Beijing Olympics: 10 'Must Watch' Stories The world will turn its attention to the Olympic Games and China on Friday with the spectacle of the opening ceremony in Beijing. Here are 10 things to watch for during the games.
NPR logo Beijing Olympics: 10 'Must Watch' Stories

Beijing Olympics: 10 'Must Watch' Stories

The world will turn its attention to the Olympic Games and China on Friday with the spectacle of the opening ceremony in Beijing.

Olympics watchers most likely already know about some of the big stories — like swimmer Michael Phelps' bid to win eight gold medals, and Beijing's effort to clean up the air in time for the competition.

Here are 10 other things to watch for during the games:

Superstar Swimmers Not Named Michael Phelps

Katie Hoff Jamie Squire/Getty Images hide caption

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Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It's understandable that Phelps is getting so much attention. He's phenomenally fast and limber, and he'll try to win eight gold medals in Beijing. But he's not the only one in the pool. Here are three other swimmers who could come home with fistfuls of gold.

Katie Hoff is one. The 19-year-old from Towson, Md., is a versatile swimmer who excels in medley events — where competitors swim all four strokes: backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke and freestyle.

Libby Trickett from Australia is another. Speedy and powerful, she dominates the women's sprint events. If the 41-year-old Dara Torres of the U.S. is to become the ultimate middle-aged success story (winning the 50-meter freestyle), she'll have to beat Trickett. Don't count on it.

Another is Grant Hackett, also from Australia. It can be argued that no one has swum so far, so successfully in the Olympics as Hackett. He won the 1,500-meter freestyle in 2000 in Sydney and repeated the feat four years later in Athens. If he wins in Beijing, he will be the first male swimmer to win three successive Olympic titles in the same event.

The New, Big International Sports Rivalry — U.S. Vs. China

The U.S. has won the most gold medals at every Summer Olympics since 1996. Now it's China's turn. At least, that's what forecasters are saying. The time and place of the games will make for some intense competition between the two countries.

The first big showdown is the men's basketball game on Aug. 10. The advantage there clearly goes to the U.S. Also, women's gymnastics could be especially dramatic. The two teams are the best in the world.

Open-Water Swimming

A new Olympic event — open-water swimming — includes a South African medal contender named Natalie du Toit. Over the 10-kilometer race, you may notice something that separates her from the other swimmers: Her left leg was amputated at the knee.

Pressure On Chinese Athletes Liu Xiang And Yao Ming

Liu Xiang Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Liu Xiang electrified China when he won the 110-meter high hurdles in Athens, becoming the first Chinese male athlete to win a gold medal in track. He became a huge national sports hero, right up there with NBA basketball star Yao Ming.

But he's been struggling with a hamstring injury — and his world record was shattered by Dayron Robles of Cuba. China, of course, is hoping for a storybook finish, with the trailblazing star capturing a second gold medal in front of the adoring home crowd. But the speedy Robles and Liu's balky hamstring could ruin the storyline.

Yao Ming is just getting back into shape after suffering a stress fracture in his left foot during the past NBA season. The Chinese men's team isn't expected to win a medal. But as the great global crossover star in China, Yao needs to play well for home country pride.

Goodbye Women's Softball?

Members of the U.S. softball team are asking themselves an unusual question: Are we being punished for being too good?

Women's softball is scheduled for elimination after the 2008 games. The U.S. team has won gold in the past three Olympics, outscoring its opponents by a combined score of 117 to 16. The alleged connection between success and Olympic exile is the thought that the International Olympic Committee's decision was motivated in part by anti-Americanism. At least that's the perception of some in the U.S.

Protest Zones, In Theory, At Least

The Chinese government has designated three Beijing parks for approved protests. Would-be demonstrators must apply at least five days in advance. Expect plenty of open space in those parks during the games.

Fast Jamaicans

Asafa Powell Paul Gilham/Getty Images hide caption

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Paul Gilham/Getty Images

For a small, relatively poor country, Jamaica has an astounding record of success in the sprint events. What the U.S. is to basketball, China to table tennis and Kenya to distance racing, the Jamaicans are to the sprints.

This time around, Asafa Powell and emerging star Usain Bolt are gold medal contenders in the men's 100 meters. Jamaican women are strong in all three sprint events — the 100, 200 and 400 meters. And the top female American contender in the 400 meters, Sanya Richards, was born in Jamaica.

Table Tennis

Gao Jun Teh Eng Koon/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Teh Eng Koon/AFP/Getty Images

It's fast, surprisingly athletic, and, man, those spins are tricky. Pingpong is huge in China and will make for entertaining TV.

Remember how curling caught on during the last Winter Games? That could be table tennis this time around.

Air Quality

There's a misperception that either the air quality will improve in time for the opening ceremony or pollution will choke the city and mar the entire event. In fact, air quality and visibility in Beijing change dramatically from day to day. So a few blue-sky days early on doesn't guarantee a low-smog Olympics. And vice versa — a smoggy start doesn't mean that marathon runners will be choking and gasping from foul air in the final event of the Olympics.

A Tennis Comeback?

Tennis has been back in the Olympics for the past 20 years, but it hasn't broken through as a marquee event. For whatever reason, Olympic tennis doesn't have the prestige of Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. That could change this time around. If everything goes according to form, Roger Federer will play Rafael Nadal in the men's final, a rematch of their epic Wimbledon showdown in July.