What To Watch For At The 2012 Olympic Games

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A number of events got started even before the official opening, including men's and women's soccer. Already, the US women's team has claimed its first win. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman reports from London with a look at what to watch for at the 2012 Olympic Games.

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

The Summer Olympic Games officially get underway in London tomorrow, and for the next two weeks, much of the world will be riveted. So whether it's basketball or kayaks, judo or soccer, give us a reason to follow your favorite event, or an especially compelling athlete. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us from London where he's covering the games. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Neal, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks. So tomorrow is the big day, the grand opening ceremony. But isn't it curious? The games got underway yesterday.

GOLDMAN: It is. It is a bit curious, yeah. The preliminary sports events, they happened in Wales and in Scotland but not near London, and that was by design because they want to save the big bang for when things open up at the opening ceremony tomorrow night.

CONAN: There was, indeed, the first gaffe as well. The North Korean soccer team was among those featured in one of those preliminaries yesterday. And sadly, they put up the flag of South Korea.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: Neal, what would an Olympics be without gaffes, you know, and without politics? And so, yeah, that was a little bit embarrassing. And the IOC, as it often does, kind of deflected criticism and said, no, this is the fault of the London organizers. So the London organizers apologized for putting the North Korean - or the South Korean flag next to the pictures of the North Korean players. But they were a bit peeved. They walked off the pitch and delayed the start of the game against Colombia for more than an hour. But then they put these big North Korean flags on the jumbo screens to kind of entice them back out. And they came out and they played soccer.

CONAN: And, indeed, carried the day against Colombia, 2-nil.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. That's right.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation. We want to hear from those of you who are looking forward to particular events or to particular athletes. Give us a call and tell us why the rest of us should care, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Peter is on the line, Peter calling from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

PETER: Well, hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

PETER: I'll be watching archery and table tennis, and particular, some young, strong athletes. Brady Ellison is the number one ranked male archer in the world, he is an American, been training at our U.S. training facility for the last four years. And Ariel Hsing, a young woman from California, will be leading the U.S. table tennis team.

CONAN: And you will be watching on your computer, on NBC, what?

PETER: I'll be watching in London. I'm there - I'm headed there now.

CONAN: Oh, good. Tom, what weather can he expect?

GOLDMAN: Oh, man. Pack some shorts, OK? Before I came, I was packing and I said right before I zipped my suitcase closed, I better put a pair of shorts in there just in case because they've just had record torrential rain, even for Great Britain. And I haven't taken the shorts off for an entire week. It's been hot and almost muggy at times and - but I'm hearing that that may be changing as we approach the opening ceremony.

CONAN: So, Peter, do you have tickets to some of the archery and table tennis events?

PETER: I do. I'm actually involved with one of the national governing bodies, and so I'll be hoping to visit a number of the events.

CONAN: All right. Well, have a great time.

PETER: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. And...

GOLDMAN: And you know, Neal, I should say that archery is - they get a little more publicity than it usually does because Team GB, as they call it, Great Britain, has both strong teams in both men's and women's archery, and they'll be in action this next - this coming weekend, the first weekend of the games. And as always is the case, when a home team does well, that really gets people excited and generates a lot more interest.

CONAN: If one were interested in something like archery or table tennis, well, not so very long ago, you could go a long time watching coverage on an American television network before you saw a story or coverage of archery or table tennis. This time, everything is going to be available. If you're interested, you can see it.

GOLDMAN: That's right. Yeah. I don't know how many channels they've got, but, yeah. Whatever you want to see is out there, and it won't take, you know, kind of that soft focus weepy story on the archer that will force them to cover the actual sports, which is pretty cool.

CONAN: It doesn't have to be an Estonian orphan who's - anyway, I get your point. Here's an email we have from Chris(ph) in The Dalles in Oregon: As a fourth generation Oregonian, I'm proud of the large contingent of outstanding athletes from or linked to our small state. I'm especially looking forward to watching track and field hopefuls Ashton Eaton and Galen Rupp, both born and raised here in Oregon. And, Tom, we're expecting lengthy features on Oregonians, no?

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: Quack, quack. That's right. The sound of the Oregon duck.

CONAN: It is.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. And the athletes that Chris points out, Ashton Eaton, who set a world record in the decathlon at the Olympic trials last month, was just fantastic. And he's definitely, you know, he's got to be a gold medal contender right there. Galen Rupp, I believe his distances are both five and 10,000, a tremendous distance runner in the great tradition of Oregon distance runners.

CONAN: We got - you mentioned the decathlete. Here's an email from Carol(ph): Please mention Trey Hardee. He's the son of a friend of mine. She's from Birmingham, Alabama. And let's see if we can go next to Vince, if we can get Vince on the line. Well, let's see if we can try - here's Kris(ph). We'll get back to you, Vince. Kris is on the line from Buffalo, New York.

KRIS: Hi there.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KRIS: Oh, well, I'll mention another Oregonian even though I'm not from there. It's my friend, Mariel Zagunis. I used to be on the U.S. national team back in the day. And she's a fencer. She's going to be the flag bearer. She's going for her third gold medal. And it was only 15 years ago that women weren't even allowed to fence a weapon, saber in the Olympics. I was on the first world team in '99. And now, she's not only leading the way for sabers, she's leading the way for fencing, and she's leading all of the athletes into the stadium.

CONAN: That's going to - so she'll be carrying the American flag tomorrow night?

KRIS: Yes, she will.

CONAN: And I just have to ask, is that a long career for a fencer?

KRIS: Well, no, not particularly. I mean, like some of the - where it's been bigger in Europe for a really long time, people will fence well into their 30s and, you know, medal in the Olympics. So she was 19 when she won her first gold, and she's going to be 27 at this Olympics. So she probably got a few more in there.

CONAN: Well, we wish the best of luck. Thanks very much for the phone call.

KRIS: Excellent.

CONAN: Tom, what is...

GOLDMAN: And, Neal, if I can - yeah, I can just jump in here. I actually did a story on Mariel, and it's very exciting, the news. And she was speaking today in London about her excitement because she just learned this within the last 24 hours, about being named the flag bearer. And it is great that a fencer, you know, relatively obscure sport, is going to get - is going to be in the limelight.

She lives in the Portland area. And one of my favorite stories, she was - I went to interview her, and she showed me this enormous trophy case because she's been winning medals and trophies forever. And I said, can I see the gold medals? And it's actually in her mom's house. And she said, Mom, where are my gold medals? I just love that.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I should mention, Tom, that if you go to NPR's Olympic blog, The Torch, you can see a piece by Tom Goldman about the event that he's participating in and that is mall escape.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: I made it out, yeah. It's this enormous mall that opened last September. I can't - what was it - I think 1.9 million square feet and it sits on the edge of the Olympic Park. And it's estimated that 70 to 75 percent of the people who are going to be going into the park to see the main events, the Olympics, track and field, swimming, basketball, bunches of others, are going to pass through there. And so a great time to dust off your credit card and just find thousands and thousands of things there. We found everything. My colleague, Howard Berkes, said he found some amazing lox there, bagels and lox and...

CONAN: Ah, I thought you said about the combination locks but, yeah.

GOLDMAN: No, no, no, no, no, no. The important lox, the kind that go on a bagel.

CONAN: The tradition has become to design museums now so you have exit through the gift shop. This is entering through a rather elaborate gift shop so - but remember your way in so, as Tom's experienced will tell you, you can remember your way out. Let's see if we can try Vince again. Yes, Vince, success, you're on the line from Columbus.

VINCE: Hi, Neal. Wonderful show, enjoy it every day if I can.

CONAN: Thank you.

VINCE: As an American, I'm very interested and I applaud the efforts of all of our teams and individuals, and I like the stories of community involvement. But the last, I think, the last number of Olympics, I've become fascinated with the teams that I call the giant killers. For example, Lithuania's basketball team, a country of only 4 million people managed to knock off Russia and, you know, came close to knocking us off a number of years ago. I looked into their history and found out that the seed of basketball was actually planted by an American some time in the '20s or '30s in Lithuania. And it's indeed become the national sport and few people - far fewer people are interested in soccer. So that I'll be looking for the giant killers as well as rooting for and applauding all our American participants.

CONAN: And, Tom Goldman, I gather Arvydas Sabonis is no longer playing for the first time it seems in about a century.

GOLDMAN: That's right. And you know, yeah, he's right - Vince is right that giant killers are great fun. It's going to take a lot though, specifically in the sports of basketball. Both men's and women's of the U.S. is dominant, particularly the women's. I mean the men get all the attention with LeBron and Kobe and Kevin Durant, but the women have won the last four gold medals. They've won 33 straight Olympic Games, and they really are the true dream team, if you want to coin that phrase, 20-year anniversary this year of the men's dream team in Barcelona, but they're the ones. And it's just going to be really tough for anyone to knock them off. I would in the men's, Spain, Argentina may have a crack at the U.S., but also unlikely that the U.S. would go through that without winning the gold.

CONAN: Vince, thanks very much for the call.

VINCE: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR's Tom Goldman, who's with us from London, about the Olympic Games, which officially get under way tomorrow, unofficially got under way yesterday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And speaking of giants, Jessica emails us from Portland: I'm excited to see the Brazilian men's soccer team, especially Neymar, the 20-year-old wunderkind, who will be a household name in any house that cares about soccer. He has the most amazing ball-handling skills, said to be possibly the best ever and is able to nimbly make his way around any opponent like no other. At only 20, he's still developing his talent. This Brazilian team should not be missed not only for Neymar, but for the whole crop of amazing talent.

And, Tom, it's a soccer tournament as well, dear to the hearts of Britons, and is Brazil favored?

GOLDMAN: In the men's competition, I would think so. You know, it's - I think it's great that Jessica mentioned this because not many Americans will be as interested in the men's tournament because the U.S. didn't qualify. They'll be more interested in the women's competition. But, yeah, Brazil should do well.

CONAN: Let's go next to - let's go, Mark(ph). Mark is with us from Birmingham.

MARK: Hi. Good morning.

CONAN: Good morning. And, of course, Birmingham, not Birmingham. They're very different places. Go ahead.

MARK: That's true. That's true. I have been an Olympic fan for forever, a long - for a long time, but this is the first time I've got a personal connection to any of the sports. So that makes, you know, this Olympics particularly interesting. So I'll be watching the men's and women's, but particularly the men's 10-meter air rifle competition.

CONAN: And why the air rifle competition? What got you interested in that?

MARK: Well, my son is actually a junior shooter, and he, you know, was pretty good. His team won a couple of national championships and stuff when he was 15, 16 and that sort of thing. And so he got to travel to the Olympic Training Center and shoot there about four different times. He met our Olympics athletes. And both of the men that - well, you have two men on each sport. So both of the men in the men in the 10 meter we know personally and so that will be kind of an interesting thing.

CONAN: All right. Well, we wish them the best of luck and thanks very much for the phone call.

MARK: One interesting thing about - one of the shooters is Jonathan Hall that you might want to watch.

CONAN: Sure.

MARK: While every other shooter there is probably wearing thousands of dollars worth of gear made by high-tech companies from around the world, Jonathan Hall, his mother makes his shooting clothes.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That's nice. Thanks very much for that Vince - Mark.

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: I just wanted to read some emails here. This is from Anne(ph): I love all the rowers, and I'd love to hear about David Banks. He's one of the few African-American Olympic rowers. I met him a year back, and he's an inspiration to me and this transformational sport.

This is from Daniel in Lakewood: I'm looking forward to seeing Ann Romney's dressage horse, Rafalca, in action.

Craig(ph) from Oregon writes about Usain Bolt because he's the defending Olympic 100- and 200-meter champion and stands a great chance of successfully defending his titles in both those events. Go Bolt and the rest of the Jamaican Olympic squad.

Annie(ph) from Sitka, Alaska: Nelson Diebel, a kid who went from being a thug on the streets to an Olympic champion in the 1992 Barcelona games, has my vote. When he pulled ahead in the last 10 seconds of his 100-meter breaststroke and won that race, his reaction of screaming and hooting and hollering afterwards was one of my favorite Olympic victories, following with that with his crying on the podium while trying to sing along to the national anthem topped it all off.

And this is from Sharon(ph) in Rochester, New York: I find tennis fascinating. It requires both physical and metal stamina, unbelievable resilience. An entire match can turn on a single ace or a double fault. There's no one body type that guarantees success. While some players employ sheer power to overcome their opponents, others rely on agility or unpredictability to outwit. Generally considered an individual sport, Olympic tennis allows the best players in the world to strut their stuff alongside their native sons and daughters.

And, Tom, briefly, we just had Wimbledon, and guess what? They're going to be playing at Wimbledon.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: They sure are without one of the biggest stars in the game. In the men's draw, Rafael Nadal will not be playing. So Roger Federer will though, as well the kind of native son from Scotland, he's Great Britain's own, Andy Murray. And so maybe he can get a little revenge on Federer where they met recently in the Wimbledon final.

CONAN: You can find more from NPR sports correspondent, Tom Goldman, and the rest of the NPR team on the brand-new NPR Olympics blog, The Torch, at npr.org. Tom Goldman, as always, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You bet.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at why science is a non-issue in the upcoming election. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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