This is often the center of Olympic history and controversy. Four years ago at the Olympic Stadium in Beijing known as the Bird's Nest, Usain Bolt emerged as a superstar. It was on the track in 2000 that Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia outdueled Paul Tergat of Kenya in the greatest distance race in Olympic history. That was also where Michael Johnson achieved the 200-400 double in Atlanta (and there Marie-Jose Perec achieved the same thing), where Ben Johnson cheated his way to -- and was stripped of -- a gold medal and where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raced and then staged the most significant protest in U.S. Olympic history.
No doubt there will be more of this in London's Olympic Stadium.
The men's 100 meters is arguably the seminal event of any Olympics. The presence of Bolt, in his Olympic encore to 2008, guaranteed that would be the case in London, but now there is an added level of intrigue with his current state of vulnerability. Bolt false-started out of the world championships last summer in South Korea and watched as the title was won by his countryman, Yohan Blake. This year Bolt has struggled with a hamstring injury and balky back and was beaten by Blake in the Jamaican trials in both the 100 and 200. Also there is a third Jamaican, Asafa Powell, who was the Olympic 100 gold medal favorite all the way back in 2004 and probably now gets his last chance for an individual medal. Americans Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay are also in the mix, now that Bolt is not in shape to run near his world record of 9.58 seconds. Blake and Bolt will also battle for the 200 title, with American Wallace Spearmon hoping to get onto the podium.
In the 400, 19-year-old Kirani James of Grenada (by way of Alabama) will be trying to repeat his world championship upset victory over LaShawn Merritt of the United States. Merritt's presence will surely elicit boos from the high-and-mighty British fans who resent his reinstatement after a drug ban that he said resulted from using a male enhancement product.
Look for a tour de force in the 800 from incomparable Kenyan world-record holder David Rudisha and probably the loudest crowd for any night in the Olympic stadium on the nights when Briton Mo Farah runs the 10,000 (Aug. 4) and 5,000 (Aug. 11), trying to reward a nation that values distance running more than any other track and field pursuit. The atmosphere is likely to approximate Australian Cathy Freeman's 400 gold medal in 2000 ... except for 25 laps instead of one. In the 5k, Farah will have to contend with three-time Olympic gold medalist Kenenisa Bekele, who won both the 5,000 and 10,000 in Beijing, and a suddenly stacked field that includes Ethiopian Dejen Gebremeskel, who was one of six runners under 12:50 at a July 6 meet in Paris, the first time
Because Bolt won't be running nearly as fast as he did in Beijing (9.69, letting up) or at the world championships in Berlin a year later (a world-record 9.58 seconds), and because these will be Blake's pressurized first Olympics, Gay and Gatlin are very much in the mix for medals.
Merritt is the favorite to reverse his loss to James in the 400. At 800 meters, Nick Symmonds has finished higher in each of his four successive global championships and should be in the hunt for an 800 medal behind Rudisha. Former Oregon runner Matthew Centrowitz proved himself a dangerous big-race runner with a bronze medal in the 1,500 at last summer's world championships.
Bernard Lagat, the Kenyan expatriate who has become the most decorated middle- and long-distance runner in U.S. history (five world championship medals at 1,500 and 5,000 meters), will be seeking his first Olympic medal in a U.S.A. singlet in the 5,000. Galen Rupp, who outkicked Lagat to win the 5,000 at the U.S. Trials and also won the 10,000 in Eugene (both in meet records), will be gunning for the first U.S. Olympic medal in either the 5,000 or 10,000 since 1964.
Aries Merritt, who narrowly missed the U.S. Olympic team with a fourth-place finish at the trials in 2008, comes to the Games as the No. 1-ranked 110-meter hurdler in the world with a time of 12.93 seconds (only four Americans have run faster). He will be joined in the race by 2011 world champion Jason Richardson. In the 400 hurdles, 33-year-old Angelo Taylor will be trying to win his third Olympic gold medal (he took first in 2000 and 2008). Meb Keflezighi, a silver marathon medalist in 2004, returns with U.S. record holder Ryan Hall, in his second Olympics.
The Bolt-Blake, all-Jamaican throwdown is the most anticipated event of the Games. And don't rule out Powell, Gay and Gatlin.
After coming up short in his home country Olympics in 2008, Liu takes on the world-record holder and Beijing gold medalist. Robles interfered with Liu in the final strides of the 2011 worlds and was disqualified, allowing Jason Richardson of the U.S. to take the win. Possible buzzkill: Robles has been battling a left leg injury.
England has a passion for distance running, yet no Brit has even won an Olympic gold medal at 5,000 or 10,000 meters. Farah, who emigrated to England from Somalia at age 8, will be carrying that long history around the track.
On Halloween night in 2008, USC freshman Bryshon Nellum, a native of Long Beach, Calif., was shot three times in his legs as we walked home from a party. His long recovery from those injuries culminated in a third-place finish at the U.S. Olympic Trials and a place on the London team. Nellum is the No. 8-ranked 400-meter runner in the world, but could threaten for a medal in a race that's wide open behind LaShawn Merritt and James. He will also be a member of the favored U.S. 4X400-meter relay.
The last time a U.S. runner didn't win the men's 400 meters in a full-participation Olympic Games was in 1976, when the great Alberto Juantorena of Cuba won both the 400 and 800 in Montreal. ... Kenyan runners have taken 14 of the last 18 available medals in the 3,000 steeplechase and gold in the last seven Olympics, a streak that is likely to continue.