It’s not for nothing that the Olympic Games are considered the pinnacle of sporting excellence. Held every four years, the Games bring together athletes in various disciplines, ignite strong nationalistic fervour and generally bring the world to a standstill. The reputations of many athletes are made and broken and then, just like what happened in Beijing 2008, one athlete rises like a beacon above others and makes the Games his own.
You may have realised by now that we are talking about the incredible Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and his three gold medals in Beijing. His celebration of stretching his arms and pointing to the sky to signify a lightning bolt was the one defining moment in 2008. Ask anyone who knows anything about the Olympics and chances are Bolt will be the first on the list of athletes to watch out for in London come July 27.
So, what makes Bolt and others of his ilk so special? Here is a look at the ten athletes who are likely to grab headlines and set pulses racing, starting with the redoubtable Jamaican.
Usain Bolt burst into the limelight with world records in both the 100m and 200m at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Bolt overcame slow starts and blazed away in the final 50 metres at the Games.
The 4x100-metre relay gold made him the first man to win three sprinting events at a single Olympics since Carl Lewis in 1984 as well as set world records in all three at the same event. He followed it up with a repeat performance in the World Championships in Berlin the following year winning gold in all three events, but just missed out on a world record in the relay. He was expected to repeat the feat at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, but shocked the world with a false start in the 100-metre final, handing the title to compatriot Yohan Blake. He won in the 200m and the relay, but was beaten again by Blake in both the 100m and 200m in the Jamaican championship. But then, those defeats hardly mean anything to the 25-year-old, who is recovering from injury and hopes to be ready in time for the athletics events. Watch out for his explosive finishes.
The South African becomes the first double amputee runner in any Olympic Games. He will compete in the 400m and the 4x400-metre relay. Known as the Blade Runner and the fastest man on no legs, the 25-year-old is the world record holder in the 100m, 200m and 400m in T44, a disability sport classification created by the International Paralympic Committee, and runs with the aid of Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon-fibre transtibial artificial limbs. However, his artificial lower legs, while enabling him to compete, have generated claims that he has an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners and International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) first ruled him ineligible, before overturning its decision to let him participate in the Beijing Olympics. Pistorius did not qualify, however, and will be hoping to make amends in London. He is not expected to win a medal but is already a winner nevertheless.
Arguably the greatest swimmer in Olympic history with 14 gold medals from Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, the American is going for seven gold medals in what he insists will be his last Olympics. The 27-year-old’s biggest challenge will come from teammate Ryan Lochte, who beat him twice at the 2011 World Championships but lost to him three out of four times at the US trials.
Phelps knows what he is up against. While he won’t be going for eight events like he did in Beijing when he broke Mark Spitz’s record of the most number of gold medals in one Olympic event, Phelps will have his task cut out against quality fields in every distance that he swims.
The Miami Heat guard was a part of the gold medal-winning US basketball team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The USA defeated Spain 118-107 to win their first gold medal since the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The 27-year-old is easily the biggest name in the world of basketball today after guiding the Heats to this season’s NBA title. The US have always entered the Olympic competition as favourites and James and his team will have the weight of expectations of a whole nation as they begin defence of their title.
The controversial South African middle-distance runner will be watched very closely in London. She first burst into the limelight winning gold in the women’s 800m at the 2009 World Championships. Following her victory, it was announced that she had been subjected to gender testing and was withdrawn from international competition until the following year when the IAAF cleared her to return to competition. She won silver in the 2011 World Championships and will be the favourite to win her event in London.
What can you say about a man who has won seven titles on grass at Wimbledon, the same venue for the Olympics tennis event? The Swiss master has said that he would dearly love to add the singles gold — he won the doubles gold in Beijing 2008. It would be a very brave man indeed who bets against the 30-year-old, despite the presence of the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and, of course, home favourite Andy Murray.
Missy Franklin is considered the female version of Michael Phelps and the American legend himself considers her the best female swimmer he has seen. Just 17, she is a five-time medalist (three golds, one silver and one bronze) in the World Aquatics Championships. Franklin was voted the FINA swimmer of the year in 2011. She is widely expected to be the breakout star of this Olympics and will be going for seven gold medals.
The Indian badminton superstar has been for years trying to solve the Chinese puzzle, winning tournaments on the way, but never really beating shuttlers from the world’s most populous nation on a consistent basis. But all that has changed now and the world number five (the only non-Chinese in the top five), with three titles under her belt this year and the scalps of some top-ranked Chinese players, is a firm favourite to win a medal at the London Olympics.
The 2011 world champion is the odds-on favourite to win the all-round gymnastics title in London, one of the most watched events in Olympics. The 16-year-old American is expected to face stiff competition from the Russians and the Romanians, but going by her form over the past four years, where she has won five straight major competitions, few would bet against her adding the Olympic gold as well. n
The five-time world champion from Manipur, India and a mother of two will be going for the ultimate dream, an Olympic medal. Mary Kom had to switch from light-fly to flyweight since her usual category is not included in the Olympics, where the sport of women’s boxing is itself making its debut.
The 29-year-old will have her task cut out though, with the change in the weight category. Whether or not she wins a medal, it is still an incredible rags-to-riches story. Mary Kom had to overcome much hardship to reach where she is now. Her parents earned their livelihoods by working in other people’s fields. Being the eldest, she helped her parents and also went to school. After completing Class VIII, she went to the state’s capital Imphal and continued her studies. Being fond of sports, she made enquiries and found women’s boxing. The rest, as they say, is history.