Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wed July 23: Countdown to Beijing: THE ULTIMATE OLYMPIC PREVIEW

We are approximately two and a half weeks away from one of the most anticipated events of the decade--the Games of the XXIX Olympiad from Beijing, China. And to make up for lost time, here is my preview for the marquee events that most of us will be watching during the Games.

The first week of the Olympic Games will be highlighted by gold medal action at the Water Cube, the National Aquatics Center, where the swimming events will take place. From the looks of things, the United States is likely to field one of the strongest and deepest swimming teams in Olympic history.

If the United States will dominate the pool, the most likely man to do so is Michael Phelps. Appearing in his third Olympic Games, Phelps will be looking to better his record in Athens four years ago, when he won six gold medals and two bronze medals. His strongest event will likely be the 200 meter butterfly, where he owns nine of the 10 fastest times ever. He will, however, face credible threats in the other seven events that he will be competing in.

The 200m freestyle was the most competitive event at the Athens Games where Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenbond won gold and silver respectively while Phelps grabbed the bronze. Thorpe has retired but veteran swimmer van den Hoogenbond, at 30 years old, is still one of the better freestyle swimmers competing in the world. Phelps edged van den Hoogenbond last year at the world championships in world record time but the Dutch swimmer remains a huge contender in Beijing.

If Phelps can't win gold in certain events, then the man most likely to do so is his teammate, Ryan Lochte. The two swimmers had a fierce rivalry at the Olympic trials but Phelps consistently came out on top. Lochte is a huge threat to Phelps in the individual medley races, including the 200m and 400m events.

And while Phelps is expected to take gold in the 200m butterfly, the 100m butterfly may be a bit more difficult for Phelps to dominate. Fellow American swimmer Ian Crocker has a good chance of stealing the gold from Phelps in this event. He came close to doing so last year at the World Championships when he lost to Phelps by five one-hundredths of a second.

Specialists like Brendan Hansen and Aaron Peirsol make the U.S. swimming team look unstoppable coming into the games. Hansen is likely to take gold in the 100 meter breaststroke but will have to fend off his Japanese rival, Kosuke Kitajima, who took gold in this event in Athens. Kitajima should have no problem taking the gold in the 200 meter breaststroke after Hansen failed to qualify for this event at the trials. Since Hansen will only have one shot at individual gold, the storyline surrounding his rivalry with Kitajima becomes that much more interesting.

Meantime, Peirsol is a huge favorite to take the backstroke events in Beijing. He won gold in world record time in the 100 meter backstroke at the world championships. But like Phelps, he may fall to his teammate Ryan Lochte in the 200 meter event after Lochte edged Peirsol for gold last year in Melbourne.

The incredible depth that the United States has makes them a sure favorite in the relay events, especially the medley relay. Australia, however, always remains a contender, especially with swimmers like Grant Hackett, who is still in great shape to take the middle and long distance frestyle events.

American women are likely to be successful as well with Natalie Coughlin and Katie Hoff leading the way. At the same time, the rivalry with Australia is more intense on the women's side than on the men's side.

Coughlin is unmatched in the 100 meter backstroke as the defending Olympic and world champion. Katie Hoff could match Phelps's success in Athens as she comes in as one of the youngest and strongest female swimmers in the world. An incredible all-arounder, Hoff is a contender in the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle events as well as the medley events.

Hoff does have a tough schedule ahead for her in Beijing as well as tough opponents that have good chances to take gold. One of her strongest opponents come from down under in Australia and include Stephanie Rice, who has traded world records with Hoff in the 400 meter individual medley this season.

Australia has huge chances to take gold in the breaststroke and butterfly events with Libby Trickett and Leisel Jones, both of whom gave the home crowd of Australia a thrill when the world championships were in Melbourne last year. Lisbeth Trickett (formerly Lisbeth Lenton before her marriage last year) took home gold in three individual events last year, including the 50 meter and 100 meter freestyle and the 100 meter butterfly. Leisel Jones owns the world record in the 100 meter breaststroke but may face opposition from American swimmer, Jessica Hardy, who has traded world record titles with Jones before.

The number of contenders from both Australia and the United States makes the women's relays the top event to watch in Beijing. Expect competitive swimming from both lanes of the pool, especially in the 4x100 meter medley and freestyle relays.

Again, the United States are favorites in several events, including the team and individual all-around finals. But there are plenty of international contenders that can easily give the United States some difficulty in Beijing and have excellent chances of taking home the gold.

The Chinese and the Japanese are likely to field very strong teams that could take home the top prizes in the team competition. The two teams won gold and silver respectively at last year's world championships in Stuttgart, Germany and have been consistently the top teams in the world. China's big driving force in the sport is Yang Wei, the two-time defending world champion in the men's individual all-around. He is known for getting high difficulty scores in his routines, combining complex elements with perfect execution in his performances. In last year's world championships, he put up a huge lead in the all-around going into the final rotation that despite a fall from the high bar, he still won the world championship. Yang Wei is also a contender in the pommel horse and rings competition.

Yang Wei will be likely matched by American gymnast and defending Olympic champion Paul Hamm, who made a spectacular comeback to win gold after falling from the dismount from his vault routine. Like at last year's world championship, Yang Wei had the lead coming into the final rotation but fell from his high bar routine and thus opening the door for Paul Hamm.

Hamm is hoping to lead the United States to success in Beijing after capturing the silver medal in the team event in Athens. Paul Hamm was named to the team despite being unable to compete at the Olympic Trials due to broken right hand. But he showed that he has recovered after putting up an excellent performance in front of a selection committee last Saturday at the U.S. Olympic training camp. Before breaking his hand, Paul Hamm showed that he is still a strong contender for gold in Beijing despite taking time off after the 2004 Olympics after winning the Tyson American Cup last March in New York.

Going to Beijing with him is his twin brother Morgan Hamm, named to the team despite testing positive for taking an anti-inflammatory drug during the U.S. National Championships. Joining the Hamm brothers is first time Olympian Jonathan Horton, who won the individual all-around at the Olympic Trials. Horton was part of the U.S. team that placed fourth in the world championships last year. He is the only member of that team that will be part of the Olympic team. Joe Hagerty, Justin Spring and Kevin Tan make up the rest of the men's U.S. Olympic gymnastics team.

But there are plenty of international stars that are likely to steal the show and the gold in Beijing. Diego Hypolito can bring historic gymnastics success to Brazil with a gold in the floor exercise. He is the current world champion and is the first male gymnast from South America to medal at the world championships. Veteran gymnast Marion Dragulescu from Romania is still a favorite for both the vault and floor exercise competition while Germnay's Fabian Hambuchen, current high bar world champion is a favorite in the event after leading the German team to a bronze medal in the team final and winning silver in the men's all-around.

The men's all-around will be the competition to watch with many superstars, veteran favorites and young hopefuls competing. The event could be the best of the men's program or even of the entire Olympic Games.

Women's preview still to come...

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