By M.S Unnikrishnan
THE Olympic Games is the theatre of the sport where only the very best battle it out like the ancient Roman warriors, where kinship and friendship have no meaning in pursuit of a medal, as an Olympic medal is considered as precious as anything precious can be.
The Olympic Games, the greatest sporting show on earth,have come a long way since the inaugural games in Athens in1896, which was held under the direct control of King George I, and his son Prince Constantine, as president of the organising committee. Over 60,000 people were reported to have witnessed the opening ceremony at Athens.
China had kept away from the games for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognition of Taiwan (then known as Formosa), and Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq too had boycotted the games as a response to the Suez Canal crisis. This was also the time when the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest (Hungary), and Holland and Spain protested against this, and boycotted the trip to Melbourne. And this was the powerful USSRís second Olympic Games, after making their debut in Helsinki in 1952.The Russians topped the medal chart with 39 golds, 29 silvers and 32 bronze medals to push the formidable United States to the second place with 32 golds, 25 silvers and 17 bronze medals. Australia took the third position with a tally of 13-8-14. For India too, Melbourne was a memorable experience as they had won their sixth successive Olympic hockey hold, with Col Balbir Singh notching up a "golden hattrick".The Games witnessed many other fascinating features, one of them being Betty Cuthbert sprinting head-turned, mouth wide open, to three gold medals.
With the Soviet Union having become a fractured entity, the United States are all set to sweep the medal stakes at Sydney with hosts Australia and Asian giants China also raring to make a big splash.
Purged of the doping kind,Sydney, hopefully, would be a clean Olympics. Australia have heavily invested in the Games to make it a show as never before, as this will be the biggest-ever Games.Huge time difference between Sydney, Europe, America and Asia will make the games popular among the internet surfers too.
From Jesse Owens to Carl Lewis, the Olympic Games have witnessed many a sporting gladiator. Who would emerge as the new Olympic icon at Sydney? What will Sydney Olympics bring? All eyes are focussed on the 25-year-old American athlete Marion Jones, who is in line for five medals on her Olympic debut.Marion Jonesí late Olympic debut is due to her missing the chance to run in the relays in the 1992 Barcelona Games, and missed the Atlanta Games due to injury. She had won the golds in the 100 metres and 4x100m relays at the 1997 World Championships and retained the gold last year. She may emulate Carl Lewis, as he too had made his debut late at Los Angeles in 1984, due to the US boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980.Though the Sydney Games may not witness many world records,due to weather and sea-level conditions, Jones can pose a serious threat to the world records set by Florence Griffith Joyner-Kersee in Seoul in 1988, though Tatyana Kotova of Russia may prevent Jonesí long jump gold hope.The most consistent jumper this year, who won her 5th Golden League title beating top Olympic contenders, and shared a jackpot of 50kg gold with four other athletes Tatyana may shatter Jonesí five-gold aspiration.
After Jesse Owens jumped and sprinted to four golds at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 to demolish Hitlerís race theory of Aryan supremacy, it took 48 long years to produce another athlete like him, in Carl Lewis.
Now Marion Jones is all set to chart a new Olympic trail as she prepares to grab the golds in 100 and 200m sprints, long jump, and the relays. Married to world champion shot putter C J Hunter, and coached by former Jamaican Olympian Trevor Graham,Jones would be making a memorable debut like Carl Lewis, if she grabs five golds.
Interestingly, most of the top athletes and swimmers,reckoned as medal prospects in Sydney, are either in their late twenties, or early thirties. Ato Boldon of Trinidad is 27 years old, and is tipped for medals in 100 and 200 metres. One of the great all-round athletes, he has frequently run sub-10 and sub-20 in 100 and 200 metres.
Maurice Greene of the US, the fastest man in the world, is 26 years and a sure bet for the 100m gold. He had missed the Atlanta Games due to injury, but bounced back in 1997 when he defeated Donovan Bailey in Athens to win his first gold in the World Championship. Last year at the same track, he broke the world record with a stunning timing of 9.79 secs, and retained the world title. Greene will sure set the track in Sydney on fire, but he will have to contend with serious challenge to his supremacy from 27-year-old Frank Fredericks of Namibia.
Fredericks had won two silver medals in 100 and 200m in Barcelona in 1992, and a gold at the World Championship at Stuattgart a year later. At Atlanta, he took the silver and he will be a serious challenger for the sprint gold.
All the probable champions are no spring chickens, but veterans of many a battle. Donovan Bailey of Canada is 33 years, and a contender for the 100m title.This native of Jamaica, who emigrated to Canada in 1981, had won the 100m gold, and anchored the 4x100m relay team to gold, at Atlanta.In fact, there is a clutch of talented athletes for the sprint events, both in the menís and womenís, including thirtythree-year-old Bruny Surin of Canada, 22-year-old Francis Obikwely of Nigeria, Zhanna Pintusevich of Ukraine,28-year-old Inger Miller of US, who had won the 200m gold at the World meet, in the absence of Marion Jones, and 27-year-old Christine Aaron of France. Both athletics and swimming are full of stars, who would give the Sydney Games a lot of intense competition, and a lot of glamour.
In swimming, the meaning of speed had drastically altered with the inclusion of the 50-metre event at Barcelona. And the 29-year-old Alexander Popov of Russia is the best sprinter in swimming. He brooks no challenge in his favourite 50 and 100m freestyle events which he won both at Barcelona and Atlanta, and is poised for his third straight 50\ 100 Olympic double. Twenty-seven-year old Susie OíNeil of Australia, Jenny Thompsion of the US, also 27 years of age, 27-year-old Inge De Bruijn of Netherlands and 22-year-old Pieter Hoogenband are the other swimming stars in line for medals, though the competition in the pool is likely to be dominated by the Australians and the Americans, and the Chinese.
Another keenly contested event would be gymnastics, in which China have the best athletes, Russia claims the top names, and the US have the greatest chance to surprise in menís gymnastics. China are the world champions in the menís section too, and they have named a powerful team for the Olympics.
On the womenís side, Russia, Romania and China will vie for top honours, and few expect the US to repeat their gold show at Atlanta. China, Asiaís number one sporting power, would be aiming to duplicate their 16-gold haul in Atlanta though they may suffer a setback due to the sacking of 27 Sydney-bound athletes, including six athletes of "Maís Army", for failing the dope test. But still, they are set to dominate in womenís weightlifting, making its Olympic debut, synchronised swimming, diving, table tennis,badminton and gymnastics.China could be aiming to improve their fourth position on the medal table at Atlanta with a better all-round show in Sydney as they are expecting a clutch of medals from diving alone. Japan and Korea are the other Asian powers,who would aim to be among the first 10 in the medal bracket in Sydney.