BEIJING – The Summer Olympics begin here on Aug. 8 – 8-8-08. Team USA is expected to be extremely strong, China is using the event as a national coming-out party and everyone wants to know how pollution and potential political unrest could affect the games.
As a primer, here are five athletes who should dominate the headlines and television time over the three weeks of competition.
The Baltimore native won eight medals, six of them gold, four years ago in Athens and returns better than ever.
At last year's world championships, the 6-foot-4, 195-pounder won seven gold medals and broke five world records. He is scheduled to compete in eight events (relays included) in Beijing, giving him the chance to match or exceed American Mark Spitz's record seven golds at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Just 23, Phelps is already a major commercial pitchman and the face of these games for NBC, which plans on making swimming the signature event.
2. KOBE BRYANT
Bryant – the acknowledged best basketball player in the world who spent much of his youth living abroad in Italy – is taking to the Olympic stage for the first time. His goal is simple: return the gold medal to the United States, which fell to bronze medal status in 2004.
USA Basketball is a collection of star players – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul – but it is Bryant who is expected to star in the crunch-time moments. His game is built for international basketball and his tenacity and skill at both ends of the court made his inclusion on the team so important.
As talented as Bryant is, he hasn't endeared himself to non-Los Angeles Lakers fans the way previous stars such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson did. Leading Team USA to victory provides him a chance to make people forget past on- and off-court controversies.
The 6-6 suburban Philadelphia native will turn 30 on Aug. 23, one day before the gold medal game.
3. DARA TORRES
At age 41, the mother of one coming off of two major surgeries stunned the swimming world with some incredible performances at July's U.S. trials. In the 50-meter freestyle, she beat out previous gold medal favorite Natalie Coughlin, who is merely 16 years her junior.
While Torres has won nine Olympic medals, including four golds, her post-birth success took many by surprise. While many fans are inspired by a middle-aged mom potentially securing gold in such a demanding sport, others are highly skeptical of performance-enhancing drug use.
Torres has not tested positive, but not even the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's enhanced program is considered fool-proof. Moreover, she is posting faster times now than any time in her career.
She very well may be clean, but suspicions will undoubtedly continue to swirl throughout the games, making the Los Angeles native a conversation point for believers and cynics.
Just 16 years old and standing a mere 4-9, this West Des Moines, Iowa, resident is America's best chance at all-around gold in women's gymnastics. Despite her diminutiveness, Johnson is extremely strong, relying on her power as much as her grace and flexibility.
Johnson hopes to follow in the footsteps of Carly Patterson, who four years ago became the first American woman to win all-around gold in a non-boycott year. She also wants to lead the U.S. to a team gold, duplicating the accomplishment of the 1996 Magnificent Seven squad made famous by Kerri Strug's final vault on a sprained ankle.
Team USA's expected chief competition? The Chinese.
5. LIU XIANG
The People's Republic of China has poured considerable resources to build up its sports system in an effort to compete on the international level. China finished third in total medals and second in golds.
Xiang, who won gold in Athens in the 110-meter hurdles, is the nation's most beloved and famous athlete and the epitome of this movement. At 6-2, he is a formidable competitor whom the Chinese see as proof that their athletes can compete in any competition.
He will be spurred on by sold-out crowds and the hopes of a nation that goes 1.3 billion strong and make the usually anonymous 110 hurdles possibly the most watched event of these Olympics.