Commentary

These showdowns could produce the most drama in Beijing

Updated: August 9, 2008, 1:20 PM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

Which Olympic battles will produce the most drama? Here are some of the showdowns to watch during the Beijing Games:

Usain Bolt (Jamaica) vs. Tyson Gay (USA) vs. Asafa Powell (Jamaica)

Olympic RunnersUS PRESSWIRE
What: 100 meters; Where: Olympic Stadium (a.k.a., the Bird's Nest); When: Prelims (begin Aug. 14); Final (Aug. 16, 10:30 a.m. ET)

Breakdown: This may be the most thrilling sprint ever, with three men capable of breaking a world record. Start with Bolt, the current fastest man on the planet, and his countryman Powell, who is the previous world-record holder. Then add Gay, the reigning world champion, who has run the fastest time ever in the 100 meters, albeit wind-aided (9.68). Now throw in some drama, namely Gay's uncertain health after a leg injury at the U.S. trials, Powell's strange tendency to seem distracted at times, and Bolt claiming he's not completely sure what races he will enter in Beijing. This podium is a pick 'em.

Michael Phelps (USA) vs. Ryan Lochte (USA)

Phelps/LochteGetty Images/AP Photo
What: 200 IM and 400 IM; Where: National Aquatics Center (a.k.a., the Water Cube); When: 200 prelims (begin Aug. 13) and 400 prelims (begin Aug. 9); 200 final (Aug. 14, 10:45 p.m.) and 400 final (Aug. 9, 10 p.m. ET)

Breakdown: These two have already staged one of the most thrilling battles in swimming history. At the U.S. trials in Omaha, Neb., last month, Phelps and Lochte traded the lead in the 400 IM for most of the last half of swimming's most intense event. Both ended up breaking the previous world record, but Phelps touched out Lochte to win. Phelps called the race one of the most painful of his life, and Lochte said afterward: "I know I can beat him." Part II of swimming's version of Ali versus Frazier will come on the very first morning in the pool. Even if Lochte comes up short again, Hungarian Laszlo Cseh has a shot. Either way, the most difficult step in Phelps' quest for eight golds is the very first.

Hope Solo (USA) vs. The World

Hope Solo/BarbaraIcon SMI/Getty Images
What: Women's soccer; Where: Various sites in China; When: Prelims started Aug. 6; Women's gold-medal match (Aug. 21, 9 a.m. ET)
Breakdown: Well, her mouth wrote a big check, and now it's time for her gloves and cleats to cash it. Solo verbally blitzed two-time gold medalist Briana Scurry after a 4-0 loss to Brazil in last year's Women's World Cup semifinals, saying she should have been playing instead of the veteran goaltender. Solo got her wish, as she will start for the U.S. in Beijing, while Scurry is listed as an alternate. So Solo has to back up not only her team but her reputation. And if that isn't pressure enough, the U.S. lost its best player, Abby Wambach, to injury.

Daniel Kipchirchir Komen (Kenya) vs. Bernard Lagat (USA)

Daniel Kipchirchir Komen, Bernard LagatGetty Images/US Presswire

What: 1,500 meters; Where: Olympic Stadium (a.k.a., the Bird's Nest); When: Prelims (begin Aug. 15); Final (Aug. 19, 10:50 a.m. ET)
Breakdown: Lagat and Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj waged perhaps the most memorable battle of the 2004 Games, running side by side for the last grueling paces of the 1,500. They traded the lead until finally the Moroccan took the gold and Lagat added a silver to the bronze he won in Sydney. This time, however, Lagat will wear the stars and stripes for the first time in an Olympics as a naturalized U.S. citizen, and race against his native nation. And Lagat will go for the rare double gold, adding the 5,000 to his race list. Of course, someone else pulled off that feat recently: El Guerrouj, who is now retired. So Lagat will run against Kenya, his old foe's legacy, and against history (his world championship win in the 1,500 last year was America's first since 1908).

Katie Hoff (USA) vs. Stephanie Rice (Australia)

Katie Hoff and Stephanie RiceGetty Images

What: 200 IM and 400 IM; Where: National Aquatics Center (a.k.a., the Water Cube); When: 200 prelims (begin Aug. 11) and 400 prelims (begin Aug. 9); 200 final (Aug. 12, 11:09 p.m. ET) and 400 final (Aug. 9, 10:39 p.m. ET)
Breakdown: Before we lose you to the saucy Facebook photo of Rice in an airtight police officer's uniform, please pay attention long enough to watch her battle Hoff, who is Baltimore's Phelps-ette. Rice grabbed world records in both the 200 and 400 medleys before Hoff took back the 400 mark at the U.S. trials. What's sad is that Hoff likely will finish this Olympics as one of the most decorated female Olympic swimmers of all time, and yet in publicity, she'll likely come in fourth, behind Phelps, Dara Torres and Stephanie the siren.

Brendan Hansen (USA) vs. Kosuke Kitajima (Japan)

Brendean Hansen and Kosuke KitajimaGetty Images

What: 100-meter breaststroke; Where: National Aquatics Center (a.k.a., the Water Cube); When: Prelims (begin Aug. 9); Final (Aug. 10, 10:27 p.m. ET)
Breakdown: Where do we begin? Kitajima won two gold medals in Athens, but did it with a controversial butterfly-type kick which Team USA officially protested and then FINA (swimming's international governing body) outlawed. Hansen took both world records (100 and 200) and then Kitajima took the 200 mark right back. Now throw in some of Kitajima's antics -- or flair, depending on your perspective -- and you've got a rivalry to mirror Chad Hedrick versus Shani Davis in speedskating. Kitajima screams at the top of his lungs when he wins and made famous the phrase, "I feel megagood." Hansen is surely megamotivated.

Rafael Nadal (Spain) vs. Roger Federer (Switzerland)

Rafael Nadal/Roger FedererGetty Images
What: Tennis; Where: Olympic Green Tennis Center; When: First round (begins Aug. 9); Final (Aug. 17, 4 a.m. ET)
Breakdown: For so long, tennis needed a rivalry like McEnroe-Borg or Evert-Navratilova. This summer at Wimbledon, the Nadal-Federer rivalry crystallized in one of the most heart-stopping matches ever -- a 4-hour, 48-minute five-set final which vaulted Nadal from clay-court specialist to king of the tennis world. The Spaniard will reach No. 1 for the first time in the middle of the Games, on Aug. 18, and will be ranked that way when he hits New York for the U.S. Open. But Federer is still regarded by many as the best in the sport's history, and he will likely have a chance to force second-guessing among those who now place him second overall if these two players meet in the gold-medal match (the only time the two players could meet in the draw).

Becky Hammon (Russia) vs. Team USA

Becky HammonAP Photo/ Elizabeth Dalziel
What: Women's basketball; Where: Wukesong Basketball Gymnasium; When: Prelims (begins Aug. 8); Final (Aug. 23, 10 a.m. ET)
Breakdown: Even Hammon says "everyone wants to see the Russia-America matchup." That's because the American decided to take her Olympic dream elsewhere after being left off her native nation's team. Hammon plays part of the year in Russia, and she's a naturalized citizen, but a lot of Americans find fault with a South Dakota woman wearing red without the white and blue. Hammon says she doesn't want to face the Americans in Beijing, but she's already played against Team USA in a warm-up. She listened to the U.S. national anthem with her hand over her heart.

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

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