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September 12, 2000
Pitfalls litter Marion's marchJohn Mehaffey
One stray gust of wind, one stumble in the blocks, one dropped baton.
Even if she says injury-free, any number of potential hazards lie between Marion Jones and her goal of five Olympic golds at the Sydney Games opening on Friday.
Jones will contend with the capricious spring winds at Stadium Australia in the long jump, the American sprinter's weakest event.
She is an uncertain starter and was almost beaten over 100 metres in Zurich last month. Then there are the two relays and the nightmare of a botched exchange.
Though the path will be perilous, the rewards are incalculable in the first Games of the new millennium.
"Given her age and the platform she will have, Marion has the opportunity to transcend sports and become an international icon," says U.S. athletics chief Craig Masback.
"There have been only three athletes who have done that: Pele, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. She's the only one who has that chance.
"No one said to her 'you've got to predict you're going to win five gold medals'. But that's what champions do."
Some would argue that Tiger Woods has already preceded Jones to the lofty heights occupied by Masback's trinity but, win or lose, Jones is the story of the Games.
In a calculated leak to startled American track and field writers two years ago, Jones's manager revealed she was aiming to go one better than Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Fanny Blankers-Koen and win five golds.
At one stroke, Jones deliberately embraced the relentless pressure which will grow between the opening of the Games on Friday and the 100 metres heats a week later. Her daunting schedule will then embrace three further rounds in the 100, four in the 200, the long jump qualifying and final and the 4x100 and 4x400 relay finals on the penultimate day of the Games.
"Definitely there were butterflies in my stomach looking out the window and seeing Australia," Jones said on arrival in Australia on Tuesday. "I just want to get it all started now."
While Jones's battle against her opponents, herself and the elements will form the backdrop of the athletics programme the projected women's 400 metres final between Cathy Freeman and the Jose-Marie Perec is likely to be the race of the Games.
Freeman, an Australian Aborigine, is under as much pressure as Jones. Losing to the enigmatic French defending champion by even a fraction of a second will be viewed as failure by a sell-out crowd of 110,000.
If he is in anything like his best form Michael Johnson will be running against the clock only in the men's 400 metres in his final Olympics. If any athlete can counter the winds it is Johnson who could sign out in style by becoming the first person to break the 43-second barrier.
Track and field and its elemental disciplines born in the ancient Olympics will be the focus of the Games from September 22.
In the preceding week it will be the pool which attracts the attention of a nation blessed by an abundance of sun and surf with a proud tradition in Olympic swimming.
Sydney teenager Ian Thorpe heads a vibrant Australian side looking forward to taking on the mighty Americans.
Thorpe, 17, holds the world records in the 200 and 400 metres freestyle and will be a member of the 4x100 and 4x200 relay squads.
"He has basically revolutionised the 400 metres," explained 1984 Olympic 100 gold medallist Rowdy Gaines. "He has turned a middle-distance event into an eight-lap sprint."
At odds of 20-1 on with Australian bookmakers for the 400, Thorpe is the hottest individual favourite of the Games.
"His preparation this time has been sensational," said coach Doug Frost. "I think he's in line to do exceptionally well."
At the other end of his swimming career Australian-based Russian Alexander Popov will attempt to become the first man to win three 100 metres freestyle titles in a row.
Seven years ago Popov outlined the motivation which has eventually brought him to Sydney.
"If you can win one Olympics you become famous," he said. "If you win two Olympics you probably become great. If you win three, you become history."
And then there is Dutch freestyle and butterfly sprinter Inge de Bruijn, who broke seven world records and equaled another between May and July this year.
"It will be one of the greatest meets in history," predicted Canadian head coach Dave Johnson. "You get that first world record and it starts rolling."
Through the quirks of 20th century power politics, Olympic boxing has gained added resonance through the presence of the incomparable Cubans who, in theory anyway, fight only for the greater glory of their Communist state.
Their two great heavyweight champions of the past 30 years, Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon, resisted all blandishments from Western promoters to fight Ali and Mike Tyson respectively.
Savon, both brutal and scientific, will try to emulate Stevenson with a third Olympic gold and continue to fight as an amateur.
"Money is not everything," he said. "He who abandons his fatherland has no love for anything in life."
Gymnastics shares the limelight with swimming in the opening week and, because of the high turnover rate in the sport, a new generation of elfin prodigies will inevitably come to the fore.
Yet the cameras in the Superdome will focus, initially at least, on a 21-year-old Russian, who is positively geriatric by the standards of her sport.
Svetlana Khorkina shocked her team mates and her parents three years ago when she posed topless in a Russian edition of "Playboy".
She has continued to court publicity but has not neglected the bewitching skills which make her the Olympic all-around favourite after four gold medals at the European championships in May.
New heroes will emerge and great athletic deeds performed over the two weeks of the Games. If all goes to plan, the women's 4x400 relay will provide the perfect climax.
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