For Phelps, relay duty just might come calling

He's expected to swim in 400 freestyle relay


July 25, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

There are few commonalties between the serenity of Sydney and the angst in Athens, one being a Baltimorean at the center of an American relay controversy.

Four years ago, it was Bernard Williams.

Now, it's Michael Phelps.

Like doping scandals and lapel pins, a U.S. relay disagreement is woven into the Summer Olympic fabric. The men's track and field team has a reputation for squandering its superior depth with dropped batons, tasteless celebrations and dustups over lineups.

American officials waffled in 1936 in Berlin and pulled two men from the anticipated 400-meter relay lineup. Adding Jesse Owens seemed obvious; dropping the only Jews on the U.S. roster whiffed of cowardice at Adolf Hitler's games.

The American sprint relay team was disqualified in 1960 and '88, but it wasn't until 1996 that it was beaten across an Olympic finish line. In Atlanta, the coaching staff ignored the politicking of a 35-year-old Carl Lewis. He was eighth in the trials 100, but considerably more dangerous with a rolling start and desperate to end his career with what would have been a record 10th gold medal. Minus Lewis and his aura, the Americans were pounded by the Canadians.

At the U.S. trials four years ago, U.S. head coach John Chaplin said that on relay decisions, the buck would stop at his desk. In Sydney, Australia, he passed it to assistant John Moon to explain the logic that made Williams the happiest graduate of Carver High in the Southern Hemisphere.

Curtis Johnson, the 2000 trials runner-up in the 100, came up lame in Sydney, triggering a debate over who would get the fourth spot on the American relay team. The man who was fifth at the trials was benched after the first round. The same happened to the trials' sixth-placer, Tim Montgomery, who was two years away from setting a world record.

Seventh at the U.S. trials, Williams got the nod for the final two rounds. Critics howled that Williams' greatest asset was his new affiliation with HSI, the Los Angeles-based club that included powerful lobbyists such as Maurice Greene, Jon Drummond and coach John Smith. Moon just pointed to Williams' ability to handle a baton.

Williams ran the second leg for the U.S. in Sydney, and again at the 2001 and 2003 world championships. His imitation of professional wrestler "The Rock" is getting old, but Williams has been the only constant during a stretch in which the Americans have re-established their dominance in the 400 relay. When the lineup for Athens, is being devised, his reliability will overshadow his sixth place at the trials.

You don't have to compete at the U.S. trials in an individual event to gain a spot on its relay corollary, the best examples being the fastest women in history. Their speculative use of banned substances is another matter.

Neither the late Florence Griffith-Joyner (1988) nor Marion Jones (2000) raced the open 400 at the U.S. trials, but their talent was too big to disregard in the 1,600 relay. Forty minutes after she won her third gold medal, in the sprint relay, Griffith-Joyner pushed the Soviets to a world record in the four-lap relay. In Sydney, the Americans won gold with Jones handling the third leg. Without her, they wouldn't have medaled.

Swimming has the same policy. Anyone on the U.S. roster can be fingered for relay duty, the reason Phelps will have to lose his form to lose a spot on the 400 freestyle relay team, the only gray area in a program he is ready to become the first Olympic swimmer to medal in eight events.

While track and field's dysfunctional family goes its separate way before the Olympics, the swim team holes up at a training camp, this year's being at Stanford University. The kids aren't singing Kum-ba-ya around the campfire this time, because some veteran sprinters have taken affront to the suggestion that Phelps is a given on the 400 free relay team.

The Americans previously won the muscle event in one of the major international competitions in 1998. They took silver at the 2003 world championships behind the Russians, but that was without Gary Hall Jr. and Phelps, the most likely candidates to join Jason Lezak and Ian Crocker, who went 1-2 in the trials 100. The question was posed to Hall: Would you rather win a silver in the 400 relay without Phelps, or a gold with him?

"If you keep somebody off," he said, "and you don't win the gold, what a tragedy."

If Phelps goes on the 400 freestyle relay team, as expected, the man who stands to lose the most is Neil Walker, who was fourth in the trials 100. Some connections bear repeating: Walker's coach at Longhorn Aquatics is Eddie Reese, the U.S. head coach who will have final say on relay lineups. Like most American coaches, Reese is motivated more by the medal tally than somebody's feelings.

The current betting line for Phelps should be five gold medals and three silvers, as some injuries are making him a lock to become only the second man after Mark Spitz to win three individual golds. Phelps appears untouchable in the 200 individual medley; his cushion in the 400 IM grew when Hungarian Laszlo Cseh, No. 2 all time, broke a foot; and a torn shoulder tendon has Tom Malchow racing for silver in the 200 butterfly.

Phelps should also win gold in the 400 freestyle and medley relays. Bob Bowman, his coach, is predicting an American victory in the 800 relay, but the Australians are the favorite on paper. In his other two events, the pecking order has Phelps behind a pair of world-record holders, Ian Thorpe in the 200 freestyle and Crocker in the 100 butterfly.

Games at a glance

When: Aug. 13-29

Where: Athens, Greece

Sports: 28

Countries: 202

Athletes: 10,500

Events: 296

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