One team sinks, the other stinks

Athens Olympics 2004

August 16, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

ATHENS - If it wasn't the worst hour in U.S. Olympic history, it was pretty darn close.

Quick, get us rewrite. The script that called for big things for American swimmers and basketball players in these Olympic Games has already been torched.

One horrific hour on Day 2 and we're scrapping story lines and headlines, not to mention expectations.

First, U.S. swimmers coughed up a relay race they used to win in their sleep. That was at 9 p.m., Athens time, when Ian Crocker, Michael Phelps, Neil Walker and Jason Lezak jumped into the Olympic pool expecting to win gold and, instead, were lucky to win the bronze.

Only once before in Olympic history had the United States lost this relay race.

Let's repeat: That's once, in Sydney four years ago, when the U.S. team finished second to host country Australia. And last night, the Americans didn't even win silver. They went to the podium as if their medal were a bag of old feta cheese.

But swimming is only swimming, as the impending collapse of Michael Phelps' chances for a Mark Spitz-like achievement will soon show. One more bad night in the pool and NBC will have to find other ways to fill its 1,200 hours.

Which begs the question: What does a network that spent millions in broadcast rights do when the mighty American swimmers are toast and the millionaire basketball players are back home with all the other NBA players who didn't want to come to Greece?

It turns out the sinking U.S. swimmers were merely a warm-up act for total Olympic meltdown on the part of the American hoopsters.

You might have heard of them: Dwyane Wade, Lamar Odom, Shawn Marion.

Then again, maybe you haven't heard of most of them.

That's because the original Olympic basketball team was supposed to be composed of All-Stars, such as Jason Kidd, Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who were either too hurt or too scared to make the trip.

Wonder what Shaq and KG are thinking right about now? Bad enough to call their travel agents, we hope. They should - if the United States thinks it can beat Argentina, Lithuania, Serbia-Montenegro, let alone Puerto Rico. But Puerto Rico is too tough. Puerto Rico sliced and diced, slashed and dashed the Americanos. That was clear far before the final buzzer sounded.

The hour of infamy was up. Captain Allen Iverson and his Anti-Dream Teamers went splat on the hardwood. The score - a 92-73 loss - makes it seem a lot closer than it actually was.

Statistic of the day: The United States had been 24-0 since pro basketball players became Olympians at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.

We repeat: 24-0.

And beyond that, the United States was 109-2 in Olympic basketball action - with one of the losses in the complete rob-job against the Soviet Union in 1972, meaning the U.S. record was really 110-1.

The one "real" loss was in 1988, in Seoul, which is the last time the United States used college players, which is why the Dream Team was concocted, and look how that went.

In 1992, the U.S. squad boasted 10 Hall of Fame-caliber players. It was the greatest basketball team ever assembled. It was such a joke, the way they won, pundits said the Olympic team should go back to using collegiate players, to make it fair or in the spirit of the Games.

Well, why use college players when you can use NBA players who should have gone to or stayed in college?

Please call or e-mail the U.S. Olympic Committee or USA Basketball if you have a better idea what to call the Dream Team. I'm thinking: Sinking Ship. It's a nod to their Olympic digs on board the Queen Elizabeth II.

"It doesn't even feel like we're on a ship. It feels like we're in a hotel," Carmelo Anthony said.

Except that luxury hotels don't sink.

Besides face, what was lost for the mighty Americans on two squads that arrived in Athens expecting to live up to expectations - even impractical expectations?

For starters, how about Phelps' chance to win eight gold medals?

See, Phelps had been added to the 400 freestyle relay team at nearly the last minute. It was a big stink. Or, at least, a small stink, because Olympic veteran Gary Hall was incensed that Phelps was getting special treatment - allegedly - as a way to aid the quest to win seven or eight gold medals.

Whatever momentum Phelps provided with his gold-medal swim on Day One of the Olympics was put in serious jeopardy last night. Coach Eddie Reese is going to spend perpetuity trying to explain why, after knocking Hall off the relay team and naming Phelps to swim the second leg, he did not replace the ailing Ian Crocker with Hall.

"I think what they did [last night] they should be ashamed of, with all due respect to Michael Phelps," said Hall's agent, David Arluck.

Ah, shame. There's plenty of that to go around.

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