When the ancient Olympics began, the event lasted one day, only Greeks took part, athletes competed naked and married women were not even allowed to watch. The Games, with a break of about 2,000 years, have been evolving ever since. This year, in the 18 days of competition in Athens, a record 202 countries will be represented, athletes will don the latest aerodynamic bodysuits and carbon-fiber-soled footwear, and women will, for the first time in Olympic history, wrestle. New sights at these Games will include ultrafast needle-nose canoes, hard-shell swim caps, a redesigned gymnastics vault (sloped in front, and with a larger surface area to ensure safer takeoffs) and, if anyone is daring enough to try them, strapless swim goggles. Here are some of the other new faces, places, moves and sports to look out for as NBC—for the first time—provides virtually round-the-clock coverage.
Situated midway between Hawaii and Australia, the new Olympic country of Kiribati (pronounced KIH-rih-bahss) looks on a map like tiny Christmas tree lights strung along the equator. It comprises 33 islands, has fewer than 100,000 residents and is so remote that there are flights out only four days a week. Added to the field for Athens, along with East Timor ( Afghanistan and Iraq rejoin the Games after being suspended by the IOC), Kiribati, a British colony from 1916 to 79, will be represented by sprinters Kaitinano Mwemweata and Kakianako Nariki (together, left) and a weightlifter. Because medal hopes are unrealistic, says one of the country's Olympic officials, David Little, "having the most friendly team and the indisputably best flag will be our major claims."
AN NBC BLITZ
Call it the first 24-hour Olympics. After the Salt Lake Games, NBC Sports boss Dick Ebersol decided he wanted to televise the Olympics on an unprecedented scale, and so the network and its affiliates ( MSNBC, CNBC, USA, Bravo, NBC HDTV and Telemundo) will air a staggering 1,210 hours from Athens—nearly three times the record 441� hours of coverage from Sydney and more than the 1,133 hours from the past five Summer Games combined. Prime time will continue to feature tape-delayed gymnastics, swimming and track and field, but for the first time viewers can get significant coverage of all 28 sports—much of it live. (The men's and women's 10,000 meters, for example, will air on NBC.) Another element is the coverage by Spanish-language network Telemundo, whose 169� hours will be the first exclusively non-English-language Olympic broadcast in U.S. history.
A New Twist
Canada's 18-year-old whiz Alexandre Despatie (inset) won the 2003 platform world championship by nailing a backward 2� somersault with 2� twists (right), a dive that had never been executed in a major competition In Athens it will carry the highest degree of difficulty (3.8)—and potentially produce the highest point totals—of any platform dive performed. Rest assured that Despatie's top rivals, from China, have been practicing the back 2� intensively in preparation for the Games. "Alex drew first blood," says Canadian coach Mitch Geller. "If you're going for gold, you should be able to do this well."
Modeled after cavalry battles, sabre competitions require fencers to strike opponents from the waist up—"the idea being, kill the man, spare the horse," says the U.S. Fencing Association's Cindy Bent-Findlay. The one-on-one discipline, in which fencers can score hits with any part of the blade, not just the tip (as is the case in foil and epee) has been an Olympic men's event since 1896, but women's competition will make its debut in Athens as an individual sport. The U.S.'s Sada Jacobson (far left, No. 1 in the world) has a good chance at the gold, and her sister Emily (No. 10) could win a medal as well.
Although the Athens organizing committee has taken flak about several of its competition venues, it is receiving only praise from Whitewater paddlers. Games organizers have piped in 5.5 million gallons of the Aegean Sea for their man-made, state-of-the-art, canoe and kayak slalom course, making this the first time in Olympic history that those events will be held in saltwater. That buoyant and frothy medium, say athletes who took part in a test event on the course in April, will result in bigger-than-ever Whitewater—and more thrills and spills.
Contested internationally for some 20 years, women's freestyle wrestling joins the Olympics with four weight classes. Japan is the world champion, but the United States is close behind with team members (above, from left) Tela O'Donnell (121 pounds), Sara McMann (138.75), Toccara Montgomery (158.5) and Patricia Miranda (105.5). A Phi Beta Kappa at Stanford, Miranda has been accepted at Yale Law School and hopes to become a role model for women who want to take up the sport—and plenty do: Some 4,000 U.S. girls competed in wrestling last year, 20 times the number of competitors in 1991.