Young stars aplenty at Olympic Games
By Hellene Elliott, Los Angeles Times | August 8, 2008
The face of the Beijing Games could turn out to be Liu Xiang, who has carried China's hopes on his shoulders every day since his lunging finish earned him the gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles in Athens.
Yao Ming, the first Chinese basketball player to find major success in the NBA and the host nation's chosen flag bearer in Friday's opening ceremony, also will be among the most watched and recognized athletes here.
But the faces best remembered after these Games could very well be very young.
Over the next 16 days we will see athletes whose Games end soon after they start, eliminated in a preliminary heat or first-round match, their participation here constituting a personal triumph.
We will meet others whose excellence and exertion carry them close to a gold medal, leaving the length of a pool or the four-inch width of a balance beam between them and athletic immortality.
If we're lucky, someone will produce a transcendent moment that will match Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj valiantly winning the 1,500 in Athens after years of trying, a feat that measures up to Kerri Strug's brave vault on a terribly injured ankle at Atlanta in 1996 or creates chills the way Australian Cathy Freeman did when she ran the race of her life and won the 400 at Sydney.
Inevitably, we will meet some cheaters, the ugly faces of the Games.
Ben Johnson's positive steroid test after he won the 100-meter dash at Seoul remains the lasting memory of the 1988 Games. Since then, every extraordinary performance on the track has, by necessity, been viewed through a veil of skepticism.
Marion Jones, the golden girl of Sydney for her five-medal performance, was surrounded by doping suspicions four years later but was defiant about her innocence. She left Athens empty-handed and in tears, though nothing like the tears she shed earlier this year when she was sentenced to six months in jail for lying to federal authorities about her drug use and participating in a check-fraud scheme.
The faces and performances we remember most clearly might depend on who we are and where we live.
For most Americans, the face of the Games will be swimmer Michael Phelps, whose pursuit of a record eight gold medals will begin Saturday.
If he goes eight for eight and breaks Mark Spitz's single-Olympics standard, he's a huge story. If he doesn't win his five individual events and three relays, he still will be a story, unfairly labeled a failure.
Either way, his quest is likely to overshadow fellow swimmer Katie Hoff's attempt to win six gold medals.
Gymnasts Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, the former so dynamic and the latter so lithe and elegant, have the potential to become marquee performers while they twist and tumble their way into the hearts of TV viewers — and onto the front of Wheaties boxes on the shelves of American supermarkets.
Much of the rest of the world will be engrossed by the sprinters and the promise of great rivalries in the two shortest races.
Jamaica's Usain Bolt, who considers himself a 200-meter specialist but set a world record of 9.72 seconds in the 100 in May, could run off with four gold medals if whispers about his selection to the 1,600-meter relay team are true. Three wouldn't be a bad haul, from the 100-200 double and the 400-meter relay.
U.S. Olympic trials champion Tyson Gay and fellow Jamaican Asafa Powell, the former world record holder, stand in Bolt's way in the 100. In the 200, watch for powerfully built Walter Dix, the only U.S. man attempting the sprint double, to spoil Bolt's party.
No one is more capable of providing memorable moments than distance runners, whose stoicism will be tested if the oppressive heat and humidity continue to make breathing a challenge here.
Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele is expected to defend the 10,000-meter title he won at Athens and try to improve on his silver-medal finish there in the 5,000. He's the world record holder at both distances. His compatriot, Tirunesh Dibaba, set a world record in the women's 5,000 this year and will attempt a 5,000-10,000 double if the conditions permit, a challenge well worth watching.
Anyone among the thousands of athletes who march into National Stadium during Friday's opening ceremony may be carried there in triumph when the Games end Aug. 24. Let the Games begin, best foot - and best face - forward.
Rift to widen among East African rivals
Sports is filled with bitter country rivalries which add extra spice - such as India and Pakistan, Brazil and Argentina - and in athletics it is Ethiopia and Kenya fighting to be the pride of East Africa.
In Beijing, the two will clash at an Olympics for the umpteenth time in the search to be the premier middle-to-long distance racing country, and while just one athlete can ascend the top of the podium there is far more at stake than solo glory.
Ethiopia started the drift towards African nations taking over distance racing - save the extraordinary Finn Lasse Viren in the 70's - when a shoeless Abebe Bikila won the 1960 marathon gold in Rome.
He went on to win a second one in 1964 after recovering from appendicitis.
"I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism," explained Bikila about why he had not worn shoes.
This was the typical attitude of the Ethiopians who come from a more disciplined and regimented regime than the Kenyans, who straddle the other side of the Rift Valley and have more or less lived under a democracy.
An Olympic medal these days increases an athlete's value immeasurably on the international circuit - they can earn up to a million dollars a year - whereas when Kenya dominated in the 1970s through the likes of Kip Keino and Henry Rono, it really was the glory that they ran for.
For Ethiopia, led by Haile 'the little Emperor' Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, their re-emergence as the dominant force in distance races, where they have stripped the Kenyans of everything including in 2004 their title of cross country kings after an 18 year reign, has been timely financially.
Richard Nerurkar, former leading British marathon runner and who has worked extensively in Kenya and then Ethiopia, says the Ethiopian athletes are more driven these days than their Kenyan counterparts for a simple social reason.
"In Ethiopia athletics is the main sport apart from football," he told the Guardian newspaper.
"Very little happens there. Kenya is a much more advanced society where there are many more things to do."
The Ethiopians - whose women led by Tirunesh Dibaba should once again stamp all over their Kenyan rivals - are also better looked after than their East African rivals, as former Kenyan 10,000 metres and marathon great Paul Tergat revealed a few years ago.
It may also explain why over the past 12 years the Ethiopians have looked that much more motivated.
"Runners in Ethiopia are appreciated more," Tergat told the Guardian.
"The government gives them free plots of land to build houses on. In Kenya runners are treated like commodities, though, things are getting better."
Things would get immeasurably better should they somehow manage to wrest away the title of the best East African distance running nation at these Olympics, but the odds are heavily stacked against them.
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