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Olympics 2004: Games Struggle For Spotlight, But Prestige Remains

After months of security fears and concern over unfinished construction projects, the 2004 Olympic Games are finally set to begin next week in Athens. It's a historic return to Greece, the ancient birthplace of the games -- and to Athens, which played host to the first modern Olympics, in 1896. The Summer Games are now one of many international sports competitions, but they are still the most prestigious. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, they give little-known athletes, and less prominent sports, an opportunity to shine in the world spotlight.

Prague, 6 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Olympic Games may not generate as much passion as other international sporting events -- say, for example, the soccer World Cup. But they remain the world's largest and most diverse sporting competition. The prestige associated with the games continues to fuel the ambitions of young athletes the world over.

Starting in Athens on 13 August, the Summer Games will host 16,000 athletes from 201 countries. Almost every imaginable sport -- 28 in all -- will be represented. They range from globally popular sports such as soccer, basketball, and athletics to lesser-known disciplines, such as beach volleyball and synchronized swimming.

For athletes in less popular disciplines, the Olympics is often the biggest competition of their lives, says veteran Czech sportswriter Frantisek Bouc.

"You know, in some disciplines, the Olympics is still the highlight of athletes. But other disciplines -- be it tennis, or baseball, or soccer, or some other sports -- the Olympics are rather like a display of talent. It's definitely not the greatest event for sportsmen in these disciplines," Bouc says.
"We're just like our heroic kings who used to cut off their own escape routes when going to war. For us it's just the same -- either victory or death. We're in the mood to fight for the supreme prize. Each of us has to set his own goal and go for it"

But for athletes competing in less prominent disciplines -- or for small countries that are often on the sidelines of world-class sports -- the lure of an Olympic medal can still be the dream of a lifetime.

Such is the case with one of the world's oldest sports -- wrestling. Many of the world's best wrestlers are from the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, which have emerged with their own teams in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Brothers Buvaysa and Adam Saytiyev are Chechen wrestlers who have both won Olympic golds competing for Russia, and are hoping to repeat their success in Athens.

Georgia's Eldar Kurtanidze is a two-time Olympic medalist and two-time world champion in freestyle wrestling. He is competing in Athens this year, and tells RFE/RL's Georgian Service he and his teammates see their competition in stark terms.

"Sports being what they are, predictions are impossible. But we're approaching this in true fighting spirit. We're just like our heroic kings who used to cut off their own escape routes when going to war. For us it's just the same -- either victory or death. We're in the mood to fight for the supreme prize. Each of us has to set his own goal and go for it," Kurtanidze says.

World champion boxer Agassi Mamedov of Azerbaijan is another athlete likely to have the entire nation behind him as he competes in Athens.

"I am very well-prepared. I will consider every fight as a final one. But this is sports. Anything can happen -- for example, an injury. That is fate. But I will do everything to win," Mamedov says.

His compatriot, weightlifter Asif Melikov, emphasizes the point that one's performance depends on many uncontrollable variables.

"I am 80 percent ready. I will get the other 20 percent during the days ahead, because I have to be in form right on the day of the competition. There are many good athletes -- from China, Russia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Belarus. Anyone among us can win. Good luck will decide," Melikov says.

In a year marked by increased tensions between Islam and the West, the games will offer a welcome opportunity for athletes of every religion to gather.

Iranian weightlifter Hossein Rezazedah -- a gold-medal winner in the 2000 Sydney Games and considered the world's strongest man -- is one of the world's best-known Muslim athletes.

Rezazedah, a national hero, usually looks skyward to pray just before lifting.

The Athens Games will open under the threat of a terrorist attack. Greece has poured $1.5 billion into security in a bid to prevent something like what happened in Munich in 1972, when Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes.

NATO, Patriot missiles, anti-chemical warfare experts, submarines, frogmen, and up-to-date surveillance equipment will be at the disposal of a 70,000-strong military and police force guarding venues, power stations, waterworks, tunnels, and bridges.

Czech sportswriter Bouc believes organizers in Athens have done all they can on security, but the terrorist threat remains high. The Al-Qaeda terror network recently handed European countries a three-month ultimatum to withdraw their troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the deadline for which passed in mid-July.

"I think this is going to be the big danger for the current Olympics. Think about that: the Al-Qaeda ultimatum for Europe has just expired, and they are now threatening that they might conduct some terrorist attacks in Italy. And I think Greece is going to be under threat. On the other hand, the organizers are doing their very best. And in terms of security, this should be the most secure Olympics in history -- at least in terms of money invested in security," Bouc says.

On the sporting front, the United States is expected to vie for the most medals -- along with Russia, which features several gold-medal hopefuls, including heavyweight boxer Aleksandr Alekseyev and gymnast Svetlana Khorkina.

The soccer competition, meanwhile, will be missing most major world players. The event is open to players under 23. But some professional teams have refused to release their young stars. And Brazil, the world's top soccer power, didn't even qualify for the event.

The Olympic spotlight will invariably fall on America's basketball team. This year's version may not be the "dream team" led by Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson at the 1992 Barcelona Games. But it does features top NBA stars such as Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, and teenage phenomenon LeBron James.

The Americans appear almost guaranteed to win the gold. But basketball's growing popularity has put their frontrunner status in doubt. Serbia and Montenegro, Lithuania, Greece, and even China -- whose team will feature the NBA's tallest player, Yao Ming (2.26 meters) -- might just give American basketball a run for its money.

More stories about the Olympics from RFE/RL:

Muslim Women Athletes Move Ahead, But Don't Leave Faith Behind

After Medal-Winning Glory, What Next For Former Soviet Athletes?

Despite Problems, Olympic Ideals Endure

For Some Athletes, Behind The Medals Lies Real Gold