As the men's favorites from Australia, Russia and Germany enter the Shunyi Olympic Rowing Park for the Olympic 10km Marathon Swim, all eyes of the aquatic world and the NBC cameras will be on Australia's Grant Hackett, Russia's Vladimir Dyatchin and Germany's Thomas Lurz. But there will be other swimmers who are capable of stealing the gold from their more renowned competitors.
A crash around the last turn buoy, overheating in humid conditions, a mix-up at the feeding station or a red card disqualification is all it takes for one of the darkhorses to win. Egypt's top medal hopeful, Mohamed El Zanety, Greek's fastest swimmer, Spyridon Giannotis, Britain's cagey Alan Bircher, or the American duo of Chip Peterson and Mark Warkentin, will be ready to take advantage of any mistake and pounce into the position to capture gold.
Indeed, even Grant Hackett's own teammate, Ky Hurst, and Dyatchin's teammate, Evgeny Drattsev, will be baiting their opponents, plotting their own strategies, constantly drafting and battling into the optimal positions for the final sprint.
One tactical error, one missed feeding, one poor turn around a buoy, one kick in the gut...and dreams of Olympic gold will be gone.
If any of the favorites plan to take off right from the start, it will be a risky strategy. Will any one swimmer - or a pair of teammates from the same country - risk taking off on a punishing pace early in the race to build a seemingly insurmountable lead? Can anyone - or pair of countrymen like Hackett and Hurst - or even two fierce competitors like Hackett and Lurz - forge into a huge lead and then hope to have enough to hang on? This strategy might be something Hackett and Hurst contemplate given the success of Melissa Gorman at the 2008 Australian Open Water Swimming Championships, but history tells us that kind of strategy is generally a failed one.
Just ask Britain's Alan Bircher who took it out extremely strong and built a 2+ minute lead at the 7.5K point at the 2004 World Open Water Swimming Championships...only to be caught at the end by a surging pack.
If it comes down to a photo-finish, who better to out-touch Hackett than 6'-9" Maarten van der Weijden of the Netherlands who always cruises behind the leaders and is notorious for turning on the jets in the last 500 meters?
If Hackett's goggles get inadvertently torn off...if Dyatchin misses his feedings...if Lurz finds himself pitched in - or elbowed - around the last buoy, the gates to Olympic glory are open to many. But, who will it be: Egypt's El Zanety? Greece's Giannotis? Britain's Bircher? Australian Hurst? The Netherlands' van der Weijden? Or one of the Americans, Peterson - a Tarheel who grew up along the North Carolina coast or Warkentin - a Trojan who lives near the beaches of Santa Barbara?
Stay tuned for the expected photo finish about 11:50 am Beijing time on August 21, 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by World Open Water Swimming Association