From torture to triumph
Just making it to the Olympic field was a surprise for the Iraqi men's soccer team. While the Iraqis, backed by hundreds of cheering expatriates, cruised to three unlikely Olympic victories, soccer mania gripped the war-torn nation. Nighttime gunfire in Baghdad could have been interpreted as another insurrection. Instead, it was young men firing shots into the air celebrating Iraq's defeat of Australia to earn a shot at an Olympic medal. A year before, Iraq's soccer team was in disarray. With threats of torture fresh on players' minds, officials tried to piece together a quality team on a shoestring. Months before the Olympics, the team's European coach quit, citing dangerous conditions in Iraq, but homegrown coach Adnan Hamd guided his players to victory.
In the bag
Two American beach volleyball teams faced off, but not in the gold medal match. Misty May and Kerri Walsh won, then went on to win the gold. Meanwhile Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs recovered from their 14th consecutive loss to their fellow Americans by taking bronze. May and Walsh were favorites from the beginning: "People said, 'You've got the gold medal in the bag.' However flattering that is, we know that's not true." Now it is.
Michael Phelps may have come one medal shy of tying Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympiad, but the Baltimore teenager didn't disappoint. He led U.S. medal winners, leaving Athens with six gold and two bronze.
All-around men's gymnastics champion Paul Hamm faced international pressure to give up his gold medal after officials discovered a math error led to Hamm's victory. The American gymnast rallied late from 12th place to first during consecutive 9.837 parallel bar and high bar routines. But an investigation afterward showed a handful of judges accidentally deducted .1 from a South Korean gymnast's score, leaving him with only a bronze medal instead of gold. Days later amidst a chorus of boos, Hamm took silver in the high bar.
Stranded in the Wyoming wilderness two years ago, Greco-Roman wrestling star Rulon Gardner nearly died from exposure. Four years ago the American became a national icon after knocking off the seemingly invincible Alexander Karelin and winning gold in the wrestling competition at Sydney. His comeback from the wilderness fell one match short in Athens. This year after Gardner's bronze medal win, he left his shoes on the mat and walked away in his socks-a sign used by wrestlers to mark retirement.
Real dream-team status at the 2004 Olympics belonged to the American softball team. Powered by Crystl Bustos and a bevy of pitchers, the United States team outscored opponents 51-1 during the Olympic tournament. In fact, American pitchers didn't allow a single run until the gold medal game against Australia. How good is the American softball machine? So good that two years ago the International Olympic Committee recommended softball be removed from the Olympic games in part because of American dominance. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 will feature softball, but after that, the rest of the world may simply take their ball and go home.