BEIJING -- The track meet starts Friday morning at the Bird's Nest. Ten things I'm most intrigued by at the beginning:
• The 100-meter showdown (Saturday). Shocking, right? Many track nuts -- and mainstream fans -- are juiced about this race because it could be the first time in history that three sub-9.8-second sprinters contest the same race. Fair point.
Here's another take: All of three of the studs -- Tyson Gay of the United States and Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell of Jamaica -- have potential holes in their game. Gay is coming off a hamstring injury and the 100 final comes exactly six weeks after he went down in the U.S. Olympic Trials. Bolt has never run the 100 meters at a global championship. Powell has been a head case.
Maybe they will all run great and it will take 9.65 to win the gold medal and 9.70 to get on the podium. But it doesn't usually work that way. Somebody makes a mistake in the race. Somebody tweaks a muscle in the semifinals. The four rounds of the Olympic 100 comprise a race of strategy, attrition and survival. Form often does not hold. The unusual is commonplace.
• Liu Xiang in the 110-meter hurdles (Thurs., Aug. 21). A summary of Liu's baggage: Defending Olympic champion. Facing the world record holder (Dayron Robles of Cuba). Coming back from a hamstring injury. Hasn't raced in three months. Highest-profile gold medal hope for nation of 1.3 billion people. Other than that, no problem.
Little has been written about Liu Xiang outside China since he withdrew from the Reebok Classic in New York on May 31 and false-started (intentionally?) out of the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene a week later. Since then he has stayed in China and did not race on the European circuit. "I haven't had any special preparation,'' he told Chinese media this week. "I have been feeling very relaxed for the past few months. Nobody is bothering me and I don't have anything to worry about. Everything is very peaceful and quiet."
His coach, Sun Haiping, said that Liu is very near his top level of fitness. Yet it will be a mystery until he steps on the track.
• Bernard Lagat's double (Tues., Aug. 19 and Sat., Aug. 23). The Kenyan expatriate who became a U.S. citizen in 2004 doubled in the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters at the 2007 world championships in Osaka, Japan. There, however, he didn't have to face world record holder Keninisa Bekele in the 5,000. Lagat already has bronze (2000) and silver (2004) medals in the 1,500. If he wins a gold here, and also wins the 5K, he moves to the short list of great middle and distance runners in Olympic history. Warm weather could help encourage a slow pace in the five, which is to Lagat's advantage. But the double is a lot to ask.
• Atmosphere (Every night). Audience-wise, things have been a little funky here. Few competition venues have been full (despite declarations of a "sold-out'' Olympics). Where they are full, or nearly full, audiences have been strangely muted. This is not entirely shocking in a country where spectators were given instructional manuals on how to cheer. Point being: It ain't Australia.
Track and field will be a serious test. The Bird's Nest is visually arresting, and like so many other things in Beijing, huge. It seats 91,000. The surrounding Olympic Green is a vast network of boulevards where large numbers of fans can congregate. They have been largely empty for the first week of the Games. Will the track stadium be filled every night? Will the atmosphere be electric?
And by extension, will NBC's ratings continue to set all-time Olympic records when the centerpiece event becomes tape-delayed track and field instead of live swimming (with rock star Michael Phelps)? None of these questions is centered directly on the health of track and field, but all of them touch it.
• Drugs (Every day). Every major track and field competition unfolds shaded by the drug cloud. Sometimes the cloud is darker than others (think 2004, Sacramento, Olympic Trials). Asafa Powell put the doping card in play here on Tuesday when he complained at a press conference that he -- and his countrymen -- have been tested too frequently. Next door to the Bird's Nest at the Water Cube, world records have fallen in daily batches with little suggestion of banned substances (although Chinese 200-meter butterfly gold medalist Liu Zige faced some questions Thursday in light of a precipitous drop in her personal best). It seems clear that athletes from Jamaica, which does not have a national testing program, have been targeted by the International Olympic Committee for vigorous testing. In the larger picture, there will be a performance on the track that invites suspicion. Will there be a positive test?
• Kenyan Pamela Jelimo in the 800 meters (Mon., Aug 18). Athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia have dominated distance running for nearly two decades and will probably dominate these Olympics. Kenyan women have won three Olympic track medals, but none at any distance shorter than 5,000 meters.
Enter 18-year-old Jelimo, who has run five of the seven fastest 800-meter times in 2008. The owner of the other two, Yelena Soboleva of Russia, has been banned from the Games in a bust that nailed seven Russian track athletes. Jelimo, who does not show an 800 PR before this year, has broken 1:56 five times, including a PR of 1:54.97. Last week she told the Kenyan press that she thinks she has a chance at Jarmila Kratachvilova's 25-year-old world record of 1:53.28. The question becomes: Is that a world record you really want to break?
• The men's 4x100 (Friday, Aug. 22). The old theory was that if the U.S. got the stick around the track, it would win. Getting the stick around was often a problem. In 1996, the U.S. got the stick around and got beat, the first time that had ever happened. In 2004, it happened again, when Maurice Greene couldn't make up for two lousy exchanges and came up .01 short of Great Britain's Mark Lewis-Francis at the tape.
In Beijing, it might not be that close. The Jamaicans will trot out Bolt, Powell, 2005 world silver medalist Michael Frater and Nesta Carter. Frater's 10.02 is the slowest time of the four and no relay team has ever included two runners with 100-meter bests under 9.80, never mind 9.75. If the United States is sloppy with sticks, it won't be close.
• Marathons (Women: Sun., Aug. 17; Men: Sun., Aug 24). The Beijing weather has improved slightly since most media arrived a week or two ago. It's merely uncomfortable, not oppressive. It rains regularly. But for Sunday's women's race, it's expected to be in the mid 70's with clouds and heavy humidity. Could be worse. Could be much better. It was much hotter (95 degrees), but much less humid when Deena Kastor won a bronze medal in Athens.
Temperatures are expected to build to higher levels for the men's race, in which 25-year-old Ryan Hall will try to provide the U.S. with its second consecutive marathon medal (following Meb Keflezighi's silver in 2004), after a drought of 28 years (since Frank Shorter's silver in Montreal in 1976).
The reality is that with the exception of Sydney in 2000, every recent summer Olympic marathon (men and women) has been contested under less than ideal conditions. It follows that each of these races becomes a referendum on the practice. Perhaps London will be cooler four years from now.
• USA longshots in the 800 (Final on Sat., Aug. 23). The 800 at the U.S. Trials on the night of June 30 was, by consensus, the most compelling moment of the meet in Eugene (with the possible exception of Tyson Gay's digger in the 200-meter quarters): Nick Symmonds kicking out of a box and running away, Andy Wheating kicking into second, Christian Smith and Khadevis Robinson diving at the line (with Smith getting the third spot and the Olympic 'A' standard in the same race).
On paper, none of the three has a shot at a medal and Symmonds, the fastest and most experienced, will be pressed to make the final. His season's best (and PR) of 1:44.03 makes him only the 10th-fastest individual in the world in '08. Wheating, who has incredibly been running track for only two years, is ranked No. 23 and Smith is No. 34.
But there is something about this threesome. Symmonds and Wheating, in particular, have explosive kicks and to advance through the rounds in a championship 800, runners must finish. The 800 is loaded here, with five entrants at 1:43.26 or faster and three under 1:43 flat. But if the U.S. runners can survive the rounds, and if the pace doesn't go impossibly fast in the final, we could be looking at Dave Wottle redux.
• Felix, Goucher and Richards. In their perfect world, two-time world 200-meter champion Allyson Felix and U.S. 400-meter record holder Sanya Richards would both be running the 200 and 400 meters here. The schedule does not permit it, so each will take one shot at her first individual Olympic gold (and Felix will do it after running horribly in her last race, a 23-flat 200 in London that followed a quick trip home for a friend's wedding).
Goucher, meanwhile, will try to match -- or better -- her stunning bronze medal finish at last year's worlds. (Plus, she has extra buzz after writing in her hometown newspaper that a member of the Redeem Team asked for her phone number during the opening ceremonies).