Small storylines just as interesting for Summer Games

Published 4:30 pm Saturday, August 9, 2008

The storylines have been set by the national media for the Olympics. Props to the Olympic journalists who relay to the country what’s worth watching — everybody needs something to pay attention to during the Games, even if viewers don’t exactly know what they’re getting into by flipping on live fencing at 2 a.m.

But some of the inspired tales won’t be reported by the 5,000-plus accredited Olympic journalists.

The big ones:

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Can USA Basketball return to its international domination? Or will some prognosticators’ inkling that our hardwood heroes can’t beat a zone defense spell another Olympiad without Gold?

Will America’s Olympic sweetheart, Shawn Johnson — a West Des Moines, Iowa, native — cement her place in U.S. Gymnastics lore with superstar gymnasts Mary Lou Retton (all-around Gold in 1984) and Carly Patterson (same feat in Athens)?

Entered in eight Olympic events and the proverbial elephant in the room, 22-year-old swimmer Michael Phelps has a chance to create Olympic history, and a pretty good one at that. The guy only owns six current world records, with two of them set in the past six weeks.

Closer to my home at the Olympic wrestling venue, and many argue closer to the spirit of the Olympics, Jake Deitchler will take on the world of wrestling as a serious underdog. A recent Anoka High School grad and three-time state champion, his biggest upset may have been making the American team.

USA Wrestling reporter Gary Abbott wrote that Deitchler “shocked the world by making the team.”

He’s only the third grappler to catapault straight from his high-school team to Team USA.

The previously unknown 18-year-old Golden Gopher recruit will vie for a medal at 66 kilograms, or 145.5 pounds against the likes of the former Olympic Gold medalist Farid Mansurov of Azerbaijan and two previous world champions. His bouts will be contested in the the late night and early morning hours of Tuesday and Wednesday, Minnesota time.

His short, yet significant wrestling history means he’s a relative unknown. Depite the glitzy media attention the aforementioned Olympians receive, these relative unknowns are what makes the Olympics such a spectacle beyond the names in the Games.

Who cared about — or believed in — the 1980 American ice hockey team before Al Michaels asked the country if it believed in miracles?

Who knew Rulon Gardner before he defeated Aleksandr Karelin, the Russian who hadn’t lost a match in 13 years?

And for every Shawn Johnson or Michael Phelps, surrounded by a throng of reporters, there are hundreds more gymnasts and swimmers who are lone representatives of their countries lucky to have a single journalist inquire what went through their minds as they were eliminated in the first round of competition.

One of my colleagues sat down with Haiat Farag, the first female Olympic wrestler from Egypt. I was lucky enough to listen in on part of the interview, which was translated from her native language to English by her training partners, who are in Beijing chasing Gold on the men’s side.

It was a classic inspirational story. Only one female wrestler for a country with nearly 80 million people and only seven Gold medals since 1896. It was a light-hearted interview as her teammates poked fun at the attention she received in a rather empty athlete lounge. She was simply happy to tell the story, jest among her comrades, and thank Allah for her Olympic opportunity.

In many events throughout the coming weeks, there will be a broadcast of a preliminary event where the favorite, aka the guys you’ve heard of breeze past the competition. Somebody will be left in the dust (no pun intended) and viewers may wonder what business the last-place guy has competing in the Olympics.

But when Page 3 of the results flashes on the screen for just a few seconds, find out what country has that funny three-letter code. Then imagine how inspiring it is for that athlete to that nation’s colors in front of the world, even in last place.

Nathan Cooper is in Beijing to cover the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. He is a part-time Tribune employee and a 2005 graduate of Glenville-Emmons High School.