TOPICS > Nation

Athletes Rev Up for Start of the Beijing Games

August 7, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
Loading the player...
Crowds cheered Thursday as the Olympic torch made its way through Beijing, heralding the official start of the games on Friday. Ray Suarez talks to Sports Illustrated writer Brian Cazeneuve about the athletes to watch.

RAY SUAREZ: With the Olympics set to begin this weekend, all eyes will soon be on Beijing and the thousands of athletes descending on the city from all over the world.

We take a look at some of those athletes with Brian Cazeneuve who previewed the games in the new issue of Sports Illustrated. He’ll be covering the games in China for the magazine.

And, Brian, it’s a very large American team that will be marching into the stadium in Beijing. How are hopes, what are the expectations for the 2008 edition of the American team?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE, Sports Illustrated: Well, it’s a very strong team in the larger sports, the traditional sports, such as track and field, swimming, and gymnastics.

Obviously, there are very difficult challenges that they face over there, such as the fact that the host nation will be very competitive and will be trying to swipe the medal count from the United States. The U.S. usually wins the medal count.

It’s a goal — a stated goal of the Chinese to try to win it this time. There’s a time difference. There’s question about pollution, a lot of challenges for the U.S. team. But it will have a very strong showing this year in Beijing.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the attention seems to be focused on one Michael Phelps.

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Absolutely. He won eight medals at the last Olympics in Athens, six of them gold. And he’s actually a little stronger this time around than he was four years ago.

His turns are better; his starts are better; he’s more mature. And this time, he has a chance to win all eight. It’s five individual events and three relays.

There are enough potential pitfalls and good competitors out there who could trip him up, but it’s not inconceivable that he could win all eight. And at the very least, he’ll probably be the all-time leader in Olympic gold medals. He already has six. He should get at least four of them; that would put him in the lead with 10.

Strong Americans in the water

RAY SUAREZ: One of those strong competitors is another American in the pool, isn't it, Ryan Lochte?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Ryan is an outstanding swimmer and very versatile, as Phelps is. Michael's two strongest events have traditionally been the individual medleys, 200 meters and 400 meters. But Ryan Lochte is very good in both of those events.

And at the Olympic trials last month in Omaha, Nebraska, both of the swimmers actually went under Phelps' existing world record and lowered it. Phelps ended up winning the 400-meter I.M. in that particular race.

But he should be challenged in both of those races by Lochte. And actually, the first final of this competition for Phelps will be the 400 I.M. Expect Lochte to be either slightly ahead of him or right on his tail. It will be a tremendous battle between those two.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, with all that attention on the men's swimming, we shouldn't overlook an American woman who expects to do really well in the pool in Beijing.

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Yes, Dara Torres is absolutely astounding. She's 41 years young. When she won her first Olympic medal as a relay swimmer at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, half of this year's U.S. swim team wasn't yet born. and more than three quarters of the women's team wasn't yet born.

She has modernized her stroke. She has changed her diet. She is a mother. She seems to be getting stronger with age. And now, at 41, she will try to become the oldest American medal-winning swimmer in history.

And she has a very good chance to do it. She'll be swimming in the 50-meter freestyle and also in the 4x100 meter freestyle relay. That relay team should certainly be no worse than silver. They'll be in a tight race with the Australians. And Torres could end up being the anchor swimmer on that relay team.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, besides raising the hopes of every north-of-40 weekend-warrior athlete in the world, is she really considered a chance to medal in her own individual event, the 50 meters?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: The 50 is kind of a crapshoot. It's such a short race that there is a premium on the start. If you get left in the starting blocks by just a fraction of a second, you're gone. You're finished.

And Torres has about five or six very tough competitors who will probably be slightly favored ahead of her. But at the same time, because there's so much luck and chance involved in this particular race, if those other swimmers don't get off the blocks well, if she gets off well, she is right there with them.

Her times have been getting faster throughout the year. She actually won the open 100-meter freestyle at the Olympic trials but decided to skip that so she could concentrate on one individual event, just the 50. She figures that's her best chance for an individual medal. And she should be right in there with the rest of the international field.

Competitive teams on the field

RAY SUAREZ: What stars are you watching in the world of track and field?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Oh, gosh, where do I begin? Tyson Gay is an American runner. He's a 100-meter and 200-meter runner. At the Olympic trials, he actually pulled up with a bad hamstring in the 200, so he'll concentrate on the 100.

It's kind of a glamour race of any Olympics. And it's great that he has two Jamaican rivals, and one of them has the perfect name for sprinting, Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Bolt is a great 100- and 200-meter guy. He's probably the favorite to win the 200 now that Gay is out of that race. But the two of them and Asafa Powell from Jamaica will be challenging for the medals in that particular race.

There's also an American, Allyson Felix, who is the favorite in the women's 200. She'll also be very good in the relays, the 4x100 and 4x400. She's the daughter of a preacher, and she is herself a Sunday school teacher during the winter months in Los Angeles. She'll be one of the leading Americans to watch for on the women's side of the sprinting equation.

RAY SUAREZ: And heading indoors, to the very popular gymnastics?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Oh, gosh, this is probably as good an American women's team as we've ever had, in the sense that it is very well balanced. There isn't just one star, not just one Mary Lou Retton, or Shannon Miller, or Carly Patterson. It is a very well-balanced team.

Two of the big stars of this particular team are Shawn Johnson, who is a Des Moines, Iowa, product. She's 16. And her coach is actually from China. He and his wife came over when Shawn was just 6 years old. And she's been working with him ever since. And so it will be a bit of a homecoming for him. He will be one of the coaches on the U.S. team.

One the other strong competitors is Nastia Liukin. She's great across the board, but especially on the uneven bars. And she is the daughter of two former Soviet gymnasts. Her father, Valeri Liukin, was one of the great Soviets in the late '80s and early '90s. And her mother was a rhythmic gymnast.

Her father, Valeri, is actually coaching her. Nastia is a very balletic gymnast. Shawn is a very powerful and explosive gymnast, a great tumbler. The two contrasting styles will combine to make a very strong U.S. women's team.

Those two could end up fighting for the all-around title. And the U.S. women's team will certainly be fighting with China, the host nation, for the team title.

Chinese team very well rounded

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's take a closer look at the Chinese team. They have a lot riding on this. This is their coming out party to the world, but also another chapter in their quest to be a world athletic power.

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Absolutely. And the thing is that they've always been strong in sports like diving and table tennis. This time around, they'll be much stronger in sports in which they haven't done well in the past. Rowing is one in particular.

They also have a very interesting athlete in the 110-meter hurdles. Liu Xiang has been a world and Olympic champion. He's one of the great athletes on the scene for China.

And unlike a lot of their other athletes, who have sort of been sheltered and kept to the side and told to train, he's really been pushed out there in front of the world just as American or European athletes would be.

We had a press conference with him on the roof of the Empire States Building a couple of months ago. He's been in commercials. He has a shoe contract. He has a great sense of humor that he's put before the world on several occasions.

And he was, up until a couple of months ago, a very, very strong favorite in his event. And then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a Cuban hurdler, Dayron Robles, broke his world record.

And so there's tremendous, tremendous pressure on Liu Xiang to be the face of China, to be the star of these games. He'll have 13 seconds to prove that he can do that against Robles and also a good contingent of Americans, as well.

Tremendous, tremendous pressure on Liu Xiang at these games and a lot of other Chinese athletes to perform well in front of their home crowd before the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Brian Cazeneuve of Sports Illustrated, thanks for the preview.

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Thank you very much.