The Olympics always drip with drama, but there’s nothing quite like a big rivalry to increase the tension.
Olympic rivalry history includes a number of unforgettable U.S. vs. Russia team battles (men’s basketball in 1972, the miraculous hockey matchup in 1980) as well as several other individual clashes you may remember.
Think Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding. Or Jesse Owens vs. Adolf Hitler. Or Rulon Gardner vs. Alexander Karelin.
Here are eight great rivalries that will help fuel the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
1. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt vs. USA’s Tyson Gay, men’s 100-meter dash
The 100-meter dash, always one of the Olympics’ most glamorous events, determines the unofficial title of “world’s fastest man.” This year’s 100 should have even a little more pop than usual. American Tyson Gay will have two worthy Jamaican challengers — world-record holder Usain Bolt and his countryman, Asafa Powell.
Originally, it was supposed to be Powell who flew alongside Gay toward the finish of this race, and it still might be. But Bolt came out of the sky like a — well — lightning bolt when he recently blew away the world record with a time of 9.72 seconds. At 6-foot-5, Bolt is a giant of a sprinter, a half-foot taller than Gay.
Gay ran a sizzling 9.68 at the U.S. Olympic trials in his late June victory, but it was wind-aided and didn’t go into the record books as a world mark. Then his hamstring cramped in the 200 at the trials and he literally fell out of the event. While those around him insist Gay will be fine to run the 100 in Beijing, the injury adds another intriguing element.
2. USA vs. China, women’s gymnastics
This ranks as the most high-profile team rivalry at these Olympics. Expect NBC to cover it in breathless detail. The United States has two of the best all-around gymnasts in the world in Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, but China has excellent depth and a homefield advantage that can’t be discounted.
“China is our biggest competition,” said Johnson, who is 16 years old, 4-foot-9 and the reigning champion in the all-around event. “Knowing we’re going onto their home turf will give us a little more pressure.”
But, added Liukin: “We are the team to beat. We’ve earned that.”
The U.S. women won gold at the 2007 worlds. China won gold at the same meet in 2006. The Chinese have three-time world vault champion Cheng Fui and possibly more depth than the American squad.
3. USA’s Michael Phelps vs. the field, men’s swimming
No single swimmer can challenge the overall supremacy of Michael Phelps, who enters these Olympics as its splashy superstar. He won eight medals last time out in 2004 (six golds, two bronze). Entered in eight events once again, Phelps might surpass that total this time around.
But that doesn’t mean Phelps can’t be challenged in individual events. Teammate Ryan Lochte was inches away from beating Phelps in the 400 individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials, with both swimmers going under the world record. Phelps is perceived as a bit vulnerable in almost all of his events, and even Phelps will tell you that he’s not quite as energetic as he used to be.
4. USA vs. Brazil, women’s soccer
Brazil sports the best women’s soccer player in the world — Marta. Her nickname is “Pele with skirts” and she is a gifted forward who helped Brazil whip the U.S. at the 2007 Women’s World Cup, 4-0. That was the game that also sparked a huge controversy when then-U.S. coach Greg Ryan replaced regular goalkeeper Hope Solo with Briana Scurry. An angry Solo said after the game she would have made saves on the goals Scurry allowed.
In retribution, Solo got kicked off the team and blackballed by her teammates.
Now Solo is the starting goalie again. The team has decided to let bygones be bygones under new coach Pia Sundhage. We’ll get a chance to see if Solo really could save some of Marta’s creative shots — assuming the two teams advance out of round-robin play as expected.
The U.S. won gold over Brazil in 2004 when Abby Wambach scored the game-winner on a header. Wambach, the best goal scorer for the United States, will miss the 2008 Summer Games with a broken leg. China could also be a factor in the hunt for the gold medal.
5. China’s Lui Xiang vs. Cuba’s Dayron Robles, men’s 110-meter hurdles
Except for basketball star Yao Ming, there may be no Chinese athlete more well-known at these Summer Games than Lui Xiang. The hurdler is a source of national pride due to his gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2004 Olympics. Xiang was China’s first gold-medal winner in track and field in 20 years. He has proven that wasn’t a fluke with a slew of good performances since, often followed by a round of karaoke later that night.
Xiang will be fiercely challenged in these Games, however, and no challenge will be as fierce as the one put forth by Cuban Dayron Robles. It was Robles who took Xiang’s world record away in June, running a 12.87 to break Xiang’s record of 12.88. When the two have competed, it’s been even — they split four meetings during the 2007 season.
The American hurdlers could also be a factor in this race — this is an event that the United States traditionally rules — but Robles and Xiang look most likely to duke it out for gold and silver.
6. USA’s Jeremy Wariner vs. USA’s LaShawn Merritt, men’s 400 meters
Wariner, the Olympic gold medalist in 2004, was invincible in this race for a while. Not anymore. It was Merritt who won the U.S. Olympic trials in early July. And although Merritt is only 3-13 lifetime in races against Wariner, he has now beaten Wariner in two of their past four meetings.
Wariner has two trademarks: his sunglasses and his finishing kick. Merritt may still be perceived as the underdog in Beijing, but given the recent outcomes, he will probably consider himself as the favorite. Either man has a shot at Michael Johnson’s world record of 43.18.
7. USA’s Brendan Hansen vs. Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima, men’s 100-meter breaststroke
The two best breaststrokers in the world will face off again in 2008 in the 100-meter breaststroke with their battles in 2004 serving as a tantalizing backdrop.
Kitajima beat Hansen in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke in the 2004 Olympics. Hansen finished second in the 100 and third in the 200. The two are the obvious class of the breaststroking field. Hansen currently holds the world record in the 100 and Kitajima holds it in the 200 (breaking Hansen’s record in June). Hansen finished a surprising fourth in the 200 at the U.S. trials, however, so he will only get a chance for revenge in the 100 against Kitajima.
The American swim team was suspicious of Kitajima in 2004. Aaron Peirsol, a U.S. backstroker and close friend of Hansen’s, accused Kitajima of using an illegal dolphin kick to help propel himself to the gold medal. “He knew what we was doing,” Peirsol said. “It’s cheating.” But the Japanese swimmer wasn’t penalized by the judges.
8. USA’s Misty May-Treanor/Kerri Walsh vs. China’s Tian Jia/Wang Jie, women’s beach volleyball
Walsh and May-Treanor have long formed the best duo in the world in this sport, always one of the hottest tickets at the Olympics due to the “beach-party” atmosphere that usually surrounds it. Both have gotten married since they won the gold medal together in 2004, and both would like to win gold again in 2008 and then get to work on starting families of their own.
China’s duo may have something to say about the gold, however. Tian Jia has played with two previous partners also named “Wang,” but the third one may be the charm. She and the 6-foot-3 Wang Jie have been posting very good results over the past two years, including a runner-up finish to Walsh and May-Treanor at the 2007 World Championships. The two would need to play the match of their lives to beat May-Treanor and Walsh in a sport where that duo has been so dominant for so long. But the match will be played in China, which might help.