Pushing the all-powerful United States to second place, China topped the medal table for the first time in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with 51 golds, 21 silvers and 28 bronzes.
As the London 2012 Olympics open on Friday, the big question is whether China will dominate this Games as well?
Despite star contenders such as Lin Dan (badminton), Liu Xiang (hurdles), Sun Yang (swimming) and Zhou Lulu (weightlifting) in China’s 380-strong dream team this year, Chinese sports officials are — as always — playing down their chances. “Because a number of Olympic and world champions retired after the Beijing Games, a younger generation [with less experience] will form the bulk of the Chinese Olympic legion,” said Cai Zhenhua, China’s Vice Sports Minister and an ex-table tennis player, in a report in China Daily last month.
China’s Olympic-focused, state-run sports system has ample funding to train a new generation of competitors in world-class facilities. The country has Soviet-style sports schools that select and groom young talent, often with long hours of practice and training sessions daily, and as a result has produced leading athletes in swimming, judo, wrestling, boxing, archery and rowing.
Traditionally, China has excelled in diving, gymnastics, weightlifting, table tennis, badminton and shooting. In the Beijing Olympics it made a clean sweep of the table tennis events and won seven out of eight diving golds, eight of 15 weightlifting titles, 11 of 18 gymnastics titles, and five of ten shooting categories.
Chinese stars have also been making a name for themselves on the trampoline and in fencing and taekwondo. So you would do well to keep an eye out for Chinese athletes in these disciplines too.
— Archana R. D. King/Special to GN Focus
While it was once a struggle for Indian athletes to even accomplish qualifying standards at the Olympics, 2012 sees a different picture as the country readies to ascend the medals table. This time around Indian authorities have been focused on the country’s preparations for the Games. This much is apparent with the Indian Government’s outlay of Rs2.5 billion (Dh167.03 million) during the athletes’ build-up and an additional Rs200 million on foreign coaches to prepare the 80 athletes — 57 men and 23 women — who will participate in 12 sporting disciplines in London.
By any measure, India’s chances of landing a medal in London will be in the shooting competitions, where the nation has earned 11 quota places — seven by men and four by women. Leading the way will be Beijing gold medallist Abhinav Bindra as he seeks to defend his title in the 10-metre air rifle discipline.
Bindra, the current world and Olympic champion, instilled a strong sense of self-belief in athletes throughout the country following his success in Beijing four years ago. While much of the attention will be on Bindra, another Indian capable of gaining glory is Gagan Narang as he competes in the 10m air rifle and the 50m rifle three positions. He is among the few shooters who hold the perfect score of 600 in qualifying. He will also participate in the 50m rifle three positions, thus further brightening his chances of a first Olympic medal.
There seems to be a case of plenty as Manavjit Singh Sandhu and Ronjan Sodhi are equally capable of returning with medals in the trap and double trap events respectively.
The Indian national field hockey team qualified for the London Olympics after a gap of eight years following their 8-1 thrashing of France in New Delhi. The Indian team has a new coach in Michael Nobbs from Australia, who has imbued the youngsters with confidence. India’s Olympic gold quest in hockey began way back in 1928, which went unchallenged until the 1956 Games where the team remained unbeaten winning six gold medals in a row. In total, the Indian hockey team has won eight Olympic gold medals — the highest among all national teams — but it is highly unlikely that they can come anywhere close to matching this performance this time.
Tennis, badminton and boxing are three disciplines that can fetch medals for India, provided the athletes live up to the pre-Games hype. In tennis, much of the sensation has been in the selection of the team with Mahesh Bhupathi preferring to partner Rohan Bopanna rather than Leander Paes, leaving the Kolkata veteran to settle for Sania Mirza in the mixed doubles.
In badminton Saina Nehwal has had the best run-up to the Games with two successive tournament victories in as many attempts and bookmakers have put her as one of four favourites for a medal. In boxing Vijender Singh looks a likely medal candidate in the men’s middleweight division. Wrestler and Beijing bronze medallist Sushil Kumar Solanki also has a fighting chance of ending up on the podium.
— Alaric Gomes, Senior Sports Reporter, Gulf News
Pakistan has sent a 39-member contingent to participate in the London Olympics. While the country’s only realistic medal hope lies in field hockey, it was also granted five wild cards — two in athletics, two in swimming and one in shooting.
Pakistan’s hockey squad qualified for the Games after winning the Asian Games in 2010 in China. The country has won three gold medals — in 1960, 1968 and 1984 — and as many silver and two bronze medals in field hockey in all the Olympic events put together.
Penalty corner expert Sohail Abbas will lead the squad. The 35-year-old was retained as captain despite Pakistan finishing last at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in May in Ipoh, Malaysia this year.
Pakistan’s recent poor performance has forced the selectors to recall senior players such as Rehan Butt, Mohammad Waseem and Shakil Abbasi, all of whom featured in a rebel hockey league in India, threatening their Olympic chances.
Three-time Olympic champion with four world titles, Pakistan have finished at their worst-ever eighth position in the Beijing Olympics and then slumped to the 12th and last position in the 2010 World Cup in India.
Pakistani sportsmen have won a total of ten medals, eight from men’s field hockey. Notably, their hockey gold medal in 1960 ended India’s run of six successive gold medals.
Syed Hadi Haider Naqvi did pick up a bronze medal in the demonstration sport of taekwondo, but as the sport was not given full status the medal was not recognised in the official tally.
The wild cards heading for London are athletes Rabia Ashiq and Liaquat Ali, swimmers Anum Banday and Israr Hussain and shooter Khurrum Inam.
— Mohammad Ali, Special to GN Focus
A little over two decades after the former Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia is seeking a return to its former glory in a bid to secure a top-three finish at the Olympics.
Between 1952 when the Soviet Union started competing in the Olympics and until its dissolution in 1991, the Olympic powerhouse won 1,212 medals — more than any other country.
Fast forward to 2012, and the Russian athletes taking part in the Games have been given a lucrative carrot in the form of up to $1 million (Dh3.67 million) in bonuses for gold medallists in an attempt to recapture those halcyon days.
Russia’s Olympic Committee hopes this hefty enticement will help yield at least 25 gold medals in London, two more than Russia achieved in 2008.
Spearheading Russia’s hopes are the pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva and tennis player Maria Sharapova, who will have the honour of carrying her country’s flag at the opening ceremony. Sharapova has completed a career grand slam with her French Open victory last month. Although she failed to repeat the success this month at Wimbledon, also the venue for the Olympic tennis event, Sharapova’s famed indomitable spirit and prodigious ability should propel her onto the medal podium in London.
As for Isinbayeva, she is a heavy favourite to add a third gold medal to her collection, having returned to the form recently that made her an Olympic champion in both 2004 and 2008.
It’s her realm of track and field that should prove to be the most fertile medal-winning territory for Russia, with Beijing bronze medallist Anna Chicherova among the favourites to go two steps better in London and claim gold.
In the men’s high jump, Russia has high hopes of success for Andrei Silnov, who won gold at the Games four years ago, as well as Ivan Ukhov. Meanwhile, on the track Yury Borzakovsky, the men’s 800-metre European champion and 2004 Olympic champion and long-distance runner Lilia Shobukhova are expected to be major contenders.
In terms of team sports, Russia’s women’s handball and water polo squads are strongly fancied to achieve podium finishes, along with the male and female volleyball teams. And there’s further potential for Russian medals in boxing, wrestling, fencing, shooting and rhythmic and artistic gymnastics.
However, Russia’s Olympic preparations were thrown into turmoil just weeks before the game when, on July 3, it was announced that three of their leading female athletes, including European marathon champion Nailya Yulamanova, had been banned for two years for doping.
Svetlana Klyuka, second in the 800m at the 2006 European championships, and 2011 European 800-metre indoor winner Yevgenia Zinurova were also suspended for “abnormal indexes in their biometric passports”.
— Euan Reedie, Deputy Sports Editor, Gulf News
Hopes are high that with one of its strongest squads in years plus the partisan support of a raucous home crowd Team GB could secure its best-ever Olympic medal haul at the London Games.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics Great Britain finished fourth in the medal table, its best performance since the Paris Olympics in 1924 when it also finished fourth.
As such with many of the same high-class athletes as 2008 competing on home soil, it is a realistic proposition for Team GB to go one better and finish third this time around behind the traditional superpowers of USA and China.
Professor Simon Shibli, head of Sheffield Hallam University’s Sport Industry Research Centre in the UK, predicts Team GB will win 56 medals including 27 golds, which would be eight more than that achieved four years ago and its second-biggest haul in history. To put this potential achievement into context and highlight the possible host nation factor cited by Shibli, Britain’s highest-ever medal tally came at the London Games way back in 1908 when a mind-boggling 146 medals were accumulated by the British athletes.
Shibli’s analysis found that since Seoul 1988 host nations have collectively won 53 golds more than they did in the previous games.
What is, however, certain is that Team GB possesses an array of credible medal contenders in a range of sports. For starters the British cycling team will shoulder the burden of the home crowd’s expectations once again following their heroics in Beijing, which spawned 14 medals, eight of them gold. Sir Chris Hoy won three of them and he — along with Bradley Wiggins, Jason Kenny and Victoria Pendleton — is among the two-wheeled British aces likely to be in the running for medals in London.
On the water sailor Ben Ainslie will be aiming to secure a fourth straight gold medal to become one of Britain’s greatest Olympians, while heptathlete Jessica Ennis will be bidding to add an Olympic title to her 2011 world title. On the track Mo Farah will be confident of success in the men’s 5,000m, having claimed the gold medal over this distance at last year’s World Championships.
Meanwhile, in the pool Rebecca Adlington is Britain’s big hope for Olympic swimming glory following her two gold medals in Beijing 2008. Also hoping to make a splash is 18-year-old diver Tom Daley, whose stunning rise to prominence at an early age has helped him become one of the country’s most popular sportsmen. Daley is a double Commonwealth and European gold medallist and 2009 world champion, who has become the poster boy for the British team due to his good looks, precocious ability and affable nature.
Football will also return home to the country that invented the game when the Team GB footballers strut their stuff for the first time at an Olympics since 1960. Although David Beckham failed to make the squad, the presence of one of three overage stars, Welsh wizard Ryan Giggs, is a compelling reason to follow the fortunes of Stuart Pearce’s men, who face the UAE in the group stage.
— Euan Reedie, Deputy Sports Editor, Gulf News
In Beijing four years ago the United States claimed more total medals than any other nation (110) to lead the overall medal table for the fourth consecutive Games.
With another powerful squad, studded with a host of stellar names, it is highly probable that the American dominance of the Games will continue in London.
Four years ago US swimming sensation Michael Phelps powered his way into the record books by winning eight gold medals, the best haul of any Olympian at a single Olympics.
Incidentally, Phelps’ medal-winning magnificence surpassed fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics.
What’s more, the 27-year-old also made history by becoming the first athlete to win 14 Olympic gold medals. In total, Phelps has 16 Olympic medals, two behind the number achieved by the former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, meaning Phelps will have a significant incentive to excel at this year’s Games.
However, Phelps has decided to downgrade his schedule for the forthcoming extravaganza and will now be taking part in seven events as opposed to the eight in which he achieved his record-breaking success in China.
This pool powerhouse may not dominate in London quite so memorably and historically as he did four years ago as he will face stiff opposition from fellow countryman Ryan Lochte.
His compatriot has enjoyed success over Phelps on several occasions — recently in the 200m and 400m individual medleys. Lochte has even rivalled him for the role of poster boy for the United States team.
Phelps is not the only American eyeing a magnificent seven golds either, as 17-year-old prodigy Missy Franklin is hoping to emulate his strokes of genius.
Franklin will become the first American female swimmer to participate in seven events at an Olympics including three relays, with the 200-metre backstroke her best chance of success.
Defending world champion in this event is Kirsty Coventry from Zimbabwe.
On dry land, meanwhile, one of the most eagerly awaited events of the Olympics, as always, is the men’s 100m — and Team USA will provide two jet-heeled sprinters who will be gunning for Usain Bolt’s Olympic crown.
Tyson Gay and 2004 Olympic champion Justin Gatlin, who has returned to the sport following a four-year suspension for doping, will be snapping at Bolt’s heels during what promises to be an explosive and enthralling affair once again.
Team USA is also famed for its acrobatic excellence, with its women’s gymnastics team topping the chart with seven medals in Beijing.
The 2011 all-round world champion Jordyn Wieber, who helped her US teammates achieve global success in addition to her individual triumph, is heavily tipped to inspire another star-spangled gymnastics gold rush at the London Games.
Given their awesome strength in depth, it is rare to find a sport in which the Americans are weak, with US athletes also likely to dominate less-heralded disciplines such as beach volleyball.
The Americans are the reigning Olympic beach volleyball champions in both the men’s and women’s events. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings are seeking a third straight gold after breezing through their first two Olympic tournaments without dropping a set.
— Euan Reedie, Deputy Sports Editor, Gulf News