Geopolitical backdrop creates a different buzz

Phelps' coach: `Worrying ... is not going to help'



May 09, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Before Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and the 2000 Olympics came along, Australia's goodwill ambassador was Paul Hogan. His movie, Crocodile Dundee, offered a hilarious line about a knife that came to mind when a Greek official shrugged off three explosions outside an Athens police station last Wednesday.

"Bomb? That's not a bomb."

In Baltimore, people have had to live with drug violence. In Athens, they deal with what are labeled "local anarchists."

"We are not exactly talking about bombs," George Voulgarakis, the Greek minister of public order, said of the explosions caused by homemade bombs containing a few ounces of dynamite. "Such bombs, you and I could do. I can excuse you. In Europe, we have a different sense of such incidents."

Nonetheless, the Athens organizers responded by collecting and disseminating reassuring comments from two dozen speakers, ranging from a Finnish athlete to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "All is well" was the gist. The U.S. Olympic Committee issued a statement that there is no consideration given to withdrawing from the games.

Never mind Mark Spitz, who last month said out loud to the BBC what others silently fear, that the games might not go on.

Abnormally hot geopolitical issues - get an atlas and check the proximity of Greece to Iraq or Israel - mean that these Olympics will not be their normal diversion.

Wednesday's bombs came 100 days before the Aug. 13 opening of the 2004 Olympics, and another coming milestone frames the young man who could be the biggest star in Athens against a backdrop of world issues that could affect the Olympics.

Blair and President Bush vow that the June 30 deadline for handing sovereignty in Iraq over to the Iraqi people will be met.

June 30 is also the 19th birthday of Michael Phelps, the Baltimore-based swimmer who will go to the Olympic trials a week later prepared to answer questions not just about his Olympic program, but global issues.

The more things heat up, the tighter Phelps' blinders need to be, as he prepares to become maybe the most decorated Olympian ever.

He watches ESPN, not CNN. Things are different for his coach, Bob Bowman, a Renaissance man whose interests range from classical music to thoroughbred racing. When Bowman heard that Larry Buendorf was in charge of security for the U.S. Olympic team, he recognized him as one of the Secret Service officers who helped thwart an assassination attempt on President Ford in 1975.

Fretting about boycotts and terrorism are not on the things to do list for Team Phelps.

"That's the kind of thing you consider after it's too late," Bowman says. "Worrying about it is not going to help."

While Karl Malone and Serena Williams size up the situation and threaten to back out of Athens, the Olympics are the raison d'etre for swimmers and track and field athletes. Speculation of dire events concerning Greece is hard to avoid, however, with the International Olympic Committee taking out a $170 million insurance policy against the cancellation of the games.

"The Olympics are such a unique event, a celebration of humanity," said Lenny Krayzelburg, America's most celebrated swimmer at the 2000 Olympics. "After the Madrid bombing [which killed nearly 200], you start to think about that. You're really not safe anywhere anymore. For terrorists to make a statement, there isn't a bigger place than the Olympic Games."


Last year, Jesse O'Connell and Joel Brown made their respective finals at the NCAA track and field championships.

It would not be a shock if they reached the finals at the U.S. Olympic trials in Sacramento, Calif., in July.

Four years ago, O'Connell starred at Westminster High and Brown at Woodlawn High. O'Connell is completing a fine career at Georgetown as one of the nation's best collegiate half-milers. Brown is wrapping things up at Ohio State, enjoying similar status in the 110-meter hurdles.

O'Connell, who last week was selected as the recipient of the Robert A. Duffey Award, which goes to the Georgetown athlete who best embodies academic and athletic excellence, has a seasonal best of 1 minute, 47.76 seconds, which puts him among the 10 fastest Americans this spring.

Brown starred at the Jesse Owens Invitational last week, where he lowered his personal best to 13.56 seconds. Only seven Americans have gone faster this year.

Both need to go a little faster to make the trials "A" standard, but they'll have ample opportunity between now and the NCAA championships in Louisville on Memorial Day weekend.

Games at a glance

When: Aug. 13-29

Where: Athens, Greece

Sports: 28

Countries: 202

Athletes: 10,500

Events: 296


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