Going for the gold

Our view : Maryland athletes promise Beijing Olympic thrills

August 08, 2008

Now, the fun begins. Over the next few days, two young Maryland athletes - Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff - will be cheered by millions around the world as they surge through the pool of the Beijing National Aquatics Center in pursuit of an extraordinary achievement. Together, they aim to win more than a dozen Olympic gold medals, more gold than all but a handful of nations captured in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

We know it's not supposed to be about the medals. The thousands of athletes from more than 70 nations who have gathered in Beijing are competing for the love of their sport and the honor of representing their country. For most, the only reward will be memories that will last a lifetime. But who in Maryland can't be thrilled at the prospect that two swimmers raised and trained at North Baltimore Aquatic Club in Mount Washington have a chance to win big, particularly when they exhibit a disarming modesty about the accomplishments that have placed them at the pinnacle of their sport?

Mr. Phelps, an unassuming 23-year-old from suburban Rodgers Forge with the sleek, supple physique of someone born to swim, is aiming to capture eight gold medals in Beijing's glowing Water Cube, an aspiration that will require him to compete in a dozen grueling races, swimming more than 2 miles over the next few days. If he wins just four, he'll be the most decorated Olympic athlete ever, when the six gold medals he captured four years ago in Athens are counted. Ms. Hoff, 19, whose home is in Towson, is the closest thing to a female Phelps. She won five races in the Olympic trials, will compete in six races in Beijing and is expected to win at least three gold medals.

Beyond athletics, this year's games offer the potential for significant public drama, as critics of China's human rights violations, repression in Tibet and chest-bursting pollution seek to make their cases to a global audience. Those who set the games here must have known from the start they wouldn't be just about the sports. China's leaders have invested $50 billion putting on this show to raise the curtain on their super-sized status and prospects, and security is tight. Nevertheless, the political and social issues are real, and the potential for clashes lingers.

Still, the work and aspirations of the home team demand our attention at least for the next few days. For Mr. Phelps, who dominates his sport like few athletes before him, and Ms. Hoff, who is seeking her first Olympic gold, the likely rewards are sweet. Mr. Phelps already makes $5 million a year in endorsements. But we suspect that for most of the 14 Maryland athletes who will compete in sports ranging from basketball to table tennis, the games will be more about memories than medals or money.

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