July 27, 2012

The London Games are finally here. What can we expect? SI.com writers break down 12 must-watch storylines for the Summer Olympics.

The short answer is: Not likely. It's possible, but hardly a certainty, that Usain Bolt will win both the 100 and 200 meters in London, but it's fantasy to suggest that Bolt can re-create the cultural explosion that accompanied his transcendent performances four years ago in China. Back then, he burst from mere fast runner to global celebrity in the span of six days, winning three gold medals and breaking three world records, and making it all look like just another long, wild night of dancing in the Kingston clubs. It was something unreal, and it can happen only once.

On the track? That's a whole other problem. Bolt got better in the year after Beijing, setting mind-bending world records in the 100 (9.58 seconds) and 200 (19.19) at the 2009 world championships, and anchoring Jamaica to another WR in the 4x100-meter relay. But since then he has been wrestling with injuries (a bad back, which led to hamstring issues), lifestyle (too many actual nights in those Kingston clubs, and two car crashes), the statistical improbability of sustaining his otherworldly level and the rise of a young training partner.

At the 2011 worlds in Daegu, Bolt false-started out of the 100, and saw Yohan Blake, who trains every day with Bolt and coach Glenn Mills, win the world title. Bolt did win the 200, but a month later Blake ran a stunning 19.24 seconds at a Diamond League meet in Brussels, a time shockingly close to Bolt's world record.

This year Bolt started out fine, twice running under 9.80 seconds (9.76 in Rome on May 31 and 9.79 in Oslo a week later), but began struggling with injury issues and was beaten by Blake in both the 100 and 200 at the Jamaican Olympic Trials in late June.

On form alone, Blake, who ran a world-leading 9.75 seconds in the 100 at the Jamaican Trials, is the favorite in both London sprints. But these will be his first Olympics and it is a far bigger track meet than any that Blake has ever contested. A third Jamaican, the enigmatic Asafa Powell, could be a factor, along with Americans Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin. Bolt's form and fitness will be studied closely as he advances through the rounds of the 100, but he has usually been great on the biggest stages. That is his one remaining edge. By the time London ends, Bolt's Beijing party could be a distant memory, nothing more than a piece of track history.-- Tim Layden

For Michael Phelps, it's still about records. Even though he won't be surpassing or repeating his eight-gold performance of Beijing, Phelps has said he wants to do something no one has before. By swimming seven events in London, he could establish several milestones.

It's nearly a given he'll become the most decorated Olympian of all time: He needs just three medals to overtake Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, who collected 18 medals over three Olympics between 1956 and 1964, and none of those medals has to be gold. (The 14 career gold medals he already has are five more than the next-best nine of Latynina, swimmer Mark Spitz and track athletes Paavo Nurmi and Carl Lewis.) He also has four chances to become the first man to win an Olympic swimming event three times -- he won the 400 IM, the 200 IM, the 200 fly and the 100 fly in both Athens and Beijing and he'll be swimming all of them in London. If Phelps doesn't win the 400 IM on Saturday, swimming's first gold medal event, Japan's Kosuke Kitajima could beat him to the honor on Sunday by winning the 100 breaststroke for the third time.

There's only one swimmer who could realistically prevent Phelps from getting the triple first -- teammate, rival and training camp spades partner Ryan Lochte, who beat Phelps by .83 in the 400 IM at the U.S. Trials in Omaha, Neb.. Lochte also represents the biggest hurdle to Phelps getting his triple in the 200 IM next Thursday. (In Omaha, Phelps outtouched Lochte, the world-record holder, by .09 seconds.) While there isn't much doubt about how the bigger story for Phelps will end -- after London he'll retire as the greatest Olympian of all time -- thanks to Lochte, it will be a thrill watching him get there.-- Kelli Anderson

After spending the last century teaching other nations to play basketball "by the book" -- lineups with a traditionally tall center, two forwards and two guards -- the American men come to London with a subversively small team. Injuries have sidelined all of their centers apart from 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler, which means that coach Mike Krzyzewski will be concocting a variety of lineups around the most versatile of all stars, 6-8 LeBron James.

Over the course of a 40-minute game, James may find himself shifting through every position from center to point guard. Andre Iguodala, a 6-6 swingman, will be guarding centers, and Russell Westbrook, the hyperactive 6-3 point guard, will be attacking opponents defensively in their backcourt. In so doing, the country that invented basketball will be seeking to dismantle the structures it created -- not because America has grown bored with the old ways, but rather because it has no other option than to create easy baskets in transition and disrupt conventional offenses before they can establish their big men around the basket.

I'm looking forward to a potential gold medal final against Spain, which fills its positions with orthodox performers like point guard Jose Calderon and the 7-foot Gasol brothers, Marc (the center) and Pau (the power forward). Will they force the U.S. to play a traditionally patient game around the basket or will the explosive Americans overwhelm them on the perimeter? I'm looking forward to seeing whether the U.S. can transform its weaknesses into strengths in what promises to be the most fascinating experiment since the 1992 emergence of the Dream Team, and nothing less than the gold medal is riding on the outcome.-- Ian Thomsen

At the last three Olympics, every U.S. women's gymnastics team has been measured against (and fallen short of) the Magnificent Seven of 1996, the last American team to win the Olympic team title. This year's group -- five rookies born between 1994 and 1996 -- is expected to return the red, white and blue atop the podium and could be the most talented team the U.S. has ever assembled. They're led by two contenders for all-around gold, the steady reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber and trials champion Gabby Douglas, the high-flipping Flying Squirrel. McKayla Maroney, if unhindered by a broken toe, is the best in the world on vault. Aly Raisman, the oldest member of the team at 18, is a medal contender on floor exercise, and the youngest, Kyla Ross, 15, could be the breakout gymnastics star of these Games.

If anybody can stop the Americans from regaining team glory, it's another nation with similar hopes of restoration: Russia. At the 2008 Olympics, it failed to win a team medal for the first time since 1948 (not counting its 1984 boycott). The Russians are back with two all-around contenders of their own -- 2010 world champion Aliya Mustafina and 2011 world silver medalist Viktoria Komova. The Americans are favored in both the team and all-around, but any slip-up -- which tends to happen with this pressure -- could open the door for a close competition.-- Nick Zaccardi

She has been featured in publications ranging from TheWall Street Journal to Vogue, and she has been grilled on national TV by Matt Lauer and Bob Costas. But the media frenzy surrounding 17-year-old Missy Franklin, the 6-foot-1 swimming phenom from Centennial, Colo., is just getting started. Her unusual combination of bubbly charisma, unshakable poise and medal potential -- in London, her first Olympics, she'll swim in seven events and has a great shot to medal in at least five -- will make Franklin must-see TV every night she swims.

"I don't know that we've ever had an athlete in this sport who has had it all at her age," said 1984 triple gold medalist and NBC swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines.

Franklin's medal prospects in five of her events are strong. She has the top times in the world this year in both the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes, and she'll be a part of the 4x100 free, the 4x200 free and the medley relays, all of which should pick up hardware for the United States. And though she is considered a longshot in the 100 and the 200 freestyles, her competitors would be wise to remember that Franklin already has a history of performing beyond all expectation when it counts: Her blistering leadoff leg of 1:55.06 in the 4x200 free relay at the world championships in Shanghai last year would have won the 200 free individual event.

Even if she fails to surpass Natalie Coughlin's 2008 record of six medals in a single Olympics, Franklin, who is more than 12 years younger than Coughlin and has several Olympics ahead of her, could emerge from London with something just as rare for a swimmer: global star power.-- Kelli Anderson

Henke and Sheila Pistorius made sure to raise their son Oscar a happy and active boy, even though he was born with no fibulas and had his lower legs removed when he was 11 months old. When he went to school, Sheila would tell Oscar that he put his legs on just like his brother put his shoes on. Still, as well adjusted as he was, no one, including Henke and Sheila, could've expected him to become an Olympic sprinter.

Nonetheless, on Aug. 4, Pistorius will become the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics when he -- and his crescent, carbon fiber "Cheetah legs" -- takes the track for the first round of the 400 meters. (He will be the sixth Paralympian to compete in the Olympics. The previous five were all women, and no amputee has competed in track and field at the Olympics.) Pistorius, 25, has the fastest 400 time by a South African this year at 45.20, but he has not been running close to that time this summer, and just making it to the semifinal round would be considered a good showing given his results in recent meets. Pistorius will also be on the South African 4x400 relay team, which took a surprise silver at the world championship last year and will give the so-called Blade Runner his best shot at a medal.

No matter what Pistorius, who has become an A-list celebrity in South Africa, does on the track, he's sure to command attention off of it. In 2008, Pistorius was barred from able-bodied competition when an IAAF-commissioned scientist said his blades made him unfairly energy efficient. But the decision was overturned months later by the Court of Arbitration for Sport when another group of scientists showed that energy efficiency has nothing to do with Pistorius's sprint speed. The controversy over the mechanical traits of the blades continues, though. Most recently, 400 world-record holder Michael Johnson, who is a friend of Pistorius', said he didn't think Pistoriu should be allowed to compete.-- David Epstein

It's a scoreboard watched closely by countries around the world, dudes with titles such as chef de mission, and it brings out the inner Nostradamus in everyone. Four years ago, the U.S. edged China 110-100 in overall medal count (Russia was third with 73), and Sports Illustrated predicts that the Americans will retain that advantage in London but only by two medals (99 to 97). That prediction is based on the U.S. remaining the kings and queens of the pool and achieving its usual track and field success. If China finds unexpected success in swimming, this could flip. Our patriotic friends at TheWall Street Journalalso has the Stars and Stripes rolling in London. WSJ has the U.S. winning both the overall medal count (108-92) and gold medal race (40-38). If you want a third opinion, the head of London's organizing committee for the Games, Sebastian Coe, predicted China, the U.S. and Russia in that order. And so it goes.

What's clear is that Russia should maintain its No. 3 spot in the medal count, as it builds momentum toward the Winter Olympics in Sochi two years from now. But the country, not surprisingly, expected to zoom up the medal chart is Great Britain, with the usual push that the host country gets. Great Britain won 47 medals in Beijing and SI is predicting that number to jump to 65 in London. If you want one fairly safe prediction, here it is: It's going to be a good Games for the homefolk.-- Richard Deitsch

Allyson Felix, 26, has been a professional track athlete since just a few months after her graduation from high school in 2003. She has compiled one of the most impressive records of any sprinter in U.S. track history: seven individual U.S. championships in three events (100, 200 and 400 meters), three individual world championships in the 200 (along with a silver medal last summer in the 400) and six world gold medals and one Olympic gold medal in relays.

Yet like the quarterback without a Super Bowl ring or the golfer without a major, Felix is still best known for the one thing her resume lacks: an individual Olympic gold medal. She will run both the 100 and 200 in London (as well as both relays), but it's in the longer sprint that she hopes to finally win gold. Twice she has been beaten in the Olympic final by Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica, the second silver medal more painful than the first.

But since taking the bronze medal in the 200 behind Campbell-Brown and Carmelita Jeter of the U.S. last summer at the world championship, Felix has worked to sharpen her speed for the London 200. At the U.S. Olympic Trials, Felix won the 200 in a personal best of 21.69 seconds, the sixth-fastest time in history. Meanwhile, Campbell-Brown ran just 22.42 to finish third in the Jamaican Trials and no woman broke 22 seconds in that race. Barring an injury or a shocking turn of form, Felix should leave London with individual gold hanging from her neck.-- Tim Layden

A funny thing happens when you look at the history of the U.S. women's soccer team in the World Cup and the Olympics, the two most important tournaments in the sport. Whenever the Americans have found disappointment in a World Cup -- in 1995, 2003 and '07 -- they have come back the following year and won the Olympic gold medal. But the last time they won a World Cup, in 1999, they didn't follow up with Olympic gold (earning silver in Sydney in 2000). If the pattern continues, then the Americans should feel good about their chances of taking home the Olympic crown in London a year after the disappointment of losing in the World Cup final to Japan.

Not much has changed on the U.S. team since Germany 2011. Goalkeeper Hope Solo and forward Abby Wambach are still the two biggest stars, and only one member of the 18-player roster (forward Sydney Leroux) was not on the World Cup squad. Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe are starting these days, which is a new development, while the excellent right back Ali Krieger is missing the Olympics with a knee injury.

In theory, winning the Olympic title should be easier than the World Cup. The Olympic women's tournament has 12 teams (compared to 24 for World Cup 2015), and two-time World Cup champ Germany didn't qualify. But rivals Brazil and Japan will be involved, and the U.S.' knockout-round foes could include Canada, Brazil and the Japanese. If that's the case, nothing will come easy.-- Grant Wahl

It's getting increasingly difficult to make the case that Roger Federer isn't tennis' Greatest of All-Time, the G.O.A.T. in the sport's vernacular. He cemented his candidacy at Wimbledon earlier this month, when, at age 30, he won the title for a record seventh time and reclaimed the top ranking in the process.

One of the few conceivable knocks on Federer: his record at international team competitions. He has never won the Davis Cup for Switzerland. For all his unparalleled awesomeness at ATP events and at Grand Slam tournaments, he has been decidedly mortal at the Olympics. His medal count in singles: zero. (He did team with countryman Stan Wawrinka to win a gold in doubles in Beijing.) In Athens, he was upset by Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic. In Beijing, he fell, surprisingly to American James Blake.

This year, Federer has a chance -- a good chance -- of redeeming himself. Not only is he playing as well as ever, but he also returns to scene of the crime. The Olympic tennis event will be held at Wimbledon, which has more or less been Federer's personal grass playground over the past decade. He's on his preferred surface -- one that accentuates his deft footwork and skidding shots. He is intimately familiar with the courts, the venue, even the surrounding neighborhood. He is a player who relishes comfort and familiarity. Which means that at this Olympics, he is poised for something unfamiliar: winning.-- Jon Wertheim

No beach volleyball pair can match what Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh have accomplished in 11 years together on the sand: two straight Olympic titles, three straight world championships and a 112-match unbeaten streak. Lately, they've experienced something a little less remarkable: defeat. Which makes the goal -- gold in their third Olympic Games together (fourth overall for both) -- their toughest yet. May-Treanor, 34, and Walsh, 33, enter their likely final Olympic tournament as the third-best team in FIVB's Olympic rankings (since Jan. 1, 2011) with two fifths and two ninths in six world tour competitions this year. The favorites are Brazil's Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta. They beat May-Treanor and Walsh in the 2011 world championship final and followed with what May-Treanor called an "over-the-top" flowers-and-autographs celebration.

Win or lose, May-Treanor and Walsh are the greatest beach volleyball team in history. No pair -- male or female -- has won multiple golds since the sport's Olympic debut in 1996. Win, and they've overcome adversity for the first time at an Olympics -- not only as underdogs, but also with Walsh coming off two pregnancies and May-Treanor having torn an Achilles during Dancing With the Stars training. Lose, and the curtain closes on their decade of dominance, their Olympic match record (14-0 without dropping a set) finally blemished. (May-Treanor has said she's ready to retire; Walsh plans to play on.) They punctuated the pre-Olympic season with their first tournament title in 11 months, so maybe they still have magic left.-- Nick Zaccardi

Forget Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. Social media is going to be the star of the London Games, and plenty have already tagged the 17-day mega-event as the "Socialympics." Noting the explosion of social media heading our way, TheAssociated Press cheekily surmised in a recent piece: "The London Games will be the first Olympics told in 140 characters or less."

Of course the Games will still be told in longer form, but London represents the first true social media Olympics. Consider: Facebook had 100 million global users when NBC aired the Beijing Olympics. It now has nearly 900 million. Twitter had roughly six million users in the fall of 2008. It is now approaching 140 million. Tablets such as the iPad did not exist in 2008, and in the years since, the smart-phone experience has gotten much smarter, with a gorgeous Instagram photo just a click away.

Not surprisingly, the major social media players have invested heavily in these Games. Earlier this month, NBC Universal announced a partnership with Facebook, which will feature exclusive NBC Olympics content and images on its site. On various NBC platforms, viewers will see a "Facebook Talk Meter," which will reflect what is being said online about Olympic athletes and events. Facebook will also have its own content team in London during the Games.

Twitter, in particular, should see a surge in traffic over the next two weeks, and watch for the follower count of specific athletes (especially those who win or implode spectacularly) to soar. The current sports-related record for tweets per second was set during last month's Euro 2012 championship between Spain and Italy (Twitter says the Euro final peaked at 15,358 tweets per second). The easiest prediction of the Olympics? The new record will be set in London.-- Richard Deitsch

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