutes, I kiddingly -- maybe only half-kiddingly -- told her she was my favorite athlete in Seattle.

That was Friday night. On Monday night, Thurmond struggled. She was short on all three of her throws and didn't make the cut for the final three attempts of the final. I watched her disappointment. Saw her slowly pull on her warmups, sit down and stare across the track, alone in front of 92,000 people.

I watched her gradually gather herself and start to walk off the track. And saw her face, almost expressionless, as she entered the mixed zone to talk to a small group of Seattle writers.

Then Thurmond smiled and talked with us for 15 more entertaining minutes. She talked through her disappointment. She didn't mumble a couple of short answers. She didn't march through the mixed zone with a sullen expression that told us to stay away. She laughed and joked and celebrated the good fortune she felt, even in defeat.

I asked her why she was able to be so gracious, when so many athletes are so aloof.

"I love what I do and I know that my reactions and actions can affect others," Thurmond said. "I have no reason to cry right now. I have no reason to be upset right now. I came out and I gave it my all and I want my family and friends and support group to feel the same way.

"I don't want them crying right now. I don't want them upset. I want them to be happy for me. You know what I mean. And I guess my thing is that I understand how difficult this is and how awesome it really is to be a medalist, because it is that difficult. It is that hard. Yeah, I'm disappointed, but I'm not going to beat myself up. I had three throws to try to get it done and I tried. That's why I can leave with my head held up because I really tried. I guess I'm just different."

The Mariners' clubhouse should be so different. A lot of athletes could learn for Thurmond, who is the captain of the U.S. track and field team and was thrilled that her discus teammate, Stephanie Brown-Trafton, won the gold, the first U.S. women's discus thrower to win a medal since the 1984 Games.

"This is history in the making here," she said. "We had two Americans in the finals. And maybe this will open some eyes and let people know that we can win medals in the throws. So help us."

Thurmond will leave China with a smile on her face. She is the national champion. She is an Olympic finalist, which means she's one of the dozen best in the world at what she does. We all should be so accomplished.

"It's been a great experience here. I just wish I had had a better result," she said. "I really have enjoyed myself. My heart goes out to my teammates who didn't get to see their dreams come true. My heart goes out to myself because I didn't get to see my dreams come true today. I think that's what we learn in our sport. Shoot, there's good days and bad days. There's ups and downs. Had I thrown what I threw in qualifying I'd still be out there. Sometimes you just never know what's going to happen."

Thurmond, 32, has two meets left in her season, one in Paris and one in Stuttgart. And said she isn't done. And the idea of continuing to throw all the way to the 2012 Trials and maybe earning a trip to the London Games is, at the very least, enticing.

"I definitely know I can throw one more year," she said. "I'd love to be able to throw one, two, three, maybe four more years. You look at a lot of the women who are out there and they were born in 1960, 1965 and if that doesn't give you motivation, I don't know what does. It's definitely a sport of longevity and if I can get all the support right and get everything together, hopefully we can make it happen. Maybe London in 2012 isn't such a bad idea."

Keep throwing Aretha. And keep smiling.

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August 17, 2008 7:58 PM

Becky Hammon grows weary of grilling

Posted by Steve Kelley

Clearly Becky Hammon was getting tired of the line of questioning.

The Russian national basketball team was making its way through group play at the Beijing Olympics, heading toward Tuesday's quarterfinal match against Spain, but its pony-tailed point guard was answering questions about the Russian incursion into Georgia.

The point guard fron South Dakota, who plays for San Antonio in the WNBA, was questioned about walking into the National Stadium for the opening ceremony under the Russian, not the United States, flag and an exasperated frown creased her face.

She was tired from playing a difficult game and tired of answering and re-answering the same non-basketball questions.

"Any more basketball questions?" Hammon asked before leaving the mixed zone interview area.

She knew what she was getting into when she accepted this assignment. Even though she was second in the voting for the WNBA's MVP last season, Hammon believed she hadn't been given a fair chance to make the United States' team. All she got was what she believed was a courtesy invitation to a tryout camp in March of 2007.

In the meantime she had signed with Russian team CSKA Moscow for four-years and $2 million. It is also believed she was given the option of earning bonus money if she got a Russian passport and played for Russia in the Olympics.

She took the deal and has been taking the heat ever since.

In the most infamous criticism of Hammon's decision, USA coach Anne Donovan said, "If you play in this country and you grow up in this country and you put on a Russian uniform, you are not a patriotic person."

Funny thing about that is that this Olympics is full of people playing and coaching in one country who are citizens of another.

NBA assistant coach Donnie Nelson is an assistant on the China bench. He was trying to beat the United States last week. Is he unpatriotic? Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman is playing basketball for Germany.

And China's sports superstar, Jenny Lang Ping, who helped her country win the 1984 volleyball gold medal in Los Angeles, is now the coach of the United States team. She was greeted with a loud, warm ovation by the Chinese people when she was introduced last week before the start of the China-USA women's volleyball game. China isn't holding some misguided grudge.

This is the way of the Games in 2008 and Hammon shouldn't be considered unpatriotic because she's playing basketball for Russsia. She's on a team. She's not in the army. She penetrating defenses, not invading Georgia.

"The experience has been great," Hammon said last week. "The Olympic Village has been awesome, meeting different people from all over the world. The Chinese people have been great hosts. They've been very hospitable."

Hammon has made it clear she isn't here to talk politics. She said she hasn't been involved in conversations with teammates about the situation in Georgia.

"The Russian girls comment on it here and there, but for me this has never been a political statement," she said. "It is not going to be a political statement now. I have nothing to do with our government and I have nothing to do with the Russian government. I'm just here playing basketball.

"I knew there were going to be people who had very strong opinions and strong feelings about me playing. My thing has been that I want to get the truth out and once people heard the truth I think they can draw their own conclusions."

She said she wasn't uncomfortable walking behind the Russian flag at the opening ceremony. Her only criticism of the ceremony was that she spent so much time underneath the stadium, waiting for the call to enter, that she didn't see much of the show.

She came here for basketball and there is no doubt Hammon is the Russian coach-on-the-floor. After a 24-second violation in a game against Brazil, she yelled at teammate Ilona Korstin and pointed to her temple telling Korstin to think.

But Hammon has had issues with Russian coach Igor Grudin. He has given her quick hooks after turnovers and, she says, he doesn't watch game tapes with the passion that American coaches do.

"I'm still trying to get everybody in the right spots and trying to communicate," Hammon said. "We've had a couple of shot clock violations and I'm screaming, but sometimes they don't hear me. I really wish I could sit down and watch ourselves. Watch film, but unfortunately we haven't watched much film and we really need to. We're finding ways to win, but they haven't been pretty.

"I'm still trying to feel him (Grudin) out. What kind of substitutions he makes. When and why. That kind of stuff. But I'm not here to question anybody's coaching ability."

The Russians entered medal play still looking out of sync. They lost Sunday to Australia 75-55 in their final game in Group A. The U.S. and Australia appear headed for an inevitable gold medal match.
Russia's best hope appears to be bronze.

Hammon has talked with most of the U.S. players. They visited during a pre-Olympic tournament. She said her decision never has been uncomfortable for them.

"They don't care that I'm playing for Russia," she said. "They're athletes. They get it. They understand. And since I've been here Anne (Donovan) has been nice to me. Water under the bridge. We've all moved on and let it go."

But the inevitable questions follow Hammon so that she can't completely let go. And when she talks about her U.S. Olympic snub there still is an edge to her voice.

"I had agents and coaches and GMs calling and feeling out that situation (whether she had a chance to make the U.S. team)," Hammon said. "There just wasn't much encouragement. It wasn't very positive. I'm a pretty bright girl. I can read between the lines. I can pick up what you're layin' down."

Hammon just wants to play basketball. But -- and this is unfortunate -- her decision to play it for Russia, in the Olympics, will linger through Beijing and all the way back to the WNBA.

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August 16, 2008 3:27 AM

The greatest moment in sports ever -- or at least close to it

Posted by Steve Kelley

One last lurch. One desperate dive at the wall. Caught between a Serb and a second place, Michael Phelps gathered up one final stroke for the ages, one last swoosh toward immortality.

It looked like he was done.

Milorad Cavic, a relatively unknown Serb swimmer liviing in California, was about to put an end to this unprecedented and seemingly inevitable gold medal quest of Michael Phelps. The 100 butterfly was going to be Phelps' Waterloo.

Cavic led by .07 over Phelps as they made the turn. Phelps was in seventh place and inside the Water Cube, American fans were in a panic. The picture in front of them was all wrong.

It takes a moment like this to truly measure the greatness of an athlete. Greatness needs to be tested. It needs a Cavic, someone who isn't afraid of the legend swimming next to him. Greatness needs a gut check. Life is easy when every win is a rout. But how does Greatness act under pressure? How does Greatness react to adversity.

Here was Cavic swimming unafraid. Leaping ahead of Phelps. Cavic, the perfect foil, heartlessly playing the spoiler. It was a truly spectacular, Olympic moment.

But Greatness understands the circumstances. Greatness adjusts. Greatness has deep, deep reserves of willpower. Greatness finds a way past all of the adversity. It overcomes..

In the final 10 meters, Phelps was a mess. He looked done. The timing of his strokes was off. In a race that was going to be decided by a hundredth of a second, it didn't look like he had the time or the distance to get to the wall first.

But this is where Greatness happened.

Phelps knew how to win this race. Cavic didn't. Timing be damned, Phelps practically threw himself at the wall and touched just below the surface of the water. Cavic glided in, probably secure in the knowledge he had won. He rode his last stroke like a wave.

For a moment, it looked as if Cavic had won.

Phelps hit the wall, tore off his goggles, spun toward the scoreboad and saw the result. The crowd, certain he had lost, gasped. Then it gasped again when the results appeared.

Phelps was first in 50.58. Cavic finished in 50.59.

Some immediately thought the fix was in. Serbian officials filed a protest, but referee Ben Ekumbo said the Omega timing system had worked.

Indeed, Phelps won. NBC's super slow-motion proved as much.

Even the good-natured Cavic said of the Serbian protest, "I would drop the protest. I'm stoked with what happened. I'm very, very happy."

Continuing the protest would have been sour grapes. And this moment was too sweet for sour.

This is what we hadn't seen from Phelps. We had seen his remarkable natural ability. We had seen the fruits of his long, painful hours of training. We knew he was among the greatest Olympic athletes of all time and knew he had won more gold medals than anyone ever.

But in his quest for eight in Beijing 2008, we hadn't seen THIS. We hadn't gotten a good look at his heart. We didn't know if, even he could react to athletic adversity this drastic.

All of us were pretty sure we would see the most remarkable 100 of all time on Saturday, but we thought it would be on land, at night, in the 100-meter final featuring the fleetest triumverate ever -- Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay.

Turns out the most remarkable 100 was in the pool..

Phelps tied Mark Spitz' 36-year-old record, winning his seventh gold medal by this .01 second. He will go for his eighth-and-final gold on Sunday morning, swimming a leg of the 400 medley relay.

But ridiculous as it is to say, I believe, Phelps' Beijing Olympics won't be defined by the unprecedented eight golds, but by one last-ditch lurch that got him to the wall ahead of Cavic..

"I think the biggest thing is that when someone says you can't do something, they don't know," Phelps said in a brief appearance in the mixed zone after the race. "But this just shows you that anything is possible. When you put your mind to something you can do anything."

In this race we learned even more about Michael Phelps. Under the most difficult circumstances, he found something else inside of him. He found a desperation that even he couldn't describe.

"It seems like every day I'm in some sort of dream world," he said. "I have to pinch myself to make sure it's real. I'm just happy to be in the real world. When I did chop that last stroke I thought it cost me the race. But it turned out to be exactly the opposite. If I would have glided in, it would have been way too long."

Greatness was pushed inside the Water Cube. Michael Phelps discovered a show-me swimmer from Serbia, who thought he just might be able to beat the best man ever on water.

For 99 meters, Milorad Cavic was right.

But Greatness finds ways to the wall. Greatness finds ways to win.

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August 15, 2008 8:32 PM

Say it ain't so

Posted by Steve Kelley

Getty Images

"Performance" dancers at men's basketball game..

I always thought the Olympics would remain above the tawdry exhibitions that pass for fun during the time outs at NBA games. I even thought the Olympic creed said something about no dance teams. I mean what would Jesse Owens think?

For decades, when we went to the Olympics, the events were the entertainment. The fans were so thrilled to be there, whether it was ice dancing, fencing, luge or badminton, that they didn't need to listen to the Bee Gees during the break. They didn't need canned excitement. This was the O-freaking-lympics, for crying out loud.

Alas times have changed.

Even Michael Phelps in the pool. Tyson Gay in the starting blocks. LeBron James on the fastbreak aren't enough for the Olympics anymore. Even these Games have been honkey-tonked.

At the basketball games, for instance, we have been "treated" to the Beijing Dream Dancers, the Beijing Dream Performers and the Beijing Dream Stunt Team. The stunt team is a knockoff of Seattle's Dunking Ushers, who are a knockoff of any number of other acrobatic dunkers who leap off trampolines and do flips before they dunk.

Don't get me wrong, they're very athletic and very entertaining and they make me nostalgic for Squatch. But at the Olympics? And the saddest part is that, on most days, the Beijing Dream Stunt Team gets one of the loudest cheers of the night. Besides China, and Kobe Bryant, they are the most cheered peformers at the basketball venue.

As far as I can tell, there are two sets of Dream Dancers, one local, one more Laker girl. Again the crowd seems to embrace the Laker Girl group as if it were the Rockettes and this is Radio City Music Hall. And the Dream Performers, well, they're a nightmare, doing staggeringly bad routines to the theme from Zorba the Greek, for instance, when Greece is playing.

Call me old fashioned, but I Iiked the Olympics when the only non-competition entertainment was the endless playing of the theme song for that particular Games. (My favorite was the theme from the Lillehammer Games, which loosely translated, was titled, "Give Yourself a Hug."

I guess we can't fight the march of corporate sport. And corporate sport demands more than the games, even at the Games. People at sporting events need to be entertained non-stop. Silence is the enemy.

What would Wilma Rudolph think?

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August 14, 2008 8:26 PM

Behind all the world records

Posted by Steve Kelley

Records are falling like bowling pins inside the Water Cube. So many so fast that they've become expected, like going to a baseball game and knowing you're going to see a no-hitter. If someone merely sets an Olympic record, the time practically is greeted with groans.

Swimmers are setting world records for world records. It's getting ridiculous.

In the space of a half hour on Friday morning, Rebecca Soni broke a world record in the 200-meter breaststroke, swimming it in 2:20.22, The old record was set more than two years ago by Australia's Leisel Jones, who finished second in this race.

Soni's record was set at 10:12 a.m. here.

Fans had barely digested their breakfasts.

At 10:19, Ryan Lochte broke the world record in the 200-meter backstroke, beating his own record set in Melbourne in 2007.

After a brief pause to celebrate the 19th and 20th world records in this pool, Michael Phelps (who else?) set the third and final world record of the day in the 200 individual medley, beating his record set in Omaha at the Trials in July, swimming 1:54.23, which experts tell me is very fast.

It was an American world-record hat trick and it happened in a half hour.

We're learning a lot about physics at these Olympic Games. Maybe you once thought swimming was the lowest of low-tech sports. Swimmers shaved their bodies, made themselves sleek as dolphins and --provided they weren't using performance-enhancing drugs -- just tried to naturally out-stroke each other. It was simple.

It wasn't like track and field, where a new shoe could be designed, or a new composition track created that could shave split-seconds off world records. You don't see records falling in track. At this Olympic meet, even with a fast track, fans will feel lucky if one or two world records fall.

When records become expected, the amazingness of the feat should softened a bit. Germany's Britta Steffen only set an Olympic mark, winning the 100-meter freestyle in 53.12 and I almost felt like asking her at the news conference what went wrong.

Phelps' sixth gold medal Friday also was his sixth world record. His win in the 200 individual medley was the 21st world record from this meet.

Horse racing fans understand the difference between a fast track and a sloppy one. But a fast pool? What is happening?

I remember swimming in a pool in Baden Baden, Germany that had these powerful jets that pushed you faster around the pool's circuitous course. But there are no jets here. And, unless one or more of these record-holders comes back with a dirty drug test, we have to assume the records are falling naturally.

So, no jets. No drugs.

Is it just fast water? Is swimming in this pool like swimming inside some energy drink?

The answer appears to be, "yes."

This pool is a meter deeper than most Olympic-sized pools. Deep water is good. I know it because that's what the swimmers say.

And this pool has 10 lanes, which means the outside lanes on both sides are empty, creating less splashing. A smoother pool is a faster pool.

And then there is the matter of these suits, the new Speedo LZR racer. I've heard that even Pork Chop Womack could slip into one of these suits and challenge world records. It's all about the drag, man, and these suits have no drag. It's better than swimming in the nude -- or so I'm told.

There is one more reason that seems to make perfect sense and has nothing to do with physics. Elite swimmers get paid now, so they have more time to devote strictly to swimming. Phelps, for instance, will earn about $5 million this year, not counting the $1 million bonus Speedo has promised him if he wins eight Olympic golds.

(That seems inevitable as high tide now, doesn't it?)

Remember, back in the day -- 1972 to be specific -- there was very little corporate sponsorships. A swimmer couldn't make a living in the pool. Mark Spitz went into dentistry because he couldn't make money swimming. And back then, I'm sure, setting world records was like pulling teeth.

It's hard to draw a conclusion from all of this. If every night a batter hit for the cycle. If Kobe Bryant scored 50 points in every Lakers' game. If Tiger Woods broke course records every time he teed it up, at some point all of the drama would be gone.

But that isn't happening at the Water Cube. Trust me, I've seen more world records fall this week than I've seen in the rest of my life. And whether it's Soni, Lochte or Phelps, it still feels thrilling.

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More from this blog

Recent entries

Aug 23, 08 - 08:32 PM
The Great Wall

Aug 21, 08 - 09:09 PM
Life Without Lauren

Aug 20, 08 - 08:08 PM
A chance Malawi meeting

Aug 18, 08 - 08:08 PM
Aretha Thurmond: My favorite athlete in Seattle -- or at least very close to it

Aug 17, 08 - 07:58 PM
Becky Hammon grows weary of grilling







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August 2008