The image was straight out of “300.” Michael Phelps, the bare-chested warrior, raised his arms, threw his head back and split the air with a roar that had been building inside him for four years.
If the United States took off the rest of the Olympics, if there were no more golden moments in the final two weeks, the men's 400 freestyle relay would remain.
That single image of the hero triumphant would be enough.
It embraced every storyline. It was a team victory that furthered Phelps’ personal quest. It was accomplished against a French team that had trash-talked the Americans before the race. And when the froth settled, everyone who saw it agreed that it was the greatest 400-meter relay ever swum in the Olympics or anywhere else.
It was a race for the ages, one that Olympic chroniclers will be harking back to for generations. But it wasn’t the only great moment during the first three days for Team USA, who also saw their women’s fencing team sweep the sabre competition, and the so-called "Redeem Team" opening their quest to reclaim basketball gold with a romp over Yao Ming and China in as electric an atmosphere as you’ll ever see in a basketball arena.
Phelps’ first medal Sunday (Saturday night in the United States) in the 400-meter individual medley was the first big story. But the United States notched its first medals — or first blood — with the women’s fencing team. Mariel Zagunis, Sada Jacobson and Becca Ward swashbuckled their way to a sweep of the sabre competition.
The United States has had modest fencing success, but nothing like this. The sweep was not just a nice haul of hardware, but also an historic moment for American fencing and the Olympics. Just when the world started to take heart in catching up to the star-spangled team in other sports, the Americans win when we didn't expect much.
It was also a weekend in which President Bush gave pep talks, got beach volleyball pointers, waved an American flag in the stands at the Water Cube, and still had time to lecture China on human rights and religious freedom.
The protests that China’s government has been so vigilant to prevent have barely been an issue, and the most intensive security operation in Olympic history made the threat of terrorism a non-issue for fans and athletes.
But this nation in which violent crime is so rare was shocked when Todd Bachman, the father-in-law of U.S. Olympic Men’s Volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, was stabbed to death by a lone Chinese attacker while touring Beijing’s historic drum tower. Bachman’s wife, Barbara, was critically wounded in the attack but is expected to recover.
Unlike the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta 12 years ago, the attack on the Bachman party didn’t create a wave of anxiety over the safety of the Games themselves. Even as Americans mourned, and China and the world opened their arms to the grieving family, events rolled on. And the men’s volleyball team rallied around their coach a day after the attack and beat Venezuela.
The American women’s soccer team, a co-favorite for the gold medal, lost to archrival Norway in the first game, played before the Opening Ceremonies. The American men’s soccer team, picked to be eliminated as early as possible, opened with a win over Japan and a tie with the Netherlands.
And then there was the men’s basketball team.
In 1992, when professionals first played in the Olympics, the American men were like Gullivers among the Lilliputians. Though cracks were beginning to show in their dominance as early as Sydney in 2000, it was still considered an epic upset when they finished third in Athens in 2004. So things changed.
Gone was the group of high-flying all-stars who viewed the concepts of team defense and disciplined offense as beneath their dignity in favor of a team headed by more superstars — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Jason Kidd being the biggest names — but also built to win in international competition.
Most of the members played together last summer under Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, and came to Beijing determined to show that Americans were about more than dashing and slashing and slam dunks.
Late Sunday night, all of Beijing seemed to come to a screeching halt as the "Redeem Team" took the court against China. The game showed that China has a long way to go — it was a 31-point blowout.
But it also hinted that reclaiming hoops supremacy won’t be easy. The Americans played great defense and contributed a couple of dozen clips to the team highlight reel, but the Chinese stayed with them for more than a quarter on the strength of outside shooting. As in Athens, the NBA stars showed little ability to hit outside jump shots. It could have been first-night jitters. Or it could be a warning for tougher games ahead.
Swimming yielded plenty of medals, but only Phelps and the relay team took away gold. Katie Hoff, who grew up in the same Baltimore swim program as Phelps, came with hopes of winning as many as six gold medals. Instead, she started her Olympics with a bronze and a silver. The women’s 400 freestyle relay was anchored by the ageless Dara Torres, but finished second behind the Netherlands. Larsen Jensen, a favorite in the 400-meter freestyle, had to settle for bronze.
If Phelps does get his eight gold medals, he’d better think of a nice gift to give teammate Jason Lezak, the team’s anchor. All Lezak did was swim the fastest 100 meters ever, which was necessary because that’s what he had to do to make up more than four feet on Frenchman Alain Bernard in the final 50 meters of a race.
The Americans obliterated the world record, hacking more than four seconds off the standard they had set themselves in qualifying.
And it's only the beginning.