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September 14, 2000
Lesser sports look for greater gloryTony Lawrence
For every Olympic champion who carves his name into legend in Sydney, there will be another who has to make do with 10 fleeting minutes of fame.
Like all preceding Games the 2000 edition will provide a bizarre amalgam of major and minor sports, of anonymous amateurs and world-famous professionals.
The focus as ever will be on such stars as track and field athletes, swimmers and gymnasts, their exploits scrutinised by packed crowds and a vast global television audience.
Other household names -- soccer, tennis and basketball players among them -- will enjoy a brief flirtation with Baron de Coubertin's ideal before returning to the more serious business of earning money.
In their shadow, the rest -- the part-time archers, canoeists, wind surfers, fencers, volleyball players, the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers -- will joust for the remaining limelight.
Not that it would be wise to call Alexander Karelin or David Douillet second-class champions -- not to their faces, anyway.
The shaven-headed Karelin, a 130-kg super-heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestler from Russia, is seeking a fourth successive Olympic gold.
A tax official, member of parliament and friend of the Russian President, Karelin has not been beaten since 1987. He has all the credentials of a first-rate hero.
When an opponent snapped one of his ribs in an early bout in the 1993 world championships, Karelin brushed off the injury as "a trifle" and went on to win the title. He has won nine in all. Three years later, he claimed the European crown using just one arm after tearing a chest-wall muscle.
Douillet, France's reigning Olympic heavyweight judo gold medallist, weighs in at 125 kg and is hewn from similar stone, although he will be severely tested in Sydney after a bad injury.
It would be similarly rash to belittle badminton, in Indonesia or Malaysia in particular.
The two nations have won only three Olympic golds to date, all in the one sport.
Indonesian hopes will be pinned this time on 19-year-old world number one Taufik Hidayat and reigning doubles champions Rexy Mainaky and Ricky Subagja.
Malaysia will look principally to Atlanta men's doubles silver medallists Cheah Soon Kit and Yap Kim Hock, backed up by Choon Tan Rook and Lee Wan Yuen.
Advocates of the Olympic 'lesser events' argue that they regularly provide more than their fair share of drama, passion, romance and controversy.
You don't get more passion than in water polo, with 1956 and Melbourne the most bruising, bloody example of all.
Hungary, their country invaded by Soviet troops a month before, led 4-0 against their arch-enemies before the match-cum-brawl was halted and the police called to avert a riot.
And you don't get more controversial than Soviet army major Borys Onyshchenko.
He put modern pentathlon on the world's front pages in Montreal in 1976 after being caught with a fencing sword adapted with a secret button which tricked the electronic scoring system into awarding him extra points.
'Dis-Onyshchenko', as he became known, returned home and never competed abroad again. One question remained unanswered: Had he used the same sword when winning the individual silver and team gold in Munich in 1972?
For Sydney romance, look no further than archery.
The tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan has vested its Olympic hopes in just two athletes, national archery champion Jubzang and his female team mate Chhoden Tshering.
They and their fellow competitors, however -- who stand the equivalent of three end-to-end tennis courts away from their targets, aiming at bull's-eyes the size of grapefruits -- are still unlikely to draw the crowds.
Some sports seem forever destined to stay on the margins.
Fencing, with its epees, foils and sabres, its balestras (short jump towards opponent), reprises (counter-attack following lunge) and ripostes (counter following parry) may be too esoteric. It is also so fast that only the connoisseur can follow the sport's subtleties.
Shooting, similarly, is unlikely to become a big television attraction, although Oscar Swahn would certainly have been worth an interview. The Swede became the oldest medallist in Olympic history when winning a silver in 1920, aged 72 years and 279 days.
Equestrianism has many followers (despite the intricacies of the dressage), as does handball, even if it is not as popular as either football or basketball, the two sports from which it derives.
Softball, boasting the likes of American Lisa Fernandez and her remarkable 104 kph (65 mph) underarm pitches, remains a young sport yet to make its Olympic mark.
Other disciplines, meanwhile, have been able to provide spectacle while struggling to match it with drama, largely due to the domination of one nation.
Nobody, for instance, bets against the Chinese table tennis team. In 1996, they not only won all four golds in the men and women's singles and doubles but their second-string players also claimed three of the silvers and one bronze.
And who will win at taekwondo -- a debut sport rooted in Korea's ancient martial arts -- if not the Koreans? They have, after all, been practising for 2,000 years.
Many of Sydney's lesser-known competitors, however, may have the last laugh despite their lack of exposure.
Most Asian and east European countries will reward gold medallists with bonuses of up to $100,000.
Taiwan, seeking a first Olympic gold, are offering $330,000, with big pay-outs for silvers and bronzes as well. The Singaporeans, whose only medal -- a silver -- came 52 years ago, are offering $575,000 for a first place.
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