The Olympic flame finishes its long journey to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games on Friday, marking the start of 16 days of competition involving thousands of athletes. With all the action, keeping track of what to watch for can be tough. This guide provides a brief summary of each major sport.
The men's and women's individual archery tournaments are single-elimination, with 64 archers each. If anyone is planning on starting an office pool, here is some friendly advice: South Korea is the dominant nation in Olympic archery. That's not to say nobody else has a chance. Italy's Marco Galiazzo is back after winning gold in 2004, and countrywoman Natalia Valeeva also figures to contend. The top American hopeful is probably Jennifer Nichols, and here's an added bonus for those who enjoy political intrigue. Taiwan has one of the world's top men's teams. The target includes 10 rings, each with a score between 1 and 10. During individual elimination rounds, archers shoot 12 arrows each. There also are team tournaments. In those matches, three archers per squad each shoot eight arrows. The highest total score wins a match.
Lin Dan and his girlfriend Xie Xingfang will be in the spotlight in the badminton tournament. Both players are top-seeded and favored to win gold in men's and women's singles. China won three out of five gold medals at the Athens Olympics and will be out to at least match that tally in Beijing. Indonesia has the best chance of blocking a sweep of the gold medals by China. Taufik Hidayat has struggled with his form of late but is the defending champion in men's singles. Indonesia also boasts the top-ranked pair in men's doubles and mixed doubles. Players like Denmark's Tine Rasmussen in women's singles or Britain's Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms in mixed doubles are more than capable of pulling off an upset. Bob Malaythong and Howard Bach in men's doubles represent the best hope for the United States.
Forget the seventh-inning stretch. If the inaugural World Baseball Classic two years ago is any indicator, the final Olympic baseball tournament — for now, at least — will be a colorful one. That could mean singing in the stands all game long, noisemakers, balloons bouncing through the crowd and more. United States manager Davey Johnson already has deemed Japan the "odds-on favorite" to capture gold, but everybody knows defending Olympic champion Cuba won't go away quietly and wants to make baseball's last hurrah a memorable event. The American roster, made up of top minor leaguers and one college star has plenty to prove, too. Team USA didn't even make the Athens Games four years ago after winning gold in Sydney in 2000. Baseball and softball go off the Olympic program for the 2012 London Olympics, so expect a special competition at Wukesong Stadium.
The United States, with a team featuring NBA stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, is favored to win its first gold medal in a major event since the 2000 Olympics. The Americans have changed the way they select their team, constructing a national team program with a pool of more than 30 players after losing three times and settling for a bronze medal in 2004. They had previously never lost in the Olympics since pros were allowed beginning in 1992. The U.S. team starts in a difficult group that includes 2006 world champion Spain and runner-up Greece, the team that stunned the Americans in the semifinals two years ago. Host China, with Yao Ming, and Germany, led by All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, also are in the group. Defending Olympic champion Argentina, three-time bronze medalist Lithuania and European champion Russia are the top teams in the other six-team group. The top four on each side advance to the quarterfinals.
The women's basketball team opens up its quest for a fourth straight gold medal against the Czech Republic. The Americans should be able to cruise through their group with the only real competition coming from host China. The Chinese team beat the Americans for the gold medal back in June at the Olympics test event. The medal round is when the fun really starts with potential a matchup with American turned naturalized Russian Becky Hammon. Not only would the U.S. be looking to avenge their loss to the Russians in the 2006 World Championships, but also the rivalry got a bit more exciting when South Dakota-born Hammon decided to play for Russia. Also lurking in the medal round is Australia with the world's best player in Lauren Jackson. The Aussies spent a week training at a boot camp hoping to win their first gold medal in the Olympics.
The party atmosphere at the beach volleyball venue will make California girls Kerry Walsh and Misty May-Treanor feel right at home. It won't hurt that they're also the defending Olympic champions and the dominant team on the domestic and international tours, having swept their Olympic qualifying events. If Walsh's injured shoulder holds up, they're the team to beat, with their toughest challenge to come from Brazilians Juliana and Larissa. Americans Elaine Youngs and Nicole Branagh could also contend for medals. American men Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser are also the favorites. But Brazil fields a pair of strong men's teams, too, and Americans Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal have shown they can compete with their countrymen, beating them the last time they met. Strong Chinese teams could get a boost from crowds pumped up by cheerleaders and rock music.
Amateur boxing isn't about knocking out your opponent. It's all about hitting him early and often. The two-minute rounds are usually action-packed, with reflexes and discipline usually trouncing raw strength as the boxers strive to land bunches of scoring punches. The best amateur fighters generally come from Russia and Cuba, but several nations are sending boxers who could crash that podium parade in the most wide-open Olympic tournament in maybe 16 years. The improved U.S. team has two gold-medal favorites in Demetrius Andrade and Rau'shee Warren, and Luis Yanez has been reinstated to the American squad after getting kicked off for skipping three weeks of training. At 106 pounds, Yanez could meet China's Zou Shiming, who's expected to become a household name by winning the first boxing gold for the host country.
Should the United States reach the kayak flatwater medal stand for the first time since 1992, it will have Carrie Johnson and Rami Zur to thank. Both athletes have overcome physical hardships to return to the Olympics. Johnson has battled a severe digestive disorder and Zur suffered a horrendous spinal injury that could have paralyzed him. Now, they might be Team USA's best hope, but other countries are coming loaded. Germany won seven flatwater medals in Athens, and Hungary — which won six — is aiming for its third straight men's four (K-4) gold in Beijing. The team of Gabor Horvath, Akos Vereckei, Zoltan Kammerer and Botond Storcz won in Sydney and Athens, and is the only two-time defending flatwater champion heading into Beijing.
BMX makes its debut on the Olympic stage, and all four American riders who've brought their little bikes to Beijing for the bumpy, jumpy, dusty race have legitimate medal hopes, including world champions Donny Robinson and Kyle Bennett. On the velodrome, get to know 18-year-old medal challenger Taylor Phinney, the closest thing there is to an American cycling legacy. His mother is 1984 Olympic gold medalist Connie Carpenter-Phinney, his father is former Tour de France stage winner Davis Phinney, and some people within the sport have already labeled the teen "The Next Lance." In road cycling, George Hincapie — one of Lance Armstrong's former teammates — takes his fifth shot at an Olympic medal, and former world champion Kristin Armstrong (no relation to the seven-time Tour de France king, or his ex-wife of the same name) will be in the mix for a gold medal in the women's time trial.
Watch for a possible Chinese sweep of the eight diving medals in front of a passionate home crowd, with Germany's Sacha Klein on 10-meter platform having the best chance to break up the Chinese juggernaut. Teenager David Boudia on individual platform and synchronized platform, along with three-time Olympian Troy Dumais on springboard, give the U.S. its best chance at a medal. The Americans were shut out in Athens.
Germany's always the team to beat in the three Olympic equestrian sports, but they're looking vulnerable. The equestrian events are being held in Hong Kong due to quarantine restrictions on mainland China, and the riders there are fretting over how the heat and humidity will affect their horses and the competition overall. The French, British and Australians all look strong in the equestrian triathlon of eventing. German show jumpers will be glancing over their shoulders at the British and American, while the Dutch look strong to deny the Germans team gold in dressage for the first time since 1984.
At first, it's hard to distinguish between fencing's three disciplines — epee, foil and saber. The biggest differences involve the target areas. In epee, the entire body is considered part of the target. In foil, the target area is smaller — from the shoulders to the groin in front and to the waist in back. In saber, the target zone is everywhere above the waist except the hands. The U.S. has made strides recently in saber, especially on the women's side, where 2004 gold medalist Mariel Zagunis is expected to contend again. She's joined by fellow Americans Sada Jacobson and Becca Ward. Medals are awarded for both individual and team competitions. In team matches, three fencers for each team rotate over nine rounds.
Australia is the defending men's Olympic champion and ranked No. 1 in the world. Its star player, forward Jamie Dwyer, is the reigning world player of the year. On the women's side, Germany is the defending gold medalist. The U.S. women qualified, and American goalie Amy Tran is considered one of the world's best. The Netherlands is ranked No. 1 in the world. Defender Minke Booij, the 2006 world player of the year, is an anchor for the Dutch, and forward Marilyn Agliotti and defender Janneke Schopman are other key contributors. One rule of note: Only the flat side of the stick can be used to hit the ball, so backhanded shots like in ice hockey aren't used in field hockey. Also, all goals must be scored from within a 16-yard arc extending from the goal. India — which has won eight men's Olympic titles — failed to qualify for Beijing, causing a national uproar.
Due to a new scoring system where the 10 no longer is perfection, look for gymnasts to attempt more difficult elements and push their routines to the edge to get higher scores. That's especially true of the Chinese and American women. All-around world champion Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin headline a strong and deep U.S. women's team, with Johnson especially good on beam and floor. China's Cheng Fei (vault), He Kexin (bars) and Li Shanshan (beam) will provide strong challenges for the Americans. China's Yang Wei is a heavy favorite in all-around after the withdrawal of men's defending champion Paul Hamm. The United States will struggle to take any medals away from Yang, Li Xiaopeng (parallel bars), Xiao Qin (pommel horse) and Diego Hypolito of Brazil (floor). Russia figures to dominate rhythmic, where the U.S. has no competitor, and trampoline.
Look for drama from the smallest and the biggest competitors. Japan's Ryoko Tani, who won her seventh world championship in the women's lightest division last year, will be fighting for her third Olympic title. But at 32 and now a mother, she is not the unbeatable figure she once was, and will be challenged by several rivals, including Cuba's Yanet Bermoy. Japan won a record eight gold medals in judo in Athens, a feat it will be hard-pressed to match in Beijing. At the other end of the scale, French teenager Teddy Riner is favored to continue his impressive ascent to the judo summit in the men's heavyweight class. The Guadeloupe-born Riner beat Japanese legend Kosei Inoue for the world crown last year, and won the junior Europeans and junior worlds in 2006. He is the youngest man to win the judo heavyweight world championship.
Modern pentathlon consists of shooting, fencing, swimming, equestrian and running. The 3,000-meter run is the final event, which athletes start at intervals based on how well they've performed in the other four disciplines. The first person to finish the run wins. The equestrian competition can throw a monkey wrench into even the best athlete's plans because horses are assigned by random draw. American Sheila Taormina became the first woman to qualify for the Olympics in three different sports. She previously competed in swimming and triathlon, so if she can hold her own in the shooting, fencing and equestrian events, she could become a surprise medalist in modern pentathlon. France's Amelie Caze won the women's world title earlier this year, and Russia's Ilia Frolov took the men's championship. Hungary's Viktor Horvath hurt his calf at the world championships, but he's still considered a contender in Beijing.
The Chinese are dedicated to winning medals in rowing, and expect to become contenders on their home water. China has only four Olympic rowing medals, but Chinese crews won five of the 14 finals in a World Cup regatta earlier this summer. The idea of China winning gold medals in rowing even four years ago was unrealistic. Now it seems the Beijing Games might be the perfect spot for the country to win its first ever gold medal — and a few more. One medal could come in the prestigious men's eight. The United States won its first gold medal in 40 years in that event in Athens. Three members of that crew return, including standout Bryan Volpenhein. Volpenhein quit the sport after Athens to attend culinary school, only to return with a deeper love of rowing — and for cooking his teammates healthy dinners. He's the one to watch if the U.S. has an appetite for a repeat.
For sheer speed in sailing, watch the wild Tornado catamarans, the new RS:X windsurfers — which skim across the water — and the manta-ray like 49ers, tough to handle two-person dinghies poised for spectacular flips if the crew makes a mistake. Other boats, like the two-person Star and the three-crew Yngling, might be slower, but that only makes it easier to follow what some liken to a game of chess on water, as sailors engage in a battle of tactics. The winners in each class are decided in the series of point-giving races, leading up to a final medal race. In the Finn class, Britain's Ben Ainslie is going for his fourth straight Olympic medal, while American Anna Tunnicliffe is a hot prospect in the Laser Radial, and Australian newcomer Tom Slingsby is favored in the Laser. American John Dane III is making his Olympic debut, after 40 years of trying, in the Star dinghy with his son-in-law Austin Sperry.
U.S. fans will want to keep their eyes on the shooting events. China has several contenders who could prove vital in the host nation's attempt to finish with the most overall gold medals. Du Li competes the day after the opening ceremony in the 10-meter air rifle, an event she won four years ago. There are some American contenders too, most notably Matt Emmons, who defends his title in the 50-meter prone rifle. He'll also try to atone for an extraordinary gaffe in 2004 in the 50-meter three-position rifle. In Athens, he was leading with one shot remaining when he accidentally fired at the wrong person's target. There are three types of shooting events: rifle, pistol and shotgun. In rifle and pistol, competitors earn points for shooting close to the center of a target. Shotgun shooters aim at targets released through the air.
Softball is taking its final Olympic swing for at least eight years, and the U.S. team is hoping it can connect for its fourth straight gold medal. The Americans have won the three previous tournaments since the sport was introduced at the 1996 games in Atlanta. Four years ago, the U.S. steamrolled to gold, winning nine games by a combined 51-1. This year's team includes 10 members from the '04 squad, including pitcher Jennie Finch who may be known to non-softball fans for her appearance on "The Celebrity Apprentice," where she was fired by mogul Donald Trump. For the first time since '96, the U.S. team will not have Lisa Fernandez, regarded as softball's best player. She was left off coach Mike Candrea's final 15-player roster for China. Fernandez pitched in each of the three previous gold-medal games for the United States. Japan, Australia, China and Canada figure to challenge for medals in the eight-team field, which will begin competition on Aug. 12. The U.S. is 24-2 in Olympic competition and is riding a 14-game winning streak. Despite being played in over 130 nations, softball was dropped — along with baseball — from the 2012 games in London by an International Olympic Committee vote. The sport is pushing for reinstatement in 2016.
In women's soccer, Brazil, Germany and the United States arrived in China as the three favorites to win gold. Then the defending Olympic champion Americans lost 2-0 to Norway in the preliminary round Wednesday, before the games officially opened. Brazil and Germany, in the same group, played to a scoreless tie. U.S. hopes received a blow in mid-July, when leading scorer Abby Wambach broke her left leg in a warm-up match against Brazil, forcing her to miss the games. Germany won the women's 2007 World Cup — which was also played on Chinese soil — without conceding a goal. Three-time FIFA player of the Year Birgid Prinz leads the Germans. Brazil, boasting current FIFA Player of the Year Marta, is looking to improve on its runner-up finish at the 2007 World Cup and at the 2004 Summer Games. On the men's side, the big question was whether FC Barcelona would order star Lionel Messi to leave defending champion Argentina to play in a Champions League match in Europe. The U.S. is led by Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley.
The big story is Michael Phelps, who takes another crack at Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals. Phelps came close in 2004 — six golds and two bronzes — and he's entered the same eight events in Beijing. His top competition figures to come from fellow Americans Ryan Lochte and Ian Crocker. Forty-one-year-old Dara Torres swims in her record fifth Olympics, two years after having a child. Eric Shanteau will compete in the breaststroke after deciding to put off surgery for testicular cancer until after the Games. Leisel Jones and Libby Trickett lead a powerful Australian women's team, while the Americans counter with Natalie Coughlin and Katie Hoff. Another Aussie, Grant Hackett, goes for his third straight gold in the 1,500 meters. Look for world records galore as the competitors wear new high-tech suits such as Speedo's LZR Racer. Open water swimming makes its Olympic debut with 10-kilometer events for men and women.
As usual, the Russians are the ones to beat. The Anastasias — Davydova and Ermakova — will be heavily favored in the duet. Their top competition will likely come from Spain's Gemma Mengual and Andrea Fuentes, and the home crowd will try to spur on twin sisters Jiang Tingting and Jiang Wenwen. The Russians also are favored in the team event, going for their third straight Olympic title. They have swept the event at the last five world championships and the last nine European championships. Spain and Japan likely to provide the most serious challenge. The once-powerful Americans are rebuilding and seem unlikely to reach the medal podium.
One of the hottest tickets in Beijing is for table tennis, where the always-dominant Chinese team is aiming for a gold medal sweep. Pingpong is China's national sport and it's nothing like the game Americans play in the basement on rainy days. Shots break crazily over the blue table as fleet-footed athletes slap the little white ball to speeds up to 60 mph. Led by the world's top players, Wang Hao and Zhang Yining, the Chinese squad will be cheered on by a raucous home crowd at the Peking University Gymnasium. Wang will be looking to avenge his loss to South Korea's Ryu Seung Min in the men's singles final four years ago. China's dominance extends beyond just its own team — Chinese natives fill the rosters of other countries. Four Chinese-born players represent the U.S., and they're joined by other former Chinese nationals playing for countries as varied as Spain, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic and Republic of Congo.
Think Lopez. There will be three of them — Steven, Mark and Diana — and they are all gold medal contenders for the United States. Steven, the eldest, is the most decorated, having won his fourth-straight world championship last year with Olympic gold in Athens and Sydney under his black belt. The trio made sports history in 2005, when they each won world championship titles in their divisions, the first time that has ever happened in the same sport in the same year. Their eldest brother, Jean, is the team coach. The U.S. team is rounded out by Charlotte Craig. South Korea, where the sport originated, is also sending its quota of four athletes. No South Korean has failed to get at least a bronze since the sport was put on the official Olympic roster in 2000.
This fast-paced sport remains a mystery to many Americans, but it's not for lack of action. Players pass and dribble a melon-sized ball with their hands. Each team has seven players on the court, including the goalie. In 2004, Croatia beat Germany 26-24 to win the men's title. Croatia will try for a third title in four Olympics, but there will be a new winner on the women's side — three-time defending champion Denmark isn't one of the 12 teams competing in Beijing. The U.S. failed to qualify a handball team for Beijing, meaning this event will likely remain below the radar for American fans.
The motivation of the top men has been questioned at past Olympics, where such long shots as Nicolas Massu and Marc Rosset emerged as gold medalists. But there's no doubting Roger Federer is eager to do well in Beijing. He has been shut out in the medal chase in two Olympic appearances, and he arrives in China mired in his worst slump since becoming No. 1 in February 2004. He hasn't won a Grand Slam title this year, and since a five-set loss to Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, Federer has lost in the second round in Toronto and the third round in Cincinnati. Nadal and Novak Djokovic, this year's winners of major titles, are also eager to become first-time medalists. On the women's side, former gold medalists Venus and Serena Williams will play doubles together as well as singles. The U.S. team also includes 1996 gold medalist Lindsay Davenport, who mounted a career comeback from a maternity leave in part because she wanted to play at Beijing.
Track and field
The men's 100-meter dash is always a big deal at the Olympics, and Beijing could have one of the best fields ever, with U.S.-record holder and reigning world champion Tyson Gay taking on world-record holder Usain Bolt and former world-record holder Asafa Powell, both from Jamaica. If Gay is healthy, that is — he hurt his hamstring at the U.S. Olympic trials. China's Liu Xiang is the reigning Olympic and world champion in the 110-meter hurdles, making him the host nation's best chance for a gold medal at the track stadium dubbed "The Bird's Nest." One catch: Liu's world record was broken by Cuba's Dayron Robles in June, setting up a showdown. Others to watch include Jeremy Wariner, the sunglasses-wearing defending Olympic champ boasting about breaking the 400-meter record set in the 1990s by Michael Johnson — who just happens to be Wariner's manager now; rival U.S. runners Allyson Felix (favored in the 200) and Sanya Richards (favored in the 400), who are expected to be relay teammates; and Bernard Lagat, a distance runner who earned medals for Kenya at the past two Summer Games and now will try to win his first gold — this time competing for his new home, the United States.
Spain's Javier Gomez won the men's world championship in June and is a clear favorite. He can finish the event's 10-kilometer run in under 30 minutes, making him a formidable presence in the swim-cycle-run competition. New Zealand's Bevan Docherty, who finished second at the Athens Olympics in 2004, was second to Gomez at the world championship. Brothers Matt Reed of the United States and Shane Reed of New Zealand will compete against each other. Matt Reed was the top U.S. finisher at worlds, coming in fifth. On the women's side, Kate Allen of Austria is back after rallying to win the gold medal in a dramatic finish in Athens. Allen had a bicycle accident in April and then finished eighth at worlds. Helen Tucker of Britain won the world championship, and American Sarah Haskins finished second.
As passionate as he is skilled, Giba leads the top-ranked Brazilian men, the defending gold medalists who are favorites in Beijing. The wing-spiker injured his left ankle in June, but returned to play in the recent FIVB World League Competition. The third-ranked U.S. men won the event, giving the team momentum heading into the Olympics. Brazil's women are also ranked No. 1 in the world, but the most intriguing aspect of the competition will be the reaction to U.S. coach "Jenny" Lang Ping, who led the Chinese to the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Lang is considered a sports icon in her native country and it will be the big story when the U.S. women face China in poll play. China is the defending Olympic champion.
U.S. men's water polo coach Terry Schroeder, who led the Americans to silver medals in 1984 and 1988 and a fourth-place showing in 1992, is trying to get the program turned around after three consecutive poor finishes. And after some surprising showings this summer, Schroeder believes his team could be a medal threat in Beijing. World No. 1 Croatia, two-time defending gold medalist Hungary and perennial powers Spain, Serbia and Italy could have something to say about that. The U.S. women are considered the favorite to win gold. The Americans won silver in 2000 — the debut of the women's Olympic competition — and bronze in 2004, and they pretty much dominated the world circuit in 2007 behind goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong and all-around Lauren Wenger. The Americans should face tough competition from more experienced teams like Australia, Russia and Italy.
Look for China to boost its overall medal count in the weightlifting competition. The Olympic hosts could grab as many as 10 medals when the world's strongest athletes load the bar with plates at the Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics. Only Russia has a team of comparable strength. First up is the women's 48-kilogram (106-pound) weight class, in which world record holder and world champion Chen Xiexia of China is the big favorite. The men's competition lost two big names with the withdrawals of double Olympic super heavyweight champion Hossein Rezazadeh of Iran and Turkey's triple Olympic gold medalist Halil Mutlu in the 56-kg (123-pound) category. Weightlifting officials are hoping new profiles will emerge in Beijing to shift the focus from the perennial doping scandals that continue to plague the sport. Greek and Bulgarian weightlifters were barred from the games after testing positive for steroids.
What to watch? The U.S. kids, three rapid risers who might ordinarily have waited their turn until 2012. Ben Askren, known for his wild hair styles and unorthodox moves, is a year removed from winning a second NCAA title at Missouri. Jake Deitchler, only 18, is the youngest American Olympic wrestler in 32 years and made the team by knocking off an Olympic medal favorite in the U.S. trials. Henry Cejudo, only 21 but already a national champion, is being hailed as the future of U.S. amateur wrestling. All are colorful, fun to watch and virtually unknown to their opponents and, should they get on a roll in Beijing, are bound to generate spectator buzz.