200 meters—Jones says this is her favorite race, but her nonaltitude PR is just .01 better than Miller's. Though Jones beat Miller easily at the U.S. trials, Miller has been getting sharper since then. Look for the deuce to be a very, very close race.
Long jump—Jones's form—a choppy run-up followed by a jarring landing—makes long jump aficionados cringe, and she finished fifth at an Aug. 25 meet in Brussels. Still, since Jones leaped 23'11�" in 1998, no woman has jumped farther, and Jones has beaten most of her rivals at least once. She will be in the mix throughout the competition and could pop a huge leap and win.
Relays—If the U.S. gets the baton around in the 4 x 100, it's a lock. Case closed. The 4 x 400—Jones's final event—is more dicey. Germany and Russia will field solid teams. Plus, when Jones gets the stick (probably not on the anchor leg, which she has ceded to veteran Jearl Miles Clark), she will be running on fumes.
In the end the difference between success and failure for Jones will probably be infinitesimal: a centimeter in the long jump, .1 of a second in the four-by-four or the 200. A lesson to consider: When she was a college freshman, running spring track with a basketball body, Jones injured an ankle walking her bike down a set of stadium steps. Frye figured she was out of the NCAA meet, but Jones startled him by limping to a sixth-place finish in the 200 and a second in the long jump. Afterward Jones's mother, Marion Toler, approached Frye and told him, "Never underestimate Miss Jones."
The warning still stands, and that's no hype.
Will Ian Thorpe and the rest of the Aussies rule the pool?
The men? Maybe. The women? Sorry, mate. In the swim showdown that will highlight the Games' first week, SI projects the U.S. men winning 18 medals (eight gold, three silver, seven bronze) to 14 for the Australians (five gold, seven silver, two bronze). As for the women, SI sees the U.S. winning 14 medals (five gold, four silver, five bronze) to the Aussies' eight (two gold, three silver, three bronze). "The truth is, every nation is trying to beat the U.S.," says Australian coach Don Talbot.
There are plenty of reasons for the Americans to worry, however. Only twice since World War II (excluding the boycotted '80 Games) has the U.S. failed to win the most swimming medals—in '88, when the Olympics, in Seoul, were held in the fall (as they are this year) and the U.S. chose to hold its trials just a few weeks before (as it did this year), forcing team members to maintain their peak form for more than a month; and in '56, when Dawn Fraser and the Aussies cleaned up in the home waters of Melbourne. "There's a buzz this year just like there was then," Talbot says. "This could be our greatest team."
The home team will have a raucous crowd behind it in Sydney's 18,200-seat aquatic center. The loudest roars will be for Ian Thorpe, the modest 17-year-old with the immodest flippers (size 17) for feet. The Thorpedo, who has broken 10 world records, is favored to win the 200-meter freestyle, in which he has history's five fastest times, and the 400 free, in which he has the three fastest. Throw in three relay medals, and his resume could be just short of Spitzian.
Talbot said in 1998 that Thorpe could be the swimmer of the century—the 20th century. "That's quite offensive to all the other swimmers before me who've achieved so much," says Thorpe. None of them profited as handsomely as Thorpe has: He endorsed a car two years before he was old enough to drive and has already bought his family a house. (He even races a seal in one TV ad.) At age eight, Thorpe was allergic to chlorine, but he outgrew that and at 13 set 10 national age-group records in one meet. "He had to look at what events to drop because he can swim the whole program," says Talbot. "He'll level out sometime. God, please let it be after the Olympics."