Here are Tribune Olympics reporter Philip Hersh's Top 20 moments not to miss. Set your TiVo for the last hurrah of the icons of U.S. women's soccer. Don't miss the drama as the marathon returns to, well, where it began. And, the big moment, Thorpe vs. Phelps.
1. 'The race of the century': Michael Phelps has said a big reason he is trying to make Olympic swimming history is to promote the sport.
Of course, it helped that what is good for swimming also is good for Phelps in his $1 million quest to win seven gold medals, matching Mark Spitz's feat at the 1972 Olympics.
After qualifying for an unprecedented six individual events at the U.S. Olympic trials, Phelps learned it would be too hard to swim all six in the Games. He dropped the 200-meter backstroke, in which he finished second at the trials to world record-holder Aaron Peirsol.
Phelps kept the 200 freestyle, in which he will race not only one of the sport's legends, Ian Thorpe of Australia, but could be in a final that includes the four fastest 200-meter swimmers in history.
Phelps knew all along a confrontation with Thorpe would be sure to attract plenty of attention.
"One thing I have always wanted to do is take on Ian Thorpe in a freestyle event," Phelps said.
No sooner had he announced his choice of events than Australian papers called it "The race of the century."
The century may be young, but the hyperbole seems justified. The Aug. 16 final of the men's 200 freestyle is, at least for a U.S. audience, the most compelling event of the 2004 Olympic Gamesand the Tribune's choice to begin this otherwise random list of 20 Olympic events, people and stories worth watching.
Phelps is No. 4 on the all-time list, with a personal best of 1 minute 45.99 seconds. He will be an underdog not only to Thorpe, the world record-holder in 1:44.06 who has swum the four fastest and eight of the top nine times in history, but to defending champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, whose best is 1:44.89. Grant Hackett of Australia, the third fastest ever in the event at 1:45.84, also is a medal contender.
Thorpe, still only 21, may have been upset by van den Hoogenband in the 200 at the Sydney Olympics, but that hardly slowed Thorpemania in Australia, the one country in the world where swimming is a major sport. He already had won two Olympic gold medals at that point, one with a scintillating anchor leg to hold off Gary Hall in the 4x100 freestyle relay, ending the U.S.' unbeaten streak in that Olympic event.
"The status that Thorpe has in Australia is absolutely enormous," Phelps said. "He has played a big part in swimming history."
Thorpe is everything Phelps, 19, wants to be: a multimillionaire athlete who has transcended the sport to become a major personality.
With that comes some unwanted attention. No sooner had Thorpe been seen at a fashion show in Milan, Italy, than he was asked about his sexual preferences in a radio interview upon returning to Australia. Phelps apparently is ready to live with that downside of fame.
"I can go out in public right now and live my life how I want to live it," Phelps said earlier this year. "In that case, I'm very happy and excited with how things are.
"But to change the way the sport of swimming is seen, which Thorpe did in Australia, there are going to be some things you have to go through that you don't like. You just have to do them."
Like Phelps, 16 when he became the youngest men's world record-holder in history, Thorpe was a child prodigy. At 14, he was the youngest ever to make Australia's national team. At 15, he became the youngest men's swimming world champion in history. At 17, going into the 2000 Olympics, he had nine sponsorship deals worth an estimated $1.5 million. The entire nation was behind Thorpeor weighing him downat the Sydney Games, when he won three gold and one silver.
When Thorpe fell from the blocks in a heat and was disqualified for a false start from the 400 meters at the Australian Olympic trials in March, apparently costing himself a spot in that race in the 2004 Olympics, the mishap became a national catastrophe.