ATHENIAN RHAPSODY Dont ask me why, but the Olympic Games tend to sneak up on me. Yes, a worldwide sports extravaganza that costs in excess of $7 billion to present . . . sneaks up on me. I suppose this has much to do with the overstuffed calendar of games we Americans enjoy year after year. When you add the fact that the summer Games are played every fourth year -- directly in line with a presidential election here in the States -- well, again, they sneak up on me. But just like that college buddy youve lost track of until he shows up on your front porch at dinner time, I tend to welcome most of what the Olympics bring. Baron Pierre de Coubertins ideal for reviving the Games in 1896 -- a conflicted world unified, if only briefly, on the athletic field -- seems rather quaint today, maybe even corny. Id argue, however, that the day we give up Olympic hopes and dreams, all will truly be lost. The Athens Games of 2004 (opening this Friday) will be nothing remotely similar to the Athens Games of 1896. At those first, revived, Games, there were all of 14 countries in competition, and precisely 13 American athletes (remember Tom Burke?). Come Friday, 202 flags and 531 U.S. athletes will parade into Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies. And as for the charming, idyllic foundation of amateurism drawn up by the good Baron, Ive got two words for you: Allen Iverson. There are elements to the Olympics I can do without, starting with the jingoism. If I were president of the International Olympic Committee, flags would be displayed at the opening and closing ceremonies, and nowhere in between. I honestly dont care about the medal standings. With more than 500 athletes in the field, the U.S. had better claim more hardware than, say, Turkey. But its nothing to boast of. Then theres the endless stream of numerical standards: American record, Olympic record, world record. Please, NBC, tell us when a record is broken. Otherwise, keep the story focused . . . on todays athletes. I was 15 and traveling with my family in New York City when Mary Lou Retton vaulted into American hearts with her thighs by Butkus and smile by Disney. In 1988, while you were pointing fingers at Ben Johnson, my jaw was dropping over Matt Biondis five gold medals in the pool. (Greatest swimmer in history not named Spitz.) In 1992, I pinched myself when Magic, Bird, and Jordan shared a uniform for the (one and only!) Dream Team. Four years later in Atlanta, Carl Lewis won his FOURTH consecutive Olympic gold medal in the long jump. (Bank on this: DiMaggios hitting streak will be topped before Lewiss leaping four-peat.) During the 2000 Games in Sydney, Rocky Balboa came to life when Rulon Gardner out-wrestled the (almost literally) unbeatable Russian super heavyweight, Alexander Karelin. Yes, Gardner is American, but on that mat in Australia . . . he was Olympian. So which athletes will add their names to the list of Super Memories? You might coordinate your viewing around the mens 200-meter freestyle swimming finals, when two of the greatest swimmers ever to fill a Speedo -- Australias Ian Thorpe and 18-year-old American Michael Phelps -- cut the water as part of Phelpss attempt to match Mark Spitzs record of seven gold medals in a single Games. Pay attention, also, to any swim race featuring four-time Olympian (and 10-time medalist), Jenny Thompson. (Any Olympian that pretty simply HAS to be in prime time. Shes an Ivy League med student, to boot.) Track and field will have a stink to it, considering all the speculation over doping and who exactly is on what. Im interested in the mens 1,500 meters, where one of the alltime greats -- Moroccos Hicham El Guerrouj -- aims for his first gold medal . . . in his third Olympics. And theres always gymnastics, the summer equivalent of ladies figure skating, where Americans find their quadrennial darling in tights. Whos the next Retton? The next Strug? These Olympics will be on television for more hours than any other in history, and there will be the inevitable discussions on security measures and international impact. Heres hoping whatever distractions there may be are of the mild, talking-head variety. Heres hoping the world can, indeed, get along -- for a couple of weeks anyway -- in a part of the world where it seems so difficult. And heres hoping, yes, that a hero or two manages to sneak up on us all.