All eyes will be on Athens as the world gathers to compete in this summer’s Olympic Games. Here, we chat with U.S. hopefuls, visit the places they train, and find out why today’s events are much more appealing than those of old.

A Sharper Image
by Porter Anderson

Leading the charge for Team USA are hotshot fencing sisters Sada and Emily Jacobson.

Would someone please whisper a cordial en garde to Venus and Serena Williams? They’re about to be joined at the sisterly summit of athletics by two young swordswomen. Sada Jacobson is the world’s top-ranked women’s sabre fencer, and her sister Emily is eighth. They’re not only bound for competition in Greece, but in fact, they’ll be carving out new territory in the first-ever sabre matches held for women in modern Olympics’ history.

The distinction of what the Jacobsons are doing — and what makes it a first at the Games — is their choice of “weapon,” as ­fencers refer to their blades. There are three, both for men and women: foil, épée, and sabre. You make your points with a foil and épée by “poking” your opponent. With the sabre, which the Jacobsons use, you score primarily with the cutting edge of the blade, as well as by thrusting with its point.

“Sabre is by far the most aggressive and fast-paced of the three weapons,” Sada says. “It uses a slashing motion. It’s very fast, it’s fun. I think most people, even foil-ists and épée-ists, would say it’s the most exciting to watch.”
Making it more exciting is that there’s a real possibility the sisters Jacobson could find themselves in an Olympic face-off.

“There are a lot of very strong fencers in the world right now,” Sada says, estimating that roughly 120 women are currently competing at the world level in events held from Moscow to Lamezia Terme, Italy, and Orléans, France. “But honestly, the person who right now is the best match for me is Emily. She knows me better than anybody else, she knows exactly what I do, exactly what my strengths and ­weaknesses are — and conversely, I know all that about her. It always makes an interesting bout when we’re fencing.

“I started a little bit before Emily, but we’ve been doing this about six years. And the rivalry exists only on the strip. Off the strip, we’re each other’s biggest supporters.” Emily dismisses a question about how such loving sisters handle the ferocity of their competition with typical Jacobsonian eloquence: “When I find out I have to fence her, I put on my mask, she puts on her mask, and we’re just like any other opponents. If she beats me, I support her through the next bout, and the same if I beat her. And it’s not so much the mask that matters, it’s just part of the mindset and mentality. When you’re competing, you’re doing all you can to win.”

And whatever happens in Athens, we’ll probably hear more from the House of Jacobson. That’s right. There’s another one. Jackie is 15 and not in international competition … yet.

Pictured above: Sada Jacobson

Carnage, Cheating, and Chariot racing

By Rowland Stiteler

According to a new book, that was just part of the drama at the original Olympic Games.

  • Image about bela-karolyi-olympics-athens-gymnastics-americanway

Raging wars came to a screeching halt. Such was the power of the ancient Olympics, for which lifelong enemies would drop their swords and their hostilities to compete for an honor of a different kind.

The original Olympics first matched the best athletes from throughout the city-states of ancient Greece, and ultimately came to include every country in the civilized world. It was 1,200 years in which once every four years, the world put everything else aside to focus on the sacred pursuit of sport.

That’s the picture portrayed in a new book by Nigel Spivey, a classics and archaeology professor at Cambridge University who has conducted extensive research into what the original Olympics were really like. The Ancient Olympics: A History (Oxford University Press) purports that the original Games weren’t exactly like some ancient Woodstock — five days of peace and love. They were more like three days of no-holds-barred, winner-take-all competition in which cheating and bribery weren’t uncommon, followed by a couple of days of pomp and ceremony and, yes, animal sacrifices. But those ancient Games laid the foundation for the values behind today’s Olympics. The ancients had much to teach us about the nobility of sport and the lofty nature of struggling to reach one’s goal.

American Way: Your book describes the original Olympics as being very different from those today. Can you paint a picture of what the first Games were like to attend?
Nigel Spivey: The original Olympic “stadium” was not a stadium at all, but just a long oval area with earth banks and a sand track in the middle. The structures were secondary; the emphasis was meant to be on the athletes. It was an ordeal both for the participants and the spectators. Merely surviving the Olympics meant something. The Olympics were held at the hottest time of year, and there were no sanitary facilities as we would know them today.
The original crowds were the friends and families of athletes themselves. There were no women there because they weren’t allowed. No one was selling refreshments to the spectators, although the area around the Olympics was filled with every sort of huckster selling his wares. There were orators and politicians, people eager to take advantage of this gathering from around the country. But the spectators hadn’t come along for a holiday. They’d come to watch the best athletes compete.

American Way: What were the sports in the original Olympics?
Spivey: Boxing, wrestling, chariot racing, discus throwing, and various footraces. Once the Games were established, there was none of this business of adding events like beach volleyball.

American Way: What did the winners get?
Spivey: They were carried on the shoulders of the crowd. People would be throwing flowers at them. A lot of singing went on. There were plenty of special hymns of vic­tory. There would be a proclamation that they were winners, and there would be a huge barbecue where a lot of meat was ­eaten and a lot of wine was drunk. Some of the contestants, if they had money, would have lavish parties to celebrate their victories.

American Way: There were no medals?
Spivey: All they got from the Games themselves was a wreath or crown of olive leaves, totally valueless. But the city-states from which the athletes came would offer cash prizes, free food for the athletes and their families for the rest of their lives, celebrity status that would follow them throughout their lives. Winning elevated you to lifelong hero status.

American Way: You mention that cheating, which involved paying your competitor to take a dive, wasn’t unheard of in those days. What was the penalty if you got caught?
Spivey: You were fined, and a statue would be put up of Zeus waving a thunderbolt at you for cheating. The statues were on display on the way into the stadium, so your name was blackened for generations to come. Still, some chose to try to buy off their opponents because there was no honor in coming in second.

American Way: Your book mentions something akin to a modern boxing weigh-in, in which you could potentially psych out your competitor. Can you explain that?
Spivey: There was a weigh-in, in which the athletes were nude. Because there were no weight categories, your opponent might outweigh you by 100 pounds or more. So it was a common practice to try to “psych out” your opponent by merely looking formidable, and it happened more than once that competitors would simply drop out after they took one look at their opponents.

American Way: In contrast to that, your book also paints a picture of athletes who literally put their lives on the line rather than give up in a sport like boxing or wrestling. Was that the attitude most athletes held?
Spivey: Yes, the whole culture put great value on the divine nature of struggling to succeed. Sport was considered a religious pursuit.

American Way: How did the Games change after the Romans conquered Europe and took the competitions over?
Spivey: The Romans made it much more cosmopolitan, and you had competitors from all around the Mediterranean basin, and also from the Near East, Persia, and the area we now know as Iraq and Iran. The athletes came from throughout the Roman Empire. In fact, the most successful city throughout the history of the ancient Olympics was not in Greece at all, but Alexandria in Egypt, which produced more winners than any other city.

American Way: What sorts of rituals were more or less standard to the Olympic spectacle? Was there a lighting of the torch?
Spivey: No, that wasn’t actually invented until 1936. The ceremonies involved a lot of religious rituals that we don’t totally under­stand. There was a ritual of cutting up animals [oxen in particular] and “reading” their entrails to predict the future.

American Way: Those rituals notwithstanding, one could draw the impression from your book that the original Olympic period, from about 800 B.C. to about 400 A.D., laid the foundation for the way modern society thinks of sports. Do you think that’s true?
Spivey: No anthropologist would say that the Greeks represented the only society that valued playing games. But it’s like this: Some say that if you’ve read Plato, you’ve read all the philosophy you need to read. To a certain extent that carries over to the way the ancient Greeks conceptualized sport. They codified game playing, and more importantly, they looked at athletics and asked the question, “Why do we do this?” From that process they came up with a model for athletic competition and said, “Here is how we do this.” They set the standard for us.

Camp Karolyi
By Eric Celeste

At his sprawling Texas ranch, legendary coach Bela Karolyi is training the U.S. lady gymnasts who will flip, twirl, and tumble their way into our hearts at the Athens Olympics.

  • Image about bela-karolyi-olympics-athens-gymnastics-americanway

The narrow dirt-and-pebble road leads deep into the East Texas woods, past ambling farmers and cows to Never Never Land, the place where children learn to fly. The car rattles as rabbits scurry past, and you worry that if the rain comes, the mud will make it impossible to get out.

No matter. There are worse fates than being stuck at the USA Gymnastics Women’s National Team Training Center, aka Camp Karolyi. Here, on 2,000 acres of piney expanse, is the home of renowned women’s gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, the legendary Romanian émigré who led Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to Olympic gold. Now, with his wife, Martha, the current U.S. gymnastics national team coordinator, he has taken what was once a one-room cabin and chicken coop and turned it into a burgeoning 30,000-square-foot training retreat for the nation’s best young female gymnasts.

A few months from now, some of the athletes here will become household names as they vault and tumble for their country at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Today, however, they are just girls at camp, forced to endure a morning of repetitive questioning during media day.

The gymnast everyone wants to talk to is Courtney Kupets, the 2003 and 2004 U.S. National All-Around Champion and key member of the 2003 World Championships gold medal team. Media reps surround her as she sits on a bar stool in the clubhouse. Kupets looks like any other 18-year-old — big loop earrings with studs above them, hair in a bun, an Adidas shirt, silver bracelets on her arms — except with more-developed calf muscles than you’d expect on a girl her age.
“I love it here, but it was weird the first time we came,” she says. “It was like, ‘Where are we going?’ I mean, there was no TV. We had to play with the swans.”

Everyone laughs. Most of Kupets’ remarks seem scripted. In fact, she clutches notes to herself on sheets of legal-pad paper that say things like, “I do gymnastics because I love it” and, “It has taught me a lot of self-discipline.” But she also acknowledges what everyone thinks when they first arrive at Camp Karolyi: Where in the world am I?

The answer is two-part: One, you are nearly 60 miles north of Houston, just northeast of the speck known as New Waverly, officially in the middle of nowhere. Two, and more to the point, you are at the heart of what makes the U.S. women’s team so formidable: the training center that began more than four years ago as a way to bring together the best talent and coaching the nation has to offer. In turn, it has given rise to a team of unprecedented depth and camaraderie, one that is expected to easily best its fourth-place finish in the last Olympic games.

It was during training for the 1999 competition that Karolyi was called out of retirement to lead the women’s gymnastics team. It was then that Karolyi instituted his centralized training program to acclaim. It was then that Karolyi’s admittedly dictatorial style infuriated the ­coaches, who demanded he be replaced.

It’s a testament to Karolyi’s wife that she was chosen to be the new national coordinator. It is a testament to the program that it has not only continued, but burgeoned. It is a testament to Bela Karolyi’s oversized charm that he retains a place with the team, if not in title, in spirit. Because as every media member here knows, the story is the place, and this place is all about the looming presence of Bela Karolyi. As Kupets says, “He still motivates you.”

No one can deny that Karolyi’s brainchild — this retreat — has helped create a team that is the odds-on favorite to win gold in Athens. As Karolyi says, “This year’s Olympic champ, well, it’s going to be an American. They are on top of the world right now. The very best.”

WHEN KAROLYI took over in 1999, that wasn’t true. The program was scattered and decentralized, and USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi knew it needed someone strong-willed to take over. He convinced Karolyi to come out of retirement and help establish the national training center. Karolyi and USG were working against long odds. Coaches were upset at the change. And although gymnasts had trained at his retreat before — the ladder that leads to a cubbyhole in his cabin is known as “Mary Lou’s loft,” as it’s where Retton stayed while training — expansion was needed. USA Gymnastics had to raise more than 90 percent of its $16 million budget. Colarossi was undeterred. “Bela,” he says, “is the only person I know who can take nothing and create something.”

Which is what he did. Recently, a new dance rehearsal studio was installed, with a sauna and whirlpool to follow. These necessary training facilities go hand in hand with the tetherball pole, the wildlife, and the Coke machines to create the perfect mix of girl’s summer camp and rigorous world-class training facility.

Kupets’ coach, Kelli Hill, who was openly skeptical of Karolyi four years ago, agrees that the camp fosters team spirit. “The kids look forward to coming in,” she says. “They’ve become best friends. Even when they go home, they’re on e-mail or on the phone with each other. I think that’s a tribute to the program.”

“This is my dream,” Karolyi says. He is smiling, shaking hands with the press, leading them on a grand tour of his property. He is proud of this place. He takes us inside what has now expanded to become his beautiful lodge home and shows us the scores of animals he’s shot and mounted, Mary Lou’s loft, his many dogs that follow him wherever he goes.

Karolyi walks into the pen behind his garden where his hunting dogs yelp at strangers. He ignores them and strides toward a large pond facing the woods that begin on the water’s opposite side. Quickly they come, scores of animals loping toward him: deer, turkeys, peacocks, chickens, roosters, emus. Karolyi pets an old deer gently as he bellows to reporters. “At 4 a.m., the roosters go off,” he says, smiling. “It’s part of the experience.”

The experience is as unique as it is necessary. To take the elite among 2,500 kids from hundreds of gymnastics clubs across the country and winnow them to 28 girls who will vie to represent their country takes this sort of place. “It’s why, I believe, we will win,” Karolyi says. It’s why it feels both simple and magical, a place where girls go to giggle, ride horseback, vault, tumble, swing, and soar.

Porter Anderson is content producer for Breaking News with, the Internet network of the Time Warner CNN Newsgroup. He’s based at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

ROWLAND STITELER is a Florida-based freelance writer. He recently won the Travel Writer of the Year Award from the Mississippi Tourism Association.

Eric Celeste is a staff writer for the Dallas Observer.
The U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Team was announced July 18. They are the favorite to win gold as a team, but several individuals should do well, too. Watch for…

Courtney Kupets, 18, Gaithersburg, Maryland
2004 U.S. National All-Around Champion (tie)
2003 U.S. National All-Around Champion
2002 Uneven Bars World Champion

A favorite for All-Around Gold in Athens. A consistent, not flashy, performer. Does everything well. Fully recovered from a torn left Achilles tendon she suffered in 2003. Especially strong on the uneven bars.

Carly Patterson, 16, Allen, Texas
2004 U.S. National All-Around Champion (tie)
2003 World Championships All-Around
Silver medal
2002 U.S. Junior National Champion

Like Kupets, Patterson was a member of the 2003 World Championships gold-medal team. A petite, powerful performer. Her nickname is Harley, and she excels on the beam and floor exercises.

Courtney McCool, 16, Lee’s Summit, Missouri
2004 U.S. Olympic Trials Silver medal
2004 Visa American Cup Silver medal
2003 U.S. Nationals All-Around Silver medal

At the Olympic Test Event in Athens earlier this year, McCool not only won the women’s all-around, but qualified in all four event finals. Her favorite events are the uneven bars and balance beam.