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 --
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.
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."
• 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
• 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).
Enter 18-year-old Jelimo, who has run five of the seven fastest 800-meter times in 2008. The owner of the other two,
• 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
In Beijing, it might not be that close. The Jamaicans will trot out Bolt, Powell, 2005 world silver medalist
• 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
Temperatures are expected to build to higher levels for the men's race, in which 25-year-old
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):
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
• Felix, Goucher and Richards. In their perfect world, two-time world 200-meter champion
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).