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China vs. U.S., Phelps are top stories to watch

Celizic: We don’t know what’s going to happen once the Games begin on Friday, but we can be pretty sure of some of the story lines that are going to run through the Olympics. We can also predict which pre-Games story lines will die the instant there’s real sports news to report.
Paramilitary policemen stand in front of the National Stadium at the Olympic Green in Beijing
Paramilitary policemen stand in front of the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, at the Olympic Green in Beijing.Joe Chan / Reuters

We don’t know what’s going to happen once the Games begin Friday, but we can be sure of some of the storylines that are going to run through the Olympics. We can also predict which pre-Games story lines will die the instant there’s real sports news to report.

Here are the topics you’ll be reading about once the torch hits the cauldron and the Olympic Flame lights up the smog here in Beijing.

The Weather
Everybody talks about and China is trying its darnedest to do something about it, too. The problem is Beijing’s infamous smog, which can be so dense you can barely see to the end of a city block.

The government has closed coal-fired power plants, closed scores of factories and cut traffic in half by allowing cars on the streets on an odd-even license tag system. Still, the smog hunkers over the city, which is situated in a kind of geological bowl that collects bad air.

At night, government meteorologists have been seeding the clouds, hoping to wring rain out of them to wash the atmosphere clean. It rained last Friday, and the skies were clear on Saturday. On Sunday, it was hazy. By Monday, the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

The weather forecasters are saying it will definitely rain on Friday, the day of the Opening Ceremonies. Since the forecasters here are every bit as good as those in the United States, that means it’s a coin toss as to whether that will come to pass. But whatever the weather – and the smog situation – everybody’s going to keep talking about it.

This is one that no Olympics has been able to get away from since testing first began more than 30 years ago. Athletes will get caught cheating, and when they do, it will make headlines. My guess is that none of the guilty parties will be Chinese. The reason is that the government has been conducting random tests of its own athletes for months now, determined not to suffer the humiliation that befell host nation Greece in 2004 when it’s two national hero sprinters, Katerina Thanou and Konstantinos Kenteris, were busted for staging a motorcycle accident to dodge a mandatory drug test.

China vs. America
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the drug-fueled East German sports machine, the United States has ruled the medal standings. China wants to dethrone the Americans in the nation’s athletic coming-out party. They’ve got the home-field advantage, which always spurs the home team to greater heights. Whether they’ve got the depth to topple Team U.S.A. is another matter. China will probably finish second, but the competition between the two athletic superpowers will be a major theme of the Games.

Michael Phelps
The Games will mint plenty of individual heroes, but none will be the story that Michael Phelps is and will continue to be. No matter what anyone else does, Phelps’ pursuit of matching or breaking Mark Spitz’s record seven gold medals in swimming will be covered morning, noon and night by the media. If he actually does it, it will go down with Jesse Owens’ 1936 performance as one of the greatest individual performances in Olympic history.

Women’s gymnastics
The tumbling munchkins are like the weather. Everybody always talks about them and nobody doesn’t watch them. This will be a battle between a very strong U.S. team and the host Chinese, and it could be spectacular. Look for the winners on a Wheaties box near you.

Judging controversy
The International Olympic Committee has been trying for decades to get better judging in all events, but there isn’t an Olympiad that goes by that doesn’t have a controversy. In 2004, it was gymnast Paul Hamm and his Korean rival. In many years, it has involved boxing. I don’t know where this year’s tempest is coming from, but I know it’s coming.

The Games are supposed to be a refuge from the squabbles that divide the planet. This year, athletes from every national delegation have been given specific instructions to keep their politics off the medal stand. But it seems certain that this year someone will decide he or she simply has to speak out about either Tibet or Darfur, both regions in which China is involved in ways that do not generate good P.R.

The above stories I can pretty much guarantee. I can also think of a couple of subjects that have been stories going into the games that won’t be stories once they start.

Ever since the massacre of Israeli athletes by the PLO in Munich in 1972, the threat of terrorism has been a major story line leading into every Olympics. The closest we’ve had to an actual attack was the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996 that killed two and wounded 11. That was outside of the competition venues in an area that people could visit without being screened. It was carried out by a home-grown terrorist, Eric Rudolph, who said he was driven to his act by the government sanction of abortion.

That’s not likely to happen here. The obvious park to hit would be Tiananmen Square, the enormous plaza in the middle of the city. But to enter that park, visitors have to pass all bags and packages through an x-ray machine, and there is an enormous police presence there. China’s internal security forces have been sweeping up dissidents and must be assumed to be experts at surveillance. The bottom line remains that the Olympics are a nearly impossible target to hit.

There may be demonstrations in Tibet or another incident like the one that killed 16 Chinese police at a border station in the nation’s far west, but the games will go off without violent incident.

No Fun Olympics
China wants these Games to be perfect, and to the people running the show here, that means nothing happens that anyone could view as immoral or improper. There have been stories about the government closing nightclubs and vowing to enforce the city’s universally ignored 2 a.m. closing time for bars. Local prostitutes have also been driven underground. It all threatens to add up to visitors not having a terribly good time.

A night out in a couple of Beijing’s party districts suggests there are still plenty of places to go for a cold one and a multitude of things to do. Some guests may not have all the fun they wanted, but they’ll have enough to send them hope happy.