James Lawton at the 2008 Olympics: Megastars devalue the gold standard

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The Independent Football

Any diversion triggered by Lionel Messi is bound to be spectacular – he is, after all, football's most mesmerising talent – but whatever he does in Shanghai tomorrow when Argentina open the defence of their football crown against Ivory Coast cannot be more than a rustle in the Olympic bushes.

It is the fate of every extraordinary deed by a Messi, or a Roger Federer, who has dreams of a laurel garland to ease his Wimbledon pain and even a Tiger Woods if golf gets its way and becomes an Olympic sport after a gap of more than a hundred years.

The point of the Olympics, however obscured it can become in the teeth of a drugs controversy, is that they have the power to bestow a supreme accolade. They take an athlete or a swimmer or a rower to their version of Mount Olympus.

They are simply moving too sharply from their classically designated role when they offer a consolation prize to a Messi, so poorly handled by his Argentina coach Jose Pekerman in the World Cup of 2006, or a Federer engulfed by Rafael Nadal – or still another, albeit lesser, prize to the Tiger. Both the superstars and the Olympics are diminished – the superstars by becoming marginal figures in the show, whose formal opening at the stunning Bird's Nest stadium here on Friday is expected to draw an audience of at least a billion television viewers, the Olympics by becoming fatter and more obviously intent on dragging in every penny and dime that can be squeezed out of already mega-earning sports.

If you continue to accept the validity of the Olympics, if you choose to walk on the high wire between hope of stupendous performance and dread that it will sooner rather than later be announced as another fraud, you do want achievement that announces itself as the peak of any sportsman or woman's life.

That is what makes the American swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt such compelling figures here over the next few weeks. It is why Carl Lewis and Steve Redgrave and Sebastian Coe will for ever stand larger in the mystique of the Olympics than a Messi or a Federer or a Woods, if he should ever get to play with the lip-smacking approval of television.

In this sense you could understand the reluctance of Barcelona to see Messi playing Olympic football at a time when they face a huge fight to re-establish themselves as a significant force in the Champions League. Messi is playing, for huge profit, in a game which has its own peaks quite divorced from the extravaganza which begins to unfold here this week.

Two years ago Messi was a key member of an Argentina team which promised to restore the World Cup to artistic heights untouched since Brazil's beautiful triumph in Mexico in 1970. But the striker was critically, some would say criminally, underused and Barça could reasonably question the legitimacy of any redemption here.

Perhaps, though, it was Woods who carried us to the heart of this matter, as is his tendency on most issues that affect his life and the sport he has come to dominate so profoundly, when he was asked his opinion on the Olympic initiative.

"Heck, it would be great to have an Olympic medal," he said, "but would it mean more to any golfer than getting his hands on the Claret Jug or the Green Jacket?" No, of course it wouldn't, and there we have the diminishing of the Olympics whenever they open their doors to sports which have their own historically established marks of excellence.

The greatest festival of sport inevitably proclaims an over-arching ambition that is quite separate from the call to go faster, higher and stronger. It is one to go ever more profitably.

No doubt there will be few complaints in Shanghai tomorrow night if Messi produces the kind of compelling, intricate skill that so overshadowed Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford last season. Or if Federer serves up the exquisite tennis of which he is still capable to win Olympic gold at his third attempt. Messi and Federer bring their own rewards in any circumstances, yet the latter is as candid as the Tiger when it comes to assessing Olympic gold against the silver of Wimbledon or the US Open.

"Winning Olympic gold would be great for both me and my country," he said recently. "It would be something always to have with pride, but no, not as important as winning a Slam event. For a tennis player that always has to be the supreme achievement."

If anything can be certain at the Olympics, it is that when the golds begin to tumble next week, when Phelps reaches out to go beyond the seven Mark Spitz achieved in Munich 36 years ago, when the most compelling stories will be to do with young men and women occupying the highest ground they will ever tread, Lionel Messi and Roger Federer might indeed be buried in the bushes.

Wish you weren't here? Five big-name footballers in Beijing

*LIONEL MESSI (Argentina) The 21-year-old midfield maestro has already lifted two La Liga titles, and a Champions League with Barcelona. Finished second to Kaka in the 2007 World Player of the Year awards.

*RONALDINHO (Brazil) Has much to prove in Beijing, his inclusion in a side usually consisting of lesser known players an indication of recent poor form. The former World Player of the Year, was frequently sidelined at Barcelona last season, prompting a move to Milan.

*ALEXANDRE PATO (Brazil) The 18-year-old Milan forward, who scored on his national debut against Sweden in March, has been tipped for great things with the South Americans.

*RYAN BABEL (Netherlands) Enjoyed an impressive debut season at Liverpool following a £11.5m switch from Ajax.

*JUAN RIQUELME (Argentina) The three-time World Player of the Year nominee is the only overage player in Argentina's squad at 30. Currently plying his trade for Boca Juniors.

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