Hold on to your medals ... The Dash is checking in from Beijing
Forty names, games, countries and minutiae making news at the Beijing Summer Olympic Games (masking agents sold separately):
Ni hao, and welcome to the Forde-Meter Dash, the Olympic (and metric) version of the Forde-Yard Dash. Since it's still a few weeks until college football kicks off, and since The Metric Dash is in Beijing instead of Baton Rouge, La., why not apply the trusty gridiron rubric to the five-ring circus? Why not trade inches and pounds for centimeters and kilograms for the next 17 days?
If you want information and opinion on the Beijing Games in 40 fortune-cookie-sized bites, you've come to the right place. If you want information and opinion on Oklahoma's two-deep, check back Aug. 26.
Now, if that madcap master of International Olympic Committee ceremonies, Jacques Rogge (1), is ready, let's light the torch on this sucker and get on with the Citius, Altius, Forde-us:
Five Olympians feeling the most pressure
Michael Phelps (2). These are his Olympics, with the weight of the world perched on his broad shoulders. All the incredible American swimmer is trying to do is navigate a grueling nine-day gantlet to win the most gold medals by any Olympian in history -- both for a single Games and for a career. Phelps' goal is eight gold medals at these Games, which would give him 14 for his career. How's that for setting the bar at the top of Mount Everest? (The female equivalent is fellow American swimming stud Katie Hoff, who will be swimming six events and trying to eradicate memories of a nerve-induced flop in '04 at the age of 15.)
Liu Xiang (3). He became a Chinese hero in 2004 by winning the nation's first men's track and field gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles with a world-record-tying time. He then broke the world record two years later, and his celebrity reached an all-time high. As the China Daily recently wrote, "When he broke the world record in Lausanne [Switzerland] two years ago, there was a 20-minute item on the national news. In public, he is mobbed wherever he goes and he has been forced to drive around in a car with darkened windows to escape the persistent attention of obsessive fans." Now, a billion people are hungering to see their favorite athlete do it again, this time on home soil -- but Liu has been beset by injuries and false-start jitters recently, and his world record was usurped by Cuba's Dayron Robles.
Pakistani field hockey team (5). Pakistan is sending 35 people to these Olympics. All of them are with the men's field hockey team (21 athletes and 14 officials, which seems rather heavy on the official side). When that's your one and only entry in the Games -- and your country is crazy about the sport -- you'd better produce.
Hope Solo (6). Even non-soccer fans remember how America lost in the 2007 Women's World Cup and what came after. In a dimwitted move that would cost him his job, U.S. coach Greg Ryan benched goalkeeper Solo, after four strong performances, for the semifinal match with Brazil, replacing her with 36-year-old Olympic veteran Briana Scurry.
The Americans were routed 4-0, and the benched goalie responded with a solo shot at the coach and her replacement: "It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that. There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. And the fact of the matter is, it's not 2004 anymore. It's not 2004. And it's 2007, and I think you have to live in the present. It doesn't matter what somebody did in an Olympic gold-medal game in the Olympics three years ago."
After rebuilding the bridges she napalmed, Solo is the Americans' starting keeper heading into these Olympics. Defense will be bigger than ever now that Abby Wambach is out with a broken leg, which means Solo will have to make those saves if the Americans are to repeat as gold medalists.
Five most underrated Olympic sports
NBC should give us more of the following:
Team handball (7). The Metric Dash has never understood why the sport isn't more popular in the United States. It's fast, creative, team-oriented and played with a ball -- and nobody loves ball sports more than Americans. It has elements of basketball, hockey, lacrosse and water polo (see below). It's a blast to play (yes, The Metric Dash has actually played it). Yet it's such a nonentity in the U.S. that neither the American men nor the American women qualified for the Olympics. The sport's power is concentrated in Europe.
Badminton (8). If it's good enough for Brian Urlacher and David Ortiz, it should be good enough for the rest of us. This is the best racket sport -- barely ahead of table tennis -- and it puts a premium on quick reflexes and cagey strategy. Plus, it's pretty cool to see shuttlecocks flying at the speed of small intercontinental ballistic missiles. But here's the truth about badminton in these Games: If you aren't Asian, you aren't medalin'.
Beach volleyball (10). Traditionally the most fun venue at the Olympics -- although we'll see how well "fun" and "China" mix. The fact that the Brazilian fans generally hang out at beach volleyball playing drums and trumpets and dancing all day has a lot to do with the fun factor.
Golf (11). What? They don't have golf in the Olympics? Well, why in the name of Pierre de Coubertin not? Talk about the ultimate international sport -- and gosh, it sure would stink to see Tiger Woods and Lorena Ochoa as Olympians, wouldn't it? There is a push being made to get golf on the docket by 2016, but The Metric Dash wonders why it hasn't already been an Olympic sport for decades.
Five most overrated Olympic sports
What do they all have in common? They're judged. The Metric Dash detests judged sports. They're too subjective. Too prone to bias and corruption (keep an eye on the Russian judge!). And they leave too much latitude for petulant accusations and convoluted conspiracy theories from the vanquished. The list:
Gymnastics (12). Pet peeve: the heels-clicked, arms-spread, chest-out, stage-smile pose every gymnast is supposed to strike at the end of each routine. Can you imagine Tyson Gay snapping into that unnatural pose after the 100-meter dash or LeBron James doing it after a breakaway dunk? Thankfully, no.
Synchronized swimming (14). Any sport that features waterproof makeup and nose clips as essential equipment is on The Metric Dash's personal banned list. (Yes, it's hard to do. But it's hard to dig ditches, too, and nobody wants to see that in the Olympics.)
Boxing (15). At least the judging has been improved in recent years, with a scoring system that lessens the chance for a rogue judge to alter the outcome. (Some of the old-school readership might recall Michael Carbajal's being ripped off by incompetent/corrupt judging in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.) There's also the opportunity to take judging completely out of play by taking the matter into your own fists and knocking out your opponent.
Equestrian (16). The Metric Dash is not a big fan of sports that are contested by people wearing topcoats with tails and bow ties.
Modern pentathlon (17), which has competitors shooting guns, fencing, swimming 200 meters, riding a horse and running 3 kilometers -- all on the same day. Guess there was no time to work a spelling bee into the mix, as well.
Japanese dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu (18) has qualified for his second Olympics. His first: 1964, in Tokyo. He's 67 and undoubtedly the record holder for longest gap between Olympic appearances. Last time he competed in the Games, gas was 30 cents a gallon.
French cyclist Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli (19) was named to ride in her seventh straight Olympics at age 49, to the dismay of some of her critics. (The old buzzard has as many detractors as fans in French cycling.)
American swimmer Dara Torres (20) is on the cover of Time, ripped from delts to calves. She's either the greatest 41-year-old athlete in the history of the species or the story is too good to be true.
The New York Times recently reported that two Chinese gymnasts, He Kexin (21) and Jiang YuYuan (22) appear to have miraculously come of age to compete in these Games. After previously being listed as 14-year-olds on various Web sites and in various Chinese media accounts, the two now are packing passports that say they are 16 -- the minimum age to compete in Olympic gymnastics.
Which sure makes this look like Danny Almonte (23) in reverse.
Five rivalries to watch
Brendan Hansen versus Kosuke Kitajima (24), 100-meter breaststroke. Through the end of June, the American and the Japanese owned the 10 fastest times in the history of the event -- six for Hansen, four for Kitajima. One of the two has held the world record for the past five years -- one year for Kitajima, the past four for Hansen. Kitajima beat Hansen by 17-hundredths of a second in the 2004 Olympics, aided by a dolphin kick on the turn that at the time was illegal but was not called by the turn judges. The fact that the two men don't care for each other only adds to the intrigue. The only detraction from the drama is the fact that Hansen shockingly bombed out of the 200 breast in the U.S. trials, reducing this rivalry to a single one-minute sprint. Don't miss it.
Jeremy Wariner versus LaShawn Merritt (26), 400-meter dash. The two Americans could be alone at the finish line in Beijing. It wouldn't be the first time. Wariner is the defending Olympic gold medalist and two-time defending world champion, but Merritt upset him in the U.S. trials -- the second time he has beaten Wariner in 2008. "It's a new year," Merritt said after the trials triumph.
U.S. women gymnasts versus Chinese women gymnasts (27), team all-around. The Americans won the 2007 world championships. The Chinese won in 2006. The rubber match is a true road game for the Yanks, and, to date, they've never won an Olympic team gold outside the United States.
Wang Hao versus Ryu Seung Min (28), table tennis. Ryu pulled a shocking upset of Wang in 2004, screaming repeatedly after winning big points. The pressure on Wang from the home crowd to avoid a second straight Olympic pratfall will be immense.
India (29). The second-most populous nation in the world has won just 17 medals in its history -- that's one medal for every 64,705,882 citizens. Worse yet, India has never won a gold medal that wasn't in field hockey. And this year, for the first time in eight decades, India failed to qualify for the Olympics in that sport. If rival Pakistan brings home a field hockey medal, it will only deepen the shame.
Hungary (30). It has won an astonishing 450 medals, eighth-most in Olympic history, and 156 of them are gold. For a country of 9.9 million people, that's one medal for every 22,000 citizens. True, a lot of them are dated (Hungary was a fencing powerhouse back in the days when swords were actually useful), but that's getting it done.
In a trend that began with the ancient Greeks, Olympians seem to enjoy taking their clothes off. U.S. swimmer Amanda Beard (31) posed nude for Playboy in 2007, and a scandal blew up around French swimming star Laure Manaudou (32) earlier this year when some quite graphic pics of her were leaked and made the rounds on the Internet.
Before them, there was figure skater Katarina Witt and high jumper Amy Acuff in Playboy. Four American male water polo players once posed for LIFE magazine wearing only their caps and strategically placed balls. The Australian women's soccer team did a full-frontal photo shoot for a calendar in 1999. (Said Aussie Amy Taylor: "I wanted to prove we are not all big, butch lesbians. We are attractive, feminine girls.") And the Queen of Raunch, skater Tonya Harding, had her Too Much Information moment, as well.
Rest assured, while we're watching the athletes compete, Playboy is scouting for its next Olympic model.
Got a light?
One of the traditional moments of Olympic intrigue is seeing how the flame will be lit in the opening ceremonies and who will do the honors. The two best flame-lighting moments The Metric Dash has witnessed firsthand:
Barcelona, 1992 (33) -- Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo shot a flaming arrow from the floor of the Olympic stadium into the cauldron at the top. It was the greatest display of clutch archery since William Tell split the apple atop his son's head back in the day.
Atlanta, 1996 (34) -- In one of the few ennobling moments of the last Summer Games in America, the Olympic torch was run up to the cauldron by swimming great Janet Evans. She seemed like a fine choice to light the flame -- until she handed it to surprise guest Muhammad Ali. There were few dry eyes in the house as the 1960 gold medalist's trembling hands did the honors, bringing his unparalleled career full circle.
We already know the true cycling superstars in Beijing are the people who ride to work through crushing traffic. But there are four other authentic Chinese things The Metric Dash wants to experience:
Tea (35). Surely they brew a better brand in Beijing than at the local Starbucks.
Tai chi (36). Those American poseurs in the park? Are they as good as the old folks in the Temple of Heaven?
Peking duck (37). It would seem logical that they've perfected the art of making this dish in the City Formerly Known As Peking.
Chinese checkers (38). Do they have boards set up in parks in Beijing like chess boards in Central Park? Probably not. Turns out the game was invented in Germany.
If you really want to push the new-experiences envelope, The Metric Dash suggests a trip to Guo-li-zhang (39) restaurant in Beijing, an eatery that specializes in cooking and serving, ahem, penis (40). According to a supremely brave and/or very inebriated reviewer from The Times of London, there is yak, water buffalo, goat, bull and dog member on the menu, all prepared in a variety of appalling ways. The restaurant also offers deer-penis juice. Feel free to check it out and report back. If you think you'll see The Metric Dash there, you're insane.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.