While several U.S. swimmers privately concede two races to Thorpe, they defer on little else. "When there are 10 meters to the wall and there are an American and an Australian, we're going to make sure nobody touches us out," says Tom Dolan, who won both individual medleys at the U.S. trials. "That's why we're the best swimming country in the world." American swimmers set no world records at the trials, but they also set none in 1996 before winning 13 gold medals in Atlanta.
The Aussies have worked to instill the rah-rah spirit that has long marked U.S. squads. "We want to build the component of team support that the Americans have, which others criticize but secretly envy," Talbot says. To do that he brought his swimmers to bonding camps complete with trivia games, hikes, surfing and guest speakers, from Formula One champions to Everest climbers. He even invoked geography as a factor in his team's favor. "We're an island nation of 18 million, 95 percent within 10 minutes of the sea," Talbot says. "We should have the best swimmers."
Who will fly highest in a new Olympic event?
Track nuts call the women's pole vault an "emerging event" because it has been seriously contested internationally for less than a decade, records fall often, and dominant performers appear suddenly and then quickly fade. Fair enough: Since 1991 the world record has been broken or tied 30 times by six women.
Everybody else calls it an emerging event because it's the freshest thing in the sport, with hyper-fit women flying high on fiberglass poles, wearing skintight Lycra suits and emoting after each vault like Deion Sanders on a caffeine jag. "The women are attractive and camera-friendly, and they go out and get involved with the crowd," says pole vault promoter Brooks Morris. In Sydney, NBC will hop on this event and ride it like Secretariat.
That means 29-year-old U.S. vaulter Stacy Dragila will likely spend the night of Sept. 25 in America's living rooms. She's one vaulter who appeared early on—winning the U.S. Olympic trials exhibition in 1996—and hasn't faded. After running hurdles and competing in rodeos as a teenager in northern California, Dragila started vaulting in '93. She won the '99 world title in Seville with a world-record-tying vault of 15'1" and has since tied the record once and broken it twice. Most recently she cleared 15'2�" at the Olympic trials in July, overcoming weeks of struggle with a new, longer pole and a case of competition anxiety that compelled her to seek help from a coach schooled in sports psychology. In Sydney, she soars, and everybody else follows.
Will boxing suffer another judging scandal?
Allegations of rigged judging and payoffs to judges have tainted nearly every major international boxing event since the late 1980s—and Sydney may be no different. The Cuban team walked out of the '99 world championships in Houston claiming the judging was biased against it. AIBA, the sport's governing body, has been plagued by politics, scandal and skepticism.
That said, AIBA is at least trying to improve the sport's image. It reversed the decision that had robbed Cuban welterweight Juan Hernandez of a gold medal in Houston and handed out four-year suspensions to four of the bout's five judges. Though AIBA voted down several reform recommendations made by the IOC in 1997, including a suggestion that judges' scores be posted on a scoreboard after each round, it will for the first time use what it calls "spy cameras" to monitor Olympic judges. These video cameras will record the action in the ring from each judge's perspective; if supervisors suspect a judge of logging phony hits—or failing to register hits, another common trick—the electronic scoring data entered by that judge can be superimposed on the video. In addition a computer will track and analyze each judge's scoring patterns throughout the Games.
Judges have been warned that failure to report an attempt at bribery will result in their immediate suspension. "And if they can prove [a payoff attempt]," says AIBA general secretary Loring Baker, "AIBA will give them double what the bribe offer was. That's double your money back for being honest."