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The ultimate Olympian faces extinction

Somewhere, the Last Olympian prepares. It is almost time, he thinks.

He trains in the shadows, driven only by sacrifice and performance. His equipment is old, almost primitive. His hunger, too.

Other athletes make millions, he has heard. Other athletes have sponsors, stipends. They live in mansions and drive sports cars and have teams of coaches and trainers and nutritionists and agents and doctors and advisers. He has himself. He trains when his friends tell him to stop. He trains when it hurts him to move. He trains to be better today than yesterday, until all the days up to the one goal in his life: The Olympics.

The Olympics. It is the most special thing in his life. Not the world championships, not the finals of his professional league, not that he has one. The Olympics. That is what matters.

Once, there were hundreds like him, athletes on the verge of poverty, or beyond. Once, the Olympics was their stage. Now, there is just him.

Assuming, of course, that even he still exists.

Perhaps he is a hammer thrower. Perhaps he is a handball player. Given the success of women's sports in the Olympics, perhaps he is a she.

This is our ideal Olympian, the Olympian of our memory. This is the one we go into each Olympics looking for, the one who makes us celebrate along with whatever success comes his way. Perhaps he is a myth; perhaps the Games were never as pure as we made them out to be. But such an athlete can make us believe.

Each Olympics, it gets more difficult to find such an athlete. Professionals have taken over the Games now, often with a complete lack of regard toward it. We have been Dream-Teamed into submission, so much so that we can figure out which is worst, the whining millionaires who don't want to go, or the millionaires who go through the motions once they are there.

Do we really want Shaquille O'Neal, talking about his $123-million contract? Do we really want Reggie Miller, grumbling about room service? No. Not if you grew up loving the Olympics.

What we want is Derek Redmond, rising off the asphalt to finish a race.

What we want is Bill Toomey, having to plead for time off work to compete.

What we want is Billy Mills, dashing from nowhere to win.

What we want is innocence, passing greed at the finish line.

Don't get me wrong. It was good to get rid of the pretense of amateurism, of those phony trust funds and the wink-winking that went along with being a world class track athlete. If there is money to be made, no one should begrudge a swimmer or a hurdler or a basketball player for making it.

Still, there should be a rule. If the Olympics is not the pinnacle of an athlete's sport, then let the athlete stay home. Simple enough?

There is a suspicion, shared here, that the Dream Teams will eventually backfire on the Olympics. That instead of their athleticism, fans will notice their apathy. Pete Sampras couldn't be bothered to go to these Olympics. Or Kobe Bryant or Martina Hingis or O'Neill.

How much has this hurt the Olympics? Who knows? Once the Crocodile Dundee jokes are exhausted (which was sometime in 1997), who knows whether anyone will pay attention in Australia at all?

Dream teams aside, these Games are a gamble, you know. When you hold the Games in the middle of the fall (Australia's spring) instead of the summer (Australia's winter), when the world (not to mention the clock) has been turned upside down, who knows how popular they will be?

For instance, what are you more likely to watch on Sept. 15? The Opening Ceremonies, or the first game of the Rays-A's series?

The next day? The Florida-Tennessee game, or the U.S. men's basketball team against South Korea?

On the 17th, will you go to the Lightning's first home preseason game? Or watch the U.S.-China women's soccer game?

And so it goes. On Sept. 23, the same day that USF travels to Baylor, the U.S. baseball team plays the Cubans. On the 24th, when Keyshawn's old team, the Jets, come to Tampa Bay to play, the U.S. women's gymnasts try to win gold in the vault and uneven bars. Stacy Dragila tries to win a gold medal in women's pole vaulting on the 26th, the same day Jose Canseco returns to the Trop to face the Devil Rays. On Sept. 30, you have your choice of FSU-Maryland or Marion Jones possibly going for her fifth gold medal.

Then, of course, there is Oct. 1. Bucs vs. Redskins. Rays vs. Red Sox to finish the season. The last day of the baseball season. And drag queens in the Closing Ceremonies.

Given that, given the dated feel of taped events (remember how stale it seemed during the Nagano Olympics?), will anyone watch?

Answer: Yes. This is still the Olympics. They still play the same song. They still give the medals.

And every now and then, an athlete whose story captures us all, will come along. It will be a story of hardship and dedication, of sacrifice and perseverance. The story will be slightly familiar, filled with injuries and family tragedy. And it will hit us all over again, and it will warm us again.

This is why we watch. No matter where they play the Games, no matter how much they pay the performers.

As long as the Last Olympian performs, we will watch.

Sydney 2000

WHAT: 2000 Summer Olympics.

WHERE: Sydney, Australia.

WHEN: Friday-Oct. 1.

PARTICIPATING NATIONS: 199.

NUMBER OF ATHLETES: 10,200.

NUMBER OF SPORTS: 28.

WEATHER: The Games fall in Sydney's spring season. Temperatures are expected to range from 54 to 70 degrees.

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