World’s Top Athletes Converge on Beijing For Olympic Games

The lead-up to the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, which begin today in Beijing, has been marked by controversy. Widespread opposition to the policies of the Chinese government inflamed demonstrations that disrupted the international legs of the Olympic torch’s journey last spring. Internet censorship, although slightly relaxed from a week earlier, continues to be a point of argument for the media covering the events.

The Olympics, however, have long held the power to transcend politics and allow athletes from all over the world to come together in peaceful competition. As the spotlight now shifts from controversy surrounding the host nation to the competitions themselves, the summer games show the potential for historic performances from the world’s greatest athletes.

Hosting the Olympics is the source of immense national pride for China, and top Chinese athletes such as sprinter Liu Xiang and diver Guo Jingjing are under immense pressure to succeed. Guo, the defending three-meter springboard gold medalist, and her teammates carry perhaps the greatest potential to showcase the strength of Chinese athletics. There has been wide speculation that the Chinese divers could sweep all eight gold medals in diving, a feat they came close to in 2004 with six.

Track and field events have been with the modern Olympics since their inception and have always been a major focus of attention at the games. No event attracts more attention than the 100-meter dash. This year, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is heading to the Olympics having set a new world record in the 100-meter of 9.72 seconds in May. Running against Bolt is American Tyson Gay, who finished in a time of 9.68 seconds at the Olympic trials. Because of a strong tailwind, this time was not recognized as an official record, but it is the fastest anyone has ever covered a hectometer on foot.

Another notable pair of track and field athletes are Iraqi sprinter Dana Hussein Abdul-Razzaq and discus thrower Haidar Nasir. Iraq was prepared to send a team of seven athletes to the 2008 games, but late last month the International Olympic Committee banned Iraq because of the dissolution and reappointment of the country’s National Olympic Committee last May. The IOC eventually agreed to lift the ban, but not until after the deadline for non-track and field events had passed, leaving Iraq with only two eligible athletes. However, the International Rowing Federation also allowed Iraqi scullers Hamzah Hussein and Haidar Nozad their place in the competition. After an exceptionally difficult road to the games, these athletes have the chance to bring pride and unity to their long-suffering nation.

In the swimming events, the biggest story is the same as it was four years ago: Michael Phelps and his quest to break fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz’s all-time record for the most gold medals in a single Olympiad. Spitz won seven golds at the 1972 games in Munich, a record Phelps nearly matched in 2004 when he left Athens with a total of six gold and two bronze medals.

One swimmer who has already made Olympic history is South African Natalie du Toit, who became the first athlete ever to qualify for both the Olympic and Paralympic teams in the same year. Du Toit, whose left leg was amputated at the knee in 2001, is the first amputee to compete at the Olympics since 1904.

United States basketball had long been dominant at the Olympics, but after a disappointing third-place finish by the 2004 incarnation of “The Dream Team,” the 2008 squad has been labeled “The Redeem Team.” Featuring NBA stars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant, the U.S. team went undefeated in its pre-games exhibition schedule, narrowly defeating Australia in their final pre-Beijing game on Tuesday.

The flower-shaped Beijing Olympic Tennis Center could be the stage for a rematch of last month’s unforgettable Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. After defeating the five-time Wimbledon champion, Nadal will replace Federer as the world's top ranked player in two weeks, a title Federer has held since 2004.

Lastly, for the first time in 104 years, three siblings will be competing together on the U.S. Olympic team. Two-time Taekwondo gold medalist Steven Lopez is joined this year by his younger brother and sister, Mark and Diana. All three Lopez siblings have won world championships and are strong medal contenders in Beijing. Rounding out the Lopez family’s dominance of the U.S. team is coach and older brother Jean.

All of these athletes are now gathering in one place as the world’s premiere sporting event begins again. Their stories are just a few of the hundreds soon to have their next chapter written in Beijing.