Commentary

Top international athletes to watch at Beijing Games

Updated: August 6, 2008, 10:41 PM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

We gave you the top U.S. athletes to watch, but who from the rest of the world will be vying for the podium? Here are the top international athletes to watch at the Beijing Olympics:

[+] EnlargeLiu Xiang
CSPA/US PresswireAfter winning the 110-meter hurdles gold at the 2004 Athens Games, Liu Xiang faces a new kind of pressure in Beijing.

Liu Xiang, China
Sport: Track and field
Events: 110-meter hurdles
Breakdown: Think there's pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers? Try shouldering the dreams of 1.3 billion people. Liu shocked his country by matching the world record of 12.91 seconds at the 2004 Athens Games and winning gold, then called his feat "a miracle" and "a proud moment … [for] all people who share the same yellow skin color." Then, he predicted a "yellow tornado" blowing through the track world. Now, the hurdler is back to deliver on his promise, with an entire nation expecting him to be not only a winner but a historic figure in a country without a tradition of dominance in individual sports.

Natalie Du Toit, South Africa
Sport: Swimming
Events: 10-kilometer open water
Breakdown: Want chills? Start here. You might have heard of Du Toit's countryman, amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, but Du Toit might be the first disabled athlete to win an Olympic medal in 56 years. She nearly qualified for the Sydney Games, then lost her leg after a motorcycle accident in 2001. She returned to the water three months later. Du Toit missed qualifying for Athens but won five gold medals in the 2004 Paralympics, then made the 2008 Olympic team. So instead of South Africa cheering for Pistorius, it will be Pistorius cheering for Du Toit.

Yelena Isinbayeva, Russia
Sport: Track and field
Events: Pole vault
Breakdown: What Michael Phelps is to swimming, Isinbayeva is to pole vaulting. She has set 23 world records (Phelps has set 22), beat out rival Svetlana Feofanova for gold in Athens and, like Phelps, has been alone at the top of her sport for years. She has 34 of the top 50 all-time vaults. She also is similar to Dara Torres -- her technique is as pristine and powerful as that of any man. She has upped her 4.91-meter mark from Athens to 5.04.

Usain Bolt, Jamaica
Sport: Track and field
Events: 100 meters
Breakdown: The owner of the best Olympic name also might have the most exciting Olympic game. Even his coach considered him a 400 specialist until May, when, at age 21, Bolt ran what was then the second-fastest time ever (9.76 seconds) in only his third 100 race. Later that month, he blew past Tyson Gay and set a world record of 9.72. Bolt will try to do more of that in Beijing -- in the 100, 200 and 400.

[+] EnlargeRoman Sebrle
Stu Forster/Getty ImagesRoman Sebrle will look to defend his Olympic gold decathlon medal in Beijing.

Haile Gebrselassie, Ethiopia
Sport: Track and field
Events: 10,000 meters
Breakdown: His name is hard to spell but easy to translate: It means "running." He has competed at distances as short as 1,500 meters and as long as the marathon on indoor and outdoor tracks and road and cross country courses. He has set 25 world records (including 2:04:26 in the marathon) and has won the 10,000 four straight times at the worlds and two straight times (1996 and 2000) at the Olympics. He might have won in Athens if not for an Achilles injury just before the start of the Games. Gebrselassie pulled out of the Beijing marathon because of air-pollution concerns -- he has asthma -- but he again will run the 10,000 on the world's greatest sports stage.

Lauren Regula, Canada
Sport: Softball
Breakdown: So why did she make the list? Canada has a shot at the podium, but probably not much more. Regula is one of the world's top pitchers, sure, but so is Jennie Finch. Regula pitched 17 innings in Athens with a 0.41 ERA. She has a great-uncle who competed as a decathlete in the 1964 and 1972 Games. And she's the best softball pitcher in Oklahoma State University history. But you might want to keep an eye on Regula in part because her full name is Lauren Bay Regula. Her brother is newly acquired Red Sox outfielder Jason Bay.

Roman Sebrle, Czech Republic
Sport: Decathlon
Breakdown: Many Americans think Tiger Woods is the world's greatest athlete, but Sebrle owns the official title. He's the only man to score 9,000 points in the decathlon, and he's the reigning Olympic gold medalist. And although Tiger competed with an ACL injury, Sebrle took only 11 stitches after getting a javelin accidentally plunged into his shoulder in 2007; he won the world championship later that year. By the way, he's also a soldier in the Czech army. Well, at least Tiger earns more money.

Yang Wei, China
Sport: Gymnastics
Breakdown: He's 5-foot-3 and just 120 pounds, but he might be the bravest Olympian out there. Yang has by far the most challenging routines of any male gymnast, and he toys with risk like an elephant plays with a mouse. He won silver in Sydney and stared a gold medal in the face but fell from the high bar -- and the podium -- in Athens. A new scoring system rewarding the daring will help, and Yang is just about unbeatable on rings and vault. Still, his thirst for difficulty could upend him at any moment. At the worlds last year, Yang fell and still won the all-around. He might not have that kind of margin of error in Beijing.

Grant Hackett, Australia
Sport: Swimming
Events: 400 meters, 1,500
Breakdown: He's ready to become the first to win three straight gold medals in the metric mile. He owns seven of the 10 fastest times in history. So what's the drama? Well, that comes in the 400 meters, in which he'll face South Korean Park Tae-hwan. Park beat out Hackett in Melbourne at last year's worlds and, at 17, became one of the biggest names in South Korea. Hackett has rounded into shape, and he swam the fastest time so far this year. Now the veteran and the kid meet again, and already the South Korean media have pestered Hackett so doggedly that the Australian team has requested tighter security around its leader. Let the games within the Games begin.

[+] EnlargeYao Ming
STR/AFP/Getty ImagesYao Ming will compete for China in the Olympics after having surgery on his left foot on Feb. 27.

Yao Ming, China
Sport: Men's basketball
Breakdown: There is perhaps no greater ambassador for the host country than Yao, who is courageous enough to carry a nation's expectations in the U.S., donate his time and money to earthquake victims, recover from a series of injuries and welcome Ron Artest to the Houston Rockets. He may or may not light the torch, but as a six-time All-Star starter, he already has lit a path for many young Chinese who want to play in the NBA. Oh, and by the way, he might actually make a big dent in the Games, with Yi Jianlian and Wang Zhizhi flanking him. China has never made it past the quarterfinals in Olympic basketball.

Stephanie Rice, Australia
Sport: Swimming
Events: 200 and 400 individual medleys
Breakdown: Before we lose you to the saucy Facebook photo of the 20-year-old in an airtight police officer costume -- a pic that turned the Land Down Under over -- please pay attention long enough to know that Rice is the biggest threat to Baltimore's Phemale Phelps, Katie Hoff. Rice grabbed world records in the 200 and 400 medleys before Hoff took back the 400 mark at the trials. If you're still reading, news just broke that Rice has broken up with fellow Aussie swimmer Eamon Sullivan. So yeah, she's single. See ya.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.

Eric Adelson | email

ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.