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World-class competition on display at 2008 Olympics

May 8, 2008

At 8:08:08 p.m. on the eighth day of August 2008, the 39th Summer Olympic Games will kick off in Beijing, China. Amidst recent controversy regarding Chinese-Tibetan relations and the air quality in Beijing, the world’s top athletes will be looking to rewrite the history books and strike gold. The perennially strong American contingent looks well poised to build on their success of the Athens games, where they led the medal count with 102, including 36 gold.

Tennis: Will the Williams sisters regain their title?

In 2000, Venus and Serena Williams were the best doubles team in the world, and their Olympic gold medal only solidified that status. However, a knee injury forced Serena to withdraw from the 2004 games in Athens. At the Australian Open earlier this year, both verbally committed to the 2008 Games, and they seem a near lock for regaining the gold.

In women’s singles action, Russian superstar Maria Sharapova, currently ranked No. 3 in the world, has won three titles so far this year, including a Grand Slam at the Australian Open. On the men’s side, world No. 1 Roger Federer of Switzerland will be making his third Olympic appearance, and the gold medal is his to lose.

Swimming: Can Phelps finally get 7 gold medals?

An outstanding Olympic experience in Athens—in which he won a record eight medals (six gold, two bronze)—left American Michael Phelps at the top of the swimming world. Though he fell just shy of Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in one Olympics (Spitz did it in 1972), Phelps has another chance to match it in Beijing. At the 2007 world championships, he won seven gold medals and broke five world records, many of which he already held. The 6’4” Phelps will race in eight events in Beijing, and, barring anything unusual, should take home a medal in each of them.

The swimming events at the 2008 Games look to be some of the most interesting, as U.S. stars Brendan Hansen, Katie Hoff, Kaitlin Sandeno and Aaron Peirsol take on the world’s best:  Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, France’s Laure Manaudou, and Grant Hackett and Leisel Jones from Australia. 

Gymnastics: Just how good are the US women?

They’re good. Very good. And as the reigning world champions, they have the goods to take them to the top of the medal stand. Though they are arguably the deepest and most talented team in the world, the U.S. women aren’t the only ones in contention for the gold. Enter the Chinese women’s team: the 2006 world champions and runners-up last year. However, perhaps more powerful than world medals is the fact that the Chinese will be competing on home soil in Beijing. It will be interesting to see if they crumble under the weight of expectations, or are inspired by the home crowd (a la the Magnificent 7 in Atlanta in 1996). The American women have something to prove as well. In 2004, when gold was expected, silver felt like a disappointment to many. They’ll hope to redeem themselves this time around.

In addition to winning a team gold medal, the American women will contend in the all-around competition as well as on all four event finals. Sixteen-year-old Shawn Johnson of West Des Moines, Iowa, is the reigning world all-around champion, as well as the gold medalist on the floor exercise. In Beijing, she definitely has the potential to win individual medals in the all-around, balance beam and floor exercise. Her teammate, 18-year-old Nastia Liukin, is stellar on the uneven bars and balance beam (she’s the 2007 world champ on this event), but needs to remain completely healthy if she is to have any shot at an all-around medal. Liukin is in some pretty elite company, however, because she recently tied the great Shannon Miller’s record of most world medals for a U.S. gymnast (9 total).

Other U.S. contenders are Alicia Sacramone, the best vaulter on the American team and three-time world medalist in that event, as well as the reigning world silver medalist on the floor exercise. Florida’s Shayla Worley could find herself on the team as well, due in large part to how much she can contribute on the uneven bars. 

Rounding out the rest of the six-member team could come down to a few different athletes: Sam Peszek, Ivana Hong, Jana Bieger and 2005 world all-around champion Chellsie Memmel are strong contenders. 

In the men’s event, 2004 Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm of Wisconsin is back leading the U.S. team. The American men won the silver medal in Athens, but a medal of any color would be considered a success for this young team, which will most likely include the University of Minnesota’s Guillermo Alvarez.