The world stage is ready for a party

Starting tonight and continuing for 17 days, the world will come together to celebrate the human spirit.
Tonight, more than 10,000 athletes representing a record 202 countries -- including Iraq for the first time since 1988 -- will march into Olympic Stadium in Athens for opening ceremonies of the 28th Summer Olympiad.
Though it will be impossible to ignore the realities of a world in which the threat of terror seems to be lurking in the shadows (security costs alone are estimated to be at $1.5 billion), the Olympics represent a time for people everywhere to put aside their fears, troubles and differences and instead recognize and reward hard work, sacrifice and good old competition.
With more than 500 athletes representing the U.S. team, Americans will have plenty of favorites to root for. Will swimming phenom Michael Phelps match or surpass Mark Spitz's 1972 record of seven gold medals? Does track and field veteran Gail Devers have what it takes to pull out another medal? Will a pair of Courtneys on the women's gymnastics team live up to expectations? And is Roman-Greco wrestling champ Rulon Gardner poised for a repeat victory?
Beyond American favorites are highly anticipated international match-ups. How will Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe measure up against Pieter van den Hoogenband of The Netherlands in the men's 200-meter freestyle? Will Cuba and Japan, as anticipated, be the favorites to reach the baseball finals? Is Iraq's soccer team equipped to handle the likes of the boys from Costa Rica?
What unknowns will emerge as household names, becoming heroes to boys and girls who might one day dare to dream big?
Hundreds of hours
Coverage of it all won't be in short supply. All 28 sports will receive coverage of some sort over 1,210 hours. NBC -- the local affiliate is WFMJ Channel 21 -- along with its cable networks CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo and USA, its Spanish language network Telemundo, and its 24-hour HDTV operation will produce more than 70 hours a day of coverage.
If the big events like swimming, gymnastics and track aren't your thing, how about taking in Olympic badminton, complete with commentary. (Who knew there were badminton commentators?) Maybe a trampoline competition is more to your liking. Of course, there's always table tennis, canoeing and archery.
It's that kind of diversity that makes the Olympics so appealing. There's something for everyone.
Depending on who is doing the calculations, the Olympics will cost from $7.2 billion to $12.5 billion to pull off. That's a load of cash in a time when many other needs seem to cry for attention. Usual controversies over drug use -- already a hotly debated topic -- will likely surface again throughout the games.
But as the games get under way, put those issues aside for now. Forget about the cost. Forget about the things that divide.
For a couple of weeks, let's celebrate young men and women who have endured pain, dripped sweat, overcome obstacles and beat the odds for a chance to compete on a world stage. Let's give them the attention due them.
Tonight, enjoy the fanfare. Then, let the games begin. And in the midst of it all, have some fun.

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