Citius, Altius, Fortius or swifter, higher, stronger make up the Olympic creed and are words that will be on the minds of over 11,000 athletes from nearly 200 countries participating in the upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing. Marking the first time in 20 years that the Summer Olympics have been held in Asia, the 2008 games look to be the biggest ever with 302 events being contested in 31 different sports. Covering all athletes and disciplines would be a challenge for even Pheidippides, so the focus here will be on a few key events and matchups.
Beginning with the sport that is no longer going to be with us after the ’08 games, baseball does not really affect that many countries but it’s importance to the few competitive powerhouses cannot be understated. Baseball has been a medal sport since 1992 and in that time Cuba and the United States have won the only gold medals, with Cuba taking three to the United States’ one. 2008 will see 8 teams competing and the smart money is on Cuba, the United States and Japan who have combined to win nine out of a possible twelve medals in the games since they have been awarded. Featuring some of the top baseball talent from Major League Baseball and the Japanese Pro Baseball Association, this event promises to be a close contest for the gold.
For the Japanese team, this event likely represents their best medal chances, as the Judo squad brought home eight gold medals in the 2004 Athens games, representing half of the total for the entire Japanese contingent. Although Japan is sending representatives in all 14 weight classes, don’t expect as strong a showing as they enjoyed in ’04, as they are without three-time world champion Kosei Inoue and three-time Olympic champion Tadahiro Nomura, both of whom failed to qualify this time around. Japan is certainly not out of the running as extremely popular Ryoko Tani, affectionately known as Yawara-chan, has made the team. Despite a bit of a losing streak the past while, it is hard to write off a seven-time world and two-time Olympic champion and few will be surprised if the feisty 105-pounder brings home a medal.
Strong competition against Japan will come from all corners with home country favorite Feng Gao gunning for Tani, and a score of Europeans vying for the men’s titles. Although a Japanese-invented sport, look for the medals to go all over the world in this one.
Swimming has been going through some controversy as of late with recent innovations in fabric technology that is supposedly giving some swimmers a competitive edge. This year marked the introduction of the LZR Racer suit, a continuation of Speedo’s Fastskin line of suits. Athletes in this new suit have obliterated records at meets around the world, stirring discord amongst those who feel the suit provides an unfair advantage due to it’s buoyancy.
In the past few months records have fallen in almost every distance and almost 75% of the athletes that have set them have been using the Speedo suit or “clones” by Arena, Nike and others. With the International Swimming Federation approving the suits, we can expect a large number of Olympic records to go down in August. Keep an eye on Americans Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, Australians Libby Trickett and Grant Hackett and Europeans Thomas Rupprath and Hugues Duboscq.
Japanese breaststroke specialist Kosuke Kitajima will be wearing a new suit developed by Mizuno and be trying to repeat his double-gold success in Athens and regain the world records for both the 100 and 200m breaststroke.
Track and Field
Track and field events represent perhaps the most basic and traditional of the sports in the modern Olympics representing the best fit with core tenets of the Olympic Creed.
Japan’s best chance for a medal rests on the diminutive shoulders of their women’s marathon team. Anchored by defending Olympic gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi the Japanese opted for a mix between veteran Reiko Tosa and youngster Yukari Nakamura. Japanese women have enjoyed success worldwide in the marathon but will be challenged by Chinese Yingying Zhang who has set the fasted time in the world so far this year, despite her young age of 18.
For the Japanese men, medal hopes rest on the broad shoulders of Koji Murofushi, who snagged the gold medal in Athens after the disqualification of Hungarian Adrian Annus in 2004. Murofushi’s personal best throw is almost 10 meters ahead of the current world best thrown by Cuba’s Yipsi Moreno and if he gets back to top form he is truly a force to be reckoned with.
The highlight of track and field is a matter of taste, but tradition holds that the Men’s 100m is the highlight of the games usually occupying the premier time slot just before closing ceremonies. Current world-record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica is almost impossible to beat right now and being the only runner so far in 2008 to run under 10 seconds, should be a strong contender for the gold.
Football, or soccer as it is known in North America and Japan, certainly the most universal of Olympic sports, is enjoyed by virtually every country with an Olympic Federation and short of the World Cup, the Olympics is the biggest stage for the game.
Despite the widespread appeal, owing to the limited amount of time, soccer in the Olympics is limited to just 16 teams and for ’08 there is a mix of traditional powerhouses and dark horses competing. Expect to see strong showings from Brazil, the Netherlands and Italy, while Cameroon, the United States and Cote d’Ivorie could surprise some teams. Japan will be making their fourth consecutive appearance and while they have shown flashes of solid play, getting out of their group with the United States and the Netherlands is going to be a very tall order.
As far as medal count goes, the past two Olympics have the United States, Russia and China have leading the medal haul and while that should continue in the upcoming games, the record number of athletes participating should see medals more widely distributed. For the Japanese team a repeat of their success in 2004 is very unlikely and optimistically they should expect their total to be somewhere in the teens.
Story by James Souilliere
From J SELECT Magazine, July 2008