Commentary

Things you need to know now about Beijing Games

Updated: February 8, 2008, 10:58 AM ET
By Amy Rosewater | Special to ESPN.com

Six months from Friday, the torch will be lit at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. And unlike some recent Olympics (see Athens), the city of Beijing has been ready for this moment years ahead of time.

China, which is trying to impress the world with its growth, no doubt will play host to one of the grandest Games ever, featuring 28 sports, 302 events and 10,708 athletes. More than 70,000 volunteers will be involved with these Olympics, which kick off Aug. 8.

You might not know what your Valentine's Day plans are yet, but here are some things you might want to know as the Olympics approach:

[+] EnlargeBMX Cyclists
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty ImagesGet ready ... BMX racing is hitting the Olympics this summer in Beijing.

Brush up on your BMX
Just as halfpipe is now part of the official Winter Olympics jargon, its X Games cousin, BMX racing, is now joining the Summer Games. For the first time in Beijing, BMX racing will be an Olympic medal sport for both men and women. BMX is an off-road bicycle racing form in which eight racers circle around a 350-meter dirt track. What started out on dirt tracks in California, now races at well-groomed tracks with jumps, obstacles and even electronic gates. Race last roughly two minutes, and there are no extra points for flair or spectacular flips in the air. The most fun comes in watching the passing in the turns and physicality of the jumps. The one who gets to the finish line first is the winner.

Although officials from the American Bicycle Association and the BMX community had been trying for nearly 30 years to get BMX into the Olympic Games, it wasn't until 2003 when the International Olympic Committee finally decided that 2008 would be the right time to introduce the sport to the Games. According to Bernard "B.A." Anderson, vice president for the ABA, BMX racing is "preparing for 40 percent growth" following the Games.

"It's been an ongoing process," said Anderson, noting the ABA has spent much of the past two years improving infrastructure at various tracks in preparation for post-Olympic growth. "I think this will bring in a whole new audience to the Olympics."

The selection for the Olympic team is complicated, but in a nutshell, the U.S. probably will send three men and two women to Beijing. The leading candidates for the Olympic team right now are Kyle Bennett (known as "Butter" for his smooth riding style) and Jill Knitner. One of America's top riders, Alise Post, 17, is too young to compete in the Olympics (you have to be 19.)

The sport's most recognizable face is 22-year-old Burlin Bunster, better known as Bubba Harris. He was considered the gold-medal contender until he severely injured his ankle (doctors initially considered amputation) at a race on the official Olympic track in Beijing last August. Mostly healed now, he wants to prove he can take the sport to a new level. Visa, an Olympic sponsor, has backed him, but he will have to show his mettle on the track in order to go for an Olympic medal this summer. His birthday is Aug. 7, one day before the Games begin. Wonder what he wants for a present?

Other new sports this year: men's and women's marathon swimming. Women will also compete in the 3,000-meter steeplechase for the first time.

[+] EnlargeBeijing Olympic Stadium
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty ImagesBeijing National Stadium, also known as the "Bird's Nest," will seat as many as 100,000 spectators during the Summer Games.

See the torch
The torch relay, the route of which has been dubbed the "Journey of Harmony," will span 130 days and more than 85,000 miles, marking the longest distance the Olympic torch will travel. The relay begins March 25 in Olympia, Greece, then heads to Athens before being quickly flown to Beijing. The torch will be taken to new heights -- literally -- when it is carried to Mount Everest. The only North American stop on the torch relay will be April 9 in San Francisco. By the way, the torch itself is made out of aluminum and is recyclable, something Al Gore can be happy about.

What's the progress with the venues?
Beijing has done exceptionally well in terms of construction of venues. The national stadium, which has been nicknamed the "Bird's Nest" for its straw-like pieces of steel, will be ready for the Opening Ceremony on Aug. 8. Lights were put into operation this past week at the stadium. The national aquatics center, known as the "Water Cube," is a 17,000-seat arena that will be used for swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and water polo. The "Good Luck Beijing" 2008 Swimming China Open was held Jan. 31-Feb. 5 to rave reviews. The building is especially striking, with its bubble patterns and sleek infrastructure. And with Michael Phelps being the main show of these Games, the "Cube" will be put on great display in the United States. Swimming will get plenty of air time; the swimming finals will be held in the morning Beijing time (prime time in the United States). Several test events are slated for early this year in the Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium, where badminton and rhythmic gymnastics events will take place, and the National Indoor Stadium, which will be home for artistic gymnastics competition.

What will the Olympic medals look like?
For those of us not lucky enough to win a medal in Beijing (or perhaps eight like Phelps might), here's an idea of what the Olympic medals will look like. They are made of gold and jade and are inscribed with a dragon pattern. The medals are supposed to symbolize nobility and virtue.

What are the mascots?
There will be five mascots in five colors, red, green, black, blue and yellow. (Get it? Five Olympic rings?) The mascots are named and designed after various animals: Fish (Beibei), Panda (Jingjing), Tibetan Antelope (Yingying), Swallow (Nini) and the Olympic flame (Hyanhuan). Together, the words Bei Jing Huan Ying Ni mean "Welcome to Beijing." China might be a communist country, but during the Olympics, there will be plenty of capitalism around. More than 5,000 official Olympic products will be available during the Games, ranging from T-shirts to chopsticks.

[+] Enlarge2008 Olympic Medals
BOCOG/Getty ImagesThe medals of the Beijing Games are made of gold and jade.

What is the modern pentathlon and why do we care?
The modern pentathlon consists of shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and running. Under normal circumstances, the event wouldn't make many headlines in the United States; but this year, it probably will. The reason? Sheila Taormina is attempting to become the first person to compete in three different Olympic sports in four trips to the Games. She competed as a swimmer in 1996 (winning gold as part of the 800-meter freestyle relay) and in women's triathlon in 2000 and 2004. Now 38, Taormina is vying for a spot on the U.S. team in the modern pentathlon.

Who's the better athlete in this family?
It's going to be tough for Sanya Richards to keep up with her main man, but she's going to give it her best shot this summer. One of the top U.S. track and field hopes for the Beijing Olympics, Richards' official Web site features her sprinting -- and beating -- computer-animated red sports cars and jets.

But after Super Bowl Sunday, her biggest competition could be in her family. Richards' University of Texas sweetheart and fianc&:0233; is Aaron Ross, a rookie cornerback for the New York Giants -- yes, those Giants, the ones who pulled off one of the biggest upsets in sports history by beating the formerly perfect New England Patriots.

Richards was part of the gold-medal winning 4-by-400 relay in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and is the U.S. record holder in the 400 (48.70). She will, however, try to rebound from a disappointing fourth-place showing in the 400 at last year's World Championships.

Just how bad is the pollution problem?
It depends on who has been diagnosing it. Just this week, marathon world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie told Reuters he will decide in the next two months whether to run in the endurance event at this year's Olympics because of the air pollution problem. A year ago, IOC president Jacques Rogge warned that pollution might postpone some endurance events. Chinese officials have been analyzing the air in Beijing and keeping track of "blue sky" days. The forecast: a bit foggy.

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.