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Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008

ODDS AND EVENS

Compelling stories plentiful as Beijing Games near


BEIJING — I learned this when I was a wee lad: One of life's great diversions is learning about other people's eccentricities. My maternal grandparents taught me this, using sports as the backdrop for this timeless principle.

Ed Odeven

My grandfather was an avid golfer and enjoyed watching the PGA Tour on weekends on TV. Jack Nicklaus was his favorite golfer.

My grandmother didn't golf. But from time to time, she liked to make funny faces — sticking out her tongue, waving her hands in toddler-like manners — at the TV screen whenever Nicklaus' picture came into view.

Why did she do that?

She used to say that if she made funny faces when Nicklaus was golfing that there was a chance he would mess up and somebody else would get the opportunity to win.

She was tired of Nicklaus winning all the time.

"Let somebody else win for a change," she would say.

How did my grandfather react?

It probably isn't a big surprise. He was happy when Nicklaus won and annoyed at my grandmother for her antics.

In their own unique way, I think both of my grandparents had a valid point.

So here we are just a few days away from the start of the Olympics, and I am looking forward to seeing the expected triumphs and the unforgettable upsets, too.

For starters, I want to witness Michael Phelps making a run for eight gold medals in the pool. If he gets seven, it sure would create a mesmerizing buzz throughout Beijing on the eve of the eighth race, wouldn't you say?

And hey, if he gets seven golds that would still make for electrifying drama at the "Water Cube" in Beijing.

I want to see Russian Yelena Isinbayeva shatter her own world record in the women's pole vault (5.04 meters), to see her soar closer to the heavens for her 24th world record.

I want to watch Roger Federer play the best tennis imaginable. He's proven in 2008 that he's human after all, but now would be a fine time for him to deliver a series of vintage victories.

I suppose a week's worth of 30-minute matches featuring a dazzling array of aces, backhands and drops shots would do the job.

I want to be present at Beijing National Stadium for a one-for-the-ages duel between Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele in the men's 10,000-meter race, a back-and-forth showdown in which the great runners exchange leads repeatedly.

And then, like Muhammad Ali regaining the heavyweight championship, I hope to see Gebrselassie reclaim the 10,000-meter Olympic gold, the title he earned in 1996 and 2000, by a whisker at the finish line.

There's something special about seeing a legendary champion re-emerge on top after a long time. Gebrselassie fits the bill.

But now, after gushing about champions, I can hear my grandmother's words about Nicklaus in the back of my mind. So, yeah, I would like to see plenty of upsets, too.

Let's hope little guys (and gals) win their fair share of medals over the next two-plus weeks, and that could be our rallying cry for the Beijing Games.

Reflecting on the great achievements from the 2007 IAAF World Athletics Champions in Osaka, I'm left with this memory from that splendid spectacle: Seeing the smile on Donald Thomas' face after he collected his gold medal in the men's long jump.

What a remarkable achievement it was. Thomas, a former basketball player, had begun competing in the event only 18 months earlier.

News photo
Big challenge: Swimmer Michael Phelps' quest for eight gold medals will be one of the big story lines at the upcoming Beijing Olympics. AP PHOTO

"I hope people in the Bahamas will celebrate even more than me," Thomas told the BBC last summer.

They probably did.

It's one of the time-honored traditions in Olympic years. We take pride in seeing athletes from the tiniest locales and the most humble beginnings post upsets over the favorites.

This is why, I think, I first began to pay attention to the Olympics — and never stopped.

I was just a first-grade student in elementary school at the time, but I can still recall my uncle Jack speaking about the 1980 Winter Olympics, specifically about the exhibition hockey game between the United States and the Soviet Union at Madison Square Garden.

The Soviets steamrolled past Team USA, winning 10-3. He talked about the Soviets' overwhelming dominance and perceived invincibility.

Weeks later, the U.S. team captured the hearts of millions around the world with its "Miracle On Ice" triumph over the Soviets in the Olympics in the first medal-round game in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Will there be a miracle as grand as that one in the Beijing Summer Olympics?

We can certainly wish for it, and it's why the start of each Olympiad holds such grand promise — and a chance to bask in the glow of human achievement.



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