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Stars of the show

Swimming, Freeman highlighted Sydney Games

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Latest: Sunday October 01, 2000 06:21 AM

  Ian Thorpe Australian swimmers Michael Klim, left, and Ian Thorpe celebrating their gold medal win in the men's 4 x 100m freestyle relay. AP

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- The world records in the pool stood out. So did Cathy Freeman. So too did nandrolone and ephedrine.

Marion Jones tried to become the defining star of the Sydney Games by winning five gold, but failed despite her dazzling speed -- just as athletics failed to steal the thunder from swimming.

The U.S-Aussie battle in the pool provided perhaps the most electric moment of the Games, when Australia's golden boy, 17-year-old Ian Thorpe, went head to head with Gary Hall Jr. in the anchor leg of the 400 meter freestyle relay.

A whole nation rose, as did 17,500 fans at the Sydney International Aquatic Center, to see Thorpe claw back into the race and edge Hall by a finger.

"That was something the world has never seen before," Hall admitted.

Needless to say, it provided a world record, one of a whopping 15 marks to fall in swimming. The "Thorpedo" ended up with five medals -- three gold and two silver. He also helped set three relay world records and lowered his own mark in the 400 freestyle.

In the end, though, the United States dominated the pool, as they did the overall medal standings.

Heading into the final evening, the United States had 97 medals, including 39 gold. Russia had 88, with 32 gold. China, which turned into the revelation of the Sydney games, stood at 59, and 28.

Yet the U.S. juggernaut also had its scares, and none bigger than the one from tiny Lithuania.

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For all its swagger and cockiness, the NBA-laden Dream Team came within one failed shot at the buzzer of losing its semifinal.

It would have been one of the biggest upsets in basketball history, but Lithuanians" performance cheered hundreds of millions round the world rooting for an underdog - and against the mighty Americans.

"I don't know, if we had lost, if we would have come back for the bronze medal game," guard Ray Allen said, highlighting how close humiliation and embarrassment had been. The U.S.A. went on to beat France for the gold.

Nationalism showed its most benign face in Australia, and no one could find fault with a multicultural nation of 19 million reveling in the success of its athletes. Swimmers raked in the country's most medals but one single gold captured the imagination of the world.

Apart from the pressure of winning gold, Freeman also took the political weight of Australia's reconciliation with the indigenous Aborigines on her shoulders.

At the opening ceremony, in a sleek silver body suit, Freeman lit the Olympic cauldron in a ceremony oozing symbolism.

A week later, she became the first Aborigine to win gold when she streaked across the 400 finish line - this time in a bodysuit with the Australian colors.

"People choose to symbolize me for whatever they need a symbol for," she said, independent as ever.

Unfortunately, such thrills were too often overshadowed by the pall of doping.

Weightlifting set by far the most world records at the Games, but it still turned into an Olympics every lover of the sport will want to forget.

Three Bulgarian weightlifters lost medals -- a gold, a silver and a bronze -- after testing positive for a diuretic that can mask steroids.

Other weightlifters, from Taiwan, Romania and Norway, had to pack their bags, as drug rumors became as ubiquitous as medal ceremonies, also hitting several athletes in track, rowing, boxing and cycling.

One drug case stood out: Romania's all-around Olympic gymnastics champion Andreea Raducan, 16, had to return her gold for testing positive for a banned substance she took in a cold medicine.

Everybody believed the explanation the team doctor was to blame and no malice was meant. But when the IOC had to chose between forgiving a human error and showing how tough it will be in the fight against doping, it picked the latter.

"I am very tired and disappointed," said Raducan. "But I will come back and show the world again that I come clean."

Still, if some Olympians achieved the extraordinary, as Dutch swimmer Inge de Bruijn did with three golds and as many world records, questions were automatically raised.

When word leaked out that Jones' husband, world champion shot putter C.J. Hunter, had tested positive for steroids before the Games, questions were asked about when and how much the sprinter knew.

After U.S.A. Track and Field was accused of having a history of covering up doping cases, it decided in Sydney to surrender controls and testing to the world anti-doping agency.

The uproar took some of the fizz off these ebullient games, where the small could still aspire to be mighty.

The Dutch snapped Cuba's unbeaten baseball streak at two Olympics.

Japan snapped the 112-game winning streak of the U.S. women's softball team, and China and Australia also defeated the Americans. But, showing mettle, the U.S. women still came back to win the gold.

U.S. Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner broke Russian Alexander Karelin's strig of three Olympic gold medals and 13-year unbeaten streak.

Gardner had never won a medal of any color before in any world championship.

Kenyan Noah Ngeny sunk Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj in the 1,500, his first loss in middle distance races in three years, reducing the world champion to a sobbing heap of misery.

Some things neer seem to change, as Britain's Steve Redgrave showed by winning his fifth successive gold medal in rowing.

And the world still has a soft spot for the lovable loser.

Eric Moussambani, a 22-year-old student from Equatorial Guinea dubbed "Eric the Eel," became an international celebrity after taking a couple of minutes over the 100 freestyle.

"That's what the Olympics are all about: athletes from around the world getting a chance to swim in the biggest event there is," said Thorpe.

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