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Michael Phelps leads Games' top story lines

John Romano, Times sports columnist

Five who matter

U.S. athletes with a chance to tear your attention away from the AL East race and Bucs training camp.

Shawn Johnson

When handicapping potential breakout stars, it's always wise to follow the advertising dollars. And in Johnson's case, they lead to Coca-Cola and McDonald's. In other words, the 16-year-old gymnast from Des Moines, Iowa, will cash in as long as she meets expectations. At 4 feet 9, with a style more explosive than artistic, she already is drawing comparisons to Mary Lou Retton. Johnson is the defending all-around world champion and aims to join Retton and Carly Patterson as the only Americans to win the title in the Olympics. Johnson is also fortunate to be surrounded by a deep group of teammates, making the United States one of the favorites to win the team gold. "We are the strongest team out there," Johnson said. "Probably the strongest team in history."

Bryan Clay

U.S. track and field needs Bryan Clay. He is a rare solution for a variety of problems. In a sport suffering from performance-enhancing drug scandals, Clay is squeaky clean. In an Olympic year where breakout stars are hard to find, Clay is a gold-medal contender in an elite event. He has a recognizable name and an understated charm. Now all he has to do is prove he is the world's greatest athlete. Clay won the silver medal in the decathlon in Athens in 2004 and the world championship in '05. Injuries slowed him after that, but Clay emerged as a contender again after winning at the track and field trials last month. With Tyson Gay and Allyson Felix failing to qualify in multiple individual sprint events, Clay has the best chance of capturing America's attention outside of a swimming pool.

Rau'shee Warren

Once, U.S. boxers were Olympic stars. From Cassius Clay to George Foreman to Sugar Ray Leonard to Leon Spinks to Roy Jones, they were some of the Games' biggest names. That time passed long ago. The United States has won only three golds in the past four Olympics and has not produced a major star since Oscar De La Hoya in 1992. Warren has a chance to turn the clock back. A defending world champ, Warren is the first U.S. boxer to make consecutive Olympic teams in more than 30 years. After losing quickly in Athens at 17, Warren passed up the chance to turn pro for this final shot at Olympic glory.

Michael Phelps

This is not a sports story; it is a global drama. Phelps has a legitimate chance to do something that has never been done. Two weeks from now he might be called the greatest swimmer in history. He may even be called the most accomplished Olympic athlete of all time. And the best part? The story should unfold gradually over eight days, like an NBC miniseries in chlorine. Phelps is shooting for eight gold medals, to eclipse Mark Spitz's seven golds in 1972. How realistic are his chances? He won six golds and two bronze in Athens and is in a better position for these Games. "I'm more relaxed than I was in 2004 going into the Olympics. I was a deer in the headlights, didn't know what to expect," Phelps said. "Going through what I have the past four years will help me prepare and understand what's going to happen." Phelps is a big favorite in five events and a slight favorite in the other three. As long as the U.S. team gets past the French and Australians in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay Monday, Phelps should have five golds going into the 200 individual medley against former Gator Ryan Lochte on Aug. 15, followed by the 100 fly against teammate Ian Crocker on Aug. 16 and the final relay Aug. 17.

Dara Torres

Her story is almost too good to be true, and that could be a problem for Torres in the coming weeks. Making a record fifth Olympic team at age 41, she acknowledged at the U.S. swimming trials that her performance would likely raise suspicions about performance-enhancing drugs. Now that her story is going international, the whispers will surely grow in volume. If you can get past the Roger Clemens-Marion Jones-Barry Bonds-induced skepticism, Torres' comeback is remarkable. The former Gator won gold at the Los Angeles Games in '84, along with teammates such as Tracy Caulkins, Nancy Hogshead, Tiffany Cohen and Mary T. Meagher, all of whom retired in the 1980s.

Five other athletes/teams worth watching LeBron and the Dream Team

Just when you had gotten bored of the various incarnations of the Dream Team, the U.S. men's basketball team flopped miserably in '04 in Athens. So the lords of the game changed the way the U.S. selects players and hired Mike Krzyzewski to teach the fellas how to play like a real team. And now LeBron James has his turn on the international stage surrounded by stars.

Houston, you have a problem

Yao Ming may be the most popular athlete to come out of China, and naturally, the Beijing Games shape up as a career highlight. One problem. Yao broke his foot in February and only recently returned to the court. There is concern the Houston Rockets star may be pushing himself too quickly to appease the folks back home. The hamstring heard 'round the world

Tyson Gay had a chance to be one of the biggest celebrities of the Games, but he tweaked his hamstring in a 200-meter preliminary at the trials and missed making the team in that event. Now Gay has only the 100 among individual events and has to recover quickly to be a factor. Still, there's tremendous prestige in winning the 100 to claim the title as the world's fastest man.

(Painted) toes in the sand

Beach volleyball has seen an, um, spike in popularity in recent Summer Games. This year should be no different. Americans Misty May-Treanor, above right, and Kerri Walsh are the defending Olympic champions, but the Chinese duo of Jia Tian and Jie Wang is a strong contender. If they meet in the final, it could be one of the biggest stories of the Games. How's gold for a parting gift?

From Dot Richardson to Jennie Finch, above, and dozens in between, U.S. softball players have produced some of the brightest moments in recent Games. And Beijing is looking like their farewell. The IOC eliminated softball and baseball from the 2012 Games, but softball enthusiasts are fighting to be reinstated for 2016. For now, the United States goes for its fourth consecutive gold.

Issues to watch

Swifter, higher, stronger, smoggier

So maybe the venues weren't finished in Athens four years ago. At least you could breathe there. China has been ultrasensitive when it comes to complaints about air quality, so much so that for the past three weeks officials have pulled half the cars off the road and shut down high-pollution factories. Will it make a difference? Sure. Will it remind you of a gorgeous Montana morning? Not so much. "It is a problem," said U.S. women's soccer coach Pia Sundhage, who worked in China for a year. "But both teams have the same air to breathe, so you have to deal with it."

Human rights vs. Olympic ideals

At some point, it will be an issue. Some athlete will dare to say or do something to focus attention on the problems in Tibet or China's sad history of human rights. The question is how Chinese officials will react to anything that smacks of protest. The U.S. Olympic Committee has told athletes they are free to speak their minds, but officials are clearly spinning the positive. "Having gone there every year for the last seven years, that country has changed a great deal. It's opening a little more every single minute," said Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the USOC. "Anybody who wants to argue that subject is blind. Now maybe you can argue whether it's changing fast enough." Softball player Jessica Mendoza, who has been active in humanitarian efforts in Darfur and traveled to Afghanistan to visit U.S. troops, has wrestled with the idea of using the Games as a political platform. "The emotion I felt looking in the eyes of soldiers was intense," Mendoza said. "I came back with a new understanding of what USA means across our chests." So is she considering a protest on the medal stand? "I've thought about that," she said. "We'll have to see. First we have to get the gold."

Take a pee, leave a medal

Track and field's popularity is at a low ebb in the United States, and that's saying something. Too many positive drug tests and not enough stars make for a bad combination. Drug testing was a big story in 2000 in Sydney and grew larger in Athens. U.S. and International Olympic Committee officials hope the latest rash of lifetime suspensions — and jail sentences for perjury — will keep the cheaters away from Beijing. "Any time somebody tests positive, it's a major deal. It doesn't matter if it's the Olympics, the trials or the X Games," said decathlete Bryan Clay. "It hinders all our sponsorship opportunities. … It takes away from what we're doing."

Athletes with Tampa Bay area ties on U.S. team.

Diving: Chris Colwill, a Brandon native who competed at Tampa Prep and the University of Georgia, was chosen for the 3-meter individual and synchronized events, the latter with partner Jevon Tarantino of Boca Raton. Tennis: James Blake, a Tampa resident, and the doubles team of Mike and Bob Bryan, who live in Wesley Chapel, were chosen by the U.S. Tennis Association. Sailing: Zach Railey of Clearwater won the Finn 1 competition at the Olympic trials, and Ben Barger of Tampa is among the competitors in the Games debut of windsurfing, officially known as RS:X, after winning the trials. Track and field: Damu Cherry, a Tampa native who competed at Leto High and USF, was the runnerup in the 100-meter hurdles at the trials. Calvin Smith of Lutz, Freedom High and Florida, was chosen for the 4x400 relay pool based on his fifth-place finish in the 400 at the trials.

"Being prepared to risk everything for the ultimate prize is a good skill to have."

Sarah Ulmer, a 2004 cycling gold medalist for New Zealand

Michael Phelps leads Games' top story lines 08/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 8, 2008 8:13pm]
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