- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ryan O’Halloran ranks the top stories to watch at the Beijing Games:


NBC paid $900 million to broadcast the Games, and the network forced the IOC to move many of the swimming finals to the morning in Beijing so they can be televised in prime-time on the East Coast. Judging by the way Michael Phelps swam at trials last month, NBC should get its money’s worth. Phelps won six golds and two bronzes in Athens and seven golds at the World Championships last year. He arrived in China the favorite in each of his individual events: 200 freestyle, 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly, 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley. And the United States is the favorite in all three relays. Mark Spitz’s record of seven golds has stood for 36 years. It could be broken in the opening week of the Games.


USA Basketball decided after the 1988 Games to allow NBA players to participate in the Olympics, and the results were golden the next three Games. Things fell apart starting with the 2002 World Championships. A 6-3 record at Worlds. A 5-3 record at the 2004 Olympics. Enter Jerry Colangelo. Enter Mike Krzyzewski. And enter a roster that includes, for the first time, Kobe Bryant. The U.S. went 8-1 at Worlds two years ago and won all 10 of its Olympic qualifying games last year. But winning gold in Beijing won’t be easy, despite the presence of Bryant and LeBron James. Spain won the 2006 World title and is led by several NBA players, including Pau Gasol. Argentina is the defending gold medalist, and its roster includes Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola.


“Probably the strongest team we’ve ever sent to the Olympic Games,” says U.S. men’s coach Bubba Thornton. That’s quite a statement, but he may be right. The team won 19 medals in Athens, and its athletes rank as the gold-medal favorites in marquee events like the 100 meters (Tyson Gay), 400 meters (Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt), the 400 hurdles (Kerron Clement, Bershawn Jackson and Angelo Taylor), both relays, shot put (Reese Hoffa and Adam Nelson) and decathlon (Bryan Clay). The two marquee track events will be the 100 and 400 meters. In the 100, Gay faces competition from teammate Walter Dix and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt. In the 400, Merritt bested Wariner at the trials but Wariner is the defending gold medalist.


The Chinese government has shut down factories and pulled an estimated 2 million cars off the road over the past two weeks in a desperate attempt to clear the air. Wind and rainfall last week helped blue skies and sunshine break through the haze, and measurements showed a decrease in pollutants. IOC officials, however, warn that some events could still be canceled because of poor air conditions. Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie, who currently holds the world record in the marathon, decided not to compete in the Beijing Games out of fear that the pollution would effect his asthma, and four American cyclists arrived in Beijing Thursday wearing masks to protect themselves from the haze. — Harlan Goode


Every description about gymnast Shawn Johnson starts with “only.” She’s only 16. She’s only 4-feet-8. She’s only 88 pounds. But despite her youth and stature, she’s the Americans’ best hope to win the all-around gold medal (Carly Patterson won in 2004). As she showed at the trials, Johnson is a powerhouse: impressive vaults, daunting beam routines and tour de force floor exercise strategy. The reigning U.S. and World champion, she’s only lost one competition at the senior level to teammate Nastia Liukin. If Johnson brings home a bushel of medals, she’ll draw comparisons to former greats Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller.


The metropolitan area, including Baltimore and its Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, is well represented in the Games. And a lot of those athletes are legitimate medal contenders. In swimming, Great Falls’ Kate Ziegler is the reigning World champ in the 800 freestyle and will face off with Hoff in the 400 and 800 free. This is Ziegler’s first Olympics. Capitol Heights boxer Gary Russell Jr. also makes his Olympic debut in the bantamweight division. Most projections have him reaching the semifinals, which would ensure a medal. Burke’s Justin Spring will compete in gymnastics, and his specialties are the parallel bars and high bar. Alexandria’s Kara Lawson is a reserve on the women’s basketball team. Athletes with area connections will compete in 12 sports.


With the Chinese censoring journalists, supporting the Sudanese government and jailing dissidents, the stage is set for contention outside the athletic arena. The IOC awarded Beijing with the Olympics in 2001 in the hope that the Games would promote the development of a progressive outlook in the world’s most-populous nation. While the Games have been a boon for the Chinese economy, the country’s stance on personal freedom has not improved. On Wednesday, the Chinese revoked the travel visa of American Olympic speedskater and Team Darfur member Joey Cheek, who planned on traveling to Beijing to protest the Chinese government’s dealings in the war-torn nation. — Harlan Goode


The Chinese team is 639 athletes strong the countrys largest squad ever and it enters these Games as the team most likely to overtake the United States atop the medal standings. In Athens, China finished third with 63 medals (32 gold), well behind the Americans haul of 102 (36 gold). China added an additional 232 athletes for the Beijing Games. The Chinese also have a plan: Dominate the sports in which the U.S. does not have a stranglehold. Dont expect a lot of Chinese medals in track and field and swimming. The state-run sports schools instead targeted obscure sports: Shooting, womens weightlifting, rowing, boxing and cycling. Those five sports combined make up almost 25 percent of the 302-event schedule. The other big sports for the Chinese: badminton, table tennis and gymnastics.


Drug testing makes up a large part of any Olympics and so does watching for athletes who, either during the Games or months after, get flagged for cheating and are forced to return their medals. The World Anti-Doping Agency vows to make this a clean Olympics. In April, the agency said human growth hormone (HGH) tests would be administered leading into Beijing a first. An improved HGH test there were no positive results in Athens 2004 or Turin 2006 is in place for Beijing. These athletes will be under close scrutiny: The International Olympic Committee will conduct 4,500 tests during the Games.


The Beijing Games are the first Olympics held in a communist state since Sarajevo in 1984, and everyone will watch to see how Beijing fares as the host city. How bad will the air be? How wretched will the traffic be? Well find out quickly. The city spent $60 billion four times as much as any other previous host on facilities and infrastructure, including the $400 million “Birds Nest” stadium that will host the opening ceremonies and track and field. The Chinese want to come across as a modern nation despite the wide-spread poverty in the outer reaches the country. This is their chance.


Swimmers Natalie Coughlin and Margaret Hoelzer face big challenges in the 100 and 200 backstroke. In the 100, Coughlin is the favorite but will be challenged by Frances Laure Manaudou and Zimbabwes Kirsty Coventry. Hoelzer set the world record previously held by Coventry her former college teammate at Auburn at last months trials. Coventry has won all three of her nations Olympic individual medals and will also swim in the 200 individual medley. Manaudou won five medals at last years World Championships, including wins in the 200 and 400 free, events in which she will face off against Katie Hoff.


This match wont create much of a buzz, but it should. Last month, Rafael Nadal outdueled Roger Federer to win the Wimbledon title in one of the sports all-time great matches. Now, the gold medal in tennis is up for grabs in Beijing. Neither player owns an Olympic medal. If Federer and Nadal meet in the final, the match will be best-of-three sets (not five) and will be contested on a hard court, giving Federer the edge. Nadal is playing Olympic singles for the first time. This is Federers third Games.

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