FINALLY, THE OLYMPICS MAKE IT BACK TO THE LAND WHERE THEY BEGAN

"Don't worry," the Greeks kept saying, again and again, as the weeks and months ticked by, "we'll be ready." It was a gasping, feverish race to the finish, and the edges were left plenty rough, but when the curtain went up on the 2004 Summer Olympics last Friday night, the people of Athens made believers out of the world. They were ready. The opening ceremonies at Panathinaiko Stadium began with the image of a sprinter and the sound of a thumping heartbeat--a respectful nod to the ancient Games and, just maybe, a sly wink of the eye to an embattled people. So forgive us, Greece, but you did give us cause to doubt. The condition just six months ago of the very stadium that hosted the most spellbinding opening ceremonies in years was--well, suffice it to say, it didn't look anything like this.

Four memorable hours was all it took to hush the doubters, at least for now, and to rescue a week of prologue that seemed to be marred by one Greek tragedy after another. First, a young Athenian judo star jumped from her apartment window after a lovers' spat; two days later her devastated boyfriend followed her out the same window. (Both remain in critical condition.) Then, last Friday, Greeks awoke to the news that national hero Kostas Kenteris--a surprise track-and-field gold medalist in 2000 and leading candidate to light the Olympic torch in 2004--had skipped a mandatory drug test. He then injured himself in a mysterious motorcycle accident that no one witnessed. Doping rumors engulfed the nation. (Greek officials booted Kenteris out of the Games before the International Olympic Committee got the chance.) But then came those ceremonies, that splintering, mesmerizing statue, those Olympic rings of fire.

And at last, the Games themselves. Asked which Olympian he was most eager to see, NBA rookie sensation Carmelo Anthony picked a kid who grew up just a few miles away. "I got a cat from my town, Baltimore--they say he swims like a fish," Melo said, "so I'm gonna go check him out."

The cat in question, 19-year-old Michael Phelps, did not disappoint. He launched his now famous pursuit of Mark Spitz by capturing America's first gold on the Olympics' first day. Phelps couldn't have scripted it better. The Greek gods of scheduling teed up his best event--the 400-meter individual medley--on day one, allowing Phelps to introduce himself to the world by obliterating the field. "One down, six to go," he said confidently afterward. But his record chase is about to face a Thorpedo attack. On Monday night, in a showdown the Australian press has dubbed "the race of the century," Phelps will challenge Aussie superstar Ian Thorpe, 21, in the race Thorpe has owned since 2001: the 200-meter freestyle. It is far from Phelps's best event. It could be his undoing--or the moment that ignites his legend.

Traditionally, the first day of Olympic action is relatively quiet. Not this time. Besides the pool action, three U.S. women's teams got off to promising starts: soccer blanked Brazil, 2-0; softball began its gold-medal defense by so thoroughly mashing Italy that the sport's mercy rule was invoked in the fifth inning, and basketball launched its own gold-medal defense with a win over New Zealand by a modest 52 points. Meanwhile, another U.S. squad announced its intentions to be taken seriously, at long last. The men's gymnastics team--yes, the men's--turned in a solid, if not scintillating, performance during Saturday's preliminaries to qualify for Monday's team final (teams start from scratch in the medal round). "I wouldn't expect to be perfect," said reigning world champion Paul Hamm, who appears on target to contend for an unprecedented individual all-around gold. "It's good not to have our best day today." Indeed. They should take a page out of Athens's Olympic manual and save it for when it counts the most.

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