Countdown to the 2012 Olympics: Top 10 Storylines and Stars to Watch

Avi Wolfman-Arent@@awolfmancomethCorrespondent IIApril 18, 2012

Countdown to the 2012 Olympics: Top 10 Storylines and Stars to Watch

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    The mercury is rising, the anticipation is growing, and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London are nudging their way into our collective sports consciousness.

    In a word, "Hooray!"

    The B/R video team was in New York City as Team USA hopefuls kicked off the pre-Olympic hype. Check out that scene on the next slide.

    And to further feed your impending Olympics fever, I've dug up the 10 most compelling storylines heading into London.

    These are the athletes, rivalries and showcase events that will have you glued to the television set, or the computer screen.

Team USA Kicks into Gear

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    The Bleacher Report video team was on the spot when Team USA stars of the past and future got together in New York City to start counting down to the London Games. Before moving ahead to our top-10 storylines, click the play button above to soak up the spirit.

U.S. Track & Field Seeks Redemption

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    Most nations would characterize 23 medals in one discipline as a triumph, but for the storied U.S. Track & Field squad—winners of 25 medals at the 2004 games—the haul in Beijing was a big disappointment.

    The visuals didn't help.

    There was Lolo Jones clipping the ninth hurdle in the women's 100-meter hurdle final, derailing a sure gold-medal sprint.

    There was an injured Tyson Gay failing to qualify for the 100-meter finals.

    There was Brittney Reese's disappointing fifth-place finish in the long jump.

    There was Allyson Felix settling for a second consecutive silver medal in the 200m, her signature event.

    All four athletes should be back in London and gunning for redemption. The most compelling among them is Felix. Despite her considerable accomplishments—which include a combined eight gold medals at the World Championships—Felix has no individual Olympic golds to her name.

    Her best bet is in the 200, where she'll square off against Jamaican rival Veronica Campbell-Brown.

Can the U.S. Women Gymnasts Match the Hype?

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    The U.S. women's gymnastics team always faces high expectations, but 2012 is a different beast.

    After dominating the 2011 World Championships, America is a heavy favorite to capture its first team all-around gold since the Magnificent Seven did it in 1996.

    To help frame the hype, Sports Illustrated's Nick Zaccardi writes, "The U.S. is so deep in women's gymnastics that it could win gold, silver and bronze if the Olympics allowed varsity, JV and freshman teams."

    National team coordinator Marta Karolyi, wife of 1996 coach Bela Karolyi, must whittle that wealth of talent down to a final five.

    She'll pick from a pool that includes returning Olympians Shawn Johnson, Alicia Sacramone and Nastia Liukin, as well as up-and-comers like Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney.

    Those that make the final cut will get a shot at fame—and a big old target on their backs.

Who Is Caster Semenya?

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    It wouldn't be the Olympics without pressing social implications, and Caster Semenya will provide plenty every time she steps on the track.

    Semenya exploded onto the running scene in 2009 at the African Junior Championships. There, the unknown 18-year-old surpassed her personal best in the 800 by seven full seconds and turned in the year's fastest time.

    A few weeks later she took gold at the World Championships in Berlin, besting her closest rival by more than two seconds.

    Then, the controversy started.

    Semenya, whose masculine physique prompted competitors to accuse her of foul play, was subjected to a gender test by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) after her performance in Berlin.

    A leaked version of the test concluded that Semenya has female and male sexual organs, but after an 11-month layoff, she was reinstated as a female competitor.

    The IAAF declined to provide details on the case.

    Adding to the intrigue, Semenya has regressed since her return. She settled for silver at the 2011 World Championships and has yet to eclipse the time needed to qualify for London. According to the Associated Press, Semenya must run under 1:59.90 before June 30 in order to qualify. (Update: Semenya has qualified.)

    If she does, Semenya will be one of the most watched athletes in London.

    Not only will she fuel discussion about her running form, but she's certain to prompt countless conversations about gender, sport and the wide swath of society where the two meet.

U.S. Women's Soccer Goes for Gold

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    On the heels of its disappointing runner-up finish in the thrilling 2011 World Cup, the U.S. women's soccer team takes aim at regaining its perch atop the world.

    That means encore appearances by Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, each receiving a greater share of the Olympic glow now that the U.S. men's team failed to qualify for London.

    Familiar foes Brazil and Japan are also in the women's field of 12, but this has traditionally been a strong tournament for the U.S. Expectations, as always, are high. The U.S. has never missed an Olympic final and are coming off consecutive gold medals in 2004 and 2008.

    The Americans' recent form—which includes a 3-0 thrashing of Brazil—suggests they can make it three in a row.

Missy Franklin: The Next Swimming Superstar?

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    Missy Franklin has all the trappings of a future household name.

    She's young: Franklin won't turn 17 until May. At the 2010 Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships, she was the youngest swimmer on Team USA.

    She's talented: She won five medals, including three gold, at the 2011 FINA World Championships. In a March 2012 article, The Washington Post said her six-foot frame was "built for speed."

    She's patriotic: Franklin told a New York Times reporter in 2010 that she declined an opportunity to compete for Canada, her mother's home country, because she's "just so connected with the USA."

    She's unassuming: Much has been made of Franklin's continued participation in high-school swimming, even during her intense Olympic training schedule.  In 2012, the New York Times reported that Franklin has "turned down roughly $150,000 in prize money" in order to retain her high-school-swimming eligibility.

    Only one question left to ask: Will she win?

    Those five gold medals at the 2011 FINA World Championships say she has a mighty fine chance.

Do Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Still Rule the Beach?

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    With age and rust, beach volleyball mavens Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh have lost their aura of invincibility.

    Can they get it back in London?

    First, let's revisit just how dominant May-Treanor and Walsh were over the last decade.

    Of the countless ways to quantify their excellence, here's my favorite:

    The duo played 28 sets spanning the 2004 and 2008 Olympic games and won all of them. Every single one.

    In the process of dominating, they became the sport's most celebrated stars, catapulting beach volleyball from sideshow to center stage.

    Now, May-Treanor and Walsh are back for a third run at Olympic gold, but the field is closing fast.

    Walsh's venture into motherhood kept the pair from competing at the 2009 World Championships, and the duo managed just a silver in 2011, its first non-gold in a major international competition since 2001.

    Brazilians Larissa and Juliana, the reigning world champs, pose a strong threat. Same goes for fellow Americans Jen Kessy and April Ross.

Redeem Team Redux

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    Branded as saviors and embraced in a star-spangled bear hug by American fans, the U.S. men's basketball team hit all its targets en route to a gold medal in Beijing.

    Not only did the Americans win, but they did so with a spirit of togetherness and self-sacrifice that drew rave reviews.

    LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard were feted as heroes—a new generation of stars who were committed to international competition and intent on restoring America's place as the basketball superpower.

    That narrative feels hopelessly naive four years later.

    James is one of the game's great villains after linking up with fellow Olympians Wade and Bosh on a Miami-based super team. And after Anthony, Paul, Williams and Howard were implicated in similarly styled power plays, the entire 2008 Olympic basketball experience seems shrouded in skepticism.

    Perhaps our American basketball superheroes didn't spend their Beijing adventure bonding over banana splits and patriotic fervor. Maybe they were speaking of collusion and trade demands.

    At least it seems that way in retrospect.

    With most, if not all, of the Redeem Team's stars returning in 2012 to defend America's gold medal, one wonders how the fans stateside will receive them.

    Will Americans suppress NBA allegiances and throw their support behind Uncle Sam's ballers?

    Or will questions over player intentions—further stoked by Wade's recent comments about player compensation—divide the fan base, or worse, prompt disinterest?

    And I say all that without one mention of the always-improving international field.

    Spain, the 2008 silver medalist, is back with Serge Ibaka in tow. France, anchored by Tony Parker, Joakim Noah and Boris Diaw, looks stronger than ever. Argentina still has its core from the 2004 gold-medal team. And Brazil's front line of Anderson Varejao, Tiago Splitter and Nene should be among the tournament's best.

    On paper, the Americans have more talent than any of those challengers, but anything less than their best effort will lead to trouble.

    And even if they do give their best effort, will fans stateside embrace them?

Hometown Heroes

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    From Cathy Freeman's gold-medal triumph at the Sydney Games in 2000 to Liu Xiang's devastating injury withdrawl in Beijing, the spotlight always shines a bit brighter on the host country's top athletes.

    Coming off an impressive 47-medal haul in 2008, the Brits are well-positioned to thrill on home turf.

    A few of the names Great Britain will be buzzing about:


    Rebecca Adlington (Swimming)

    The swimming sensation took home two gold medals as a 19-year-old in Beijing. She looks to repeat the feat in London. There was some speculation she would add a third race, but she has since made it clear that she will limit herself to the 400- and 800-meter freestyle.


    Paula Radcliffe (Marathon)

    The 38-year-old marathoner is a full-fledged icon in her home country, but she heads to London well past her prime. After finishing 23rd in Beijing, can Radcliffe ride the home crowd to one more great run?


    Tom Daley (Diving)

    The diminutive diver looked like a boy among men competing as a 14-year-old in Beijing. By 2010 he'd shot up to 5'8"—from 5'2" in 2008—and captured gold on the 10-meter platform at the 2009 World Championships. The hope is that he can return to the podium after finishing fifth at the 2011 World Championships.


    Jessica Ennis (Heptathlon)

    Injury kept Jessica Ennis out of the Beijing Games, but she's proved plenty healthy in the four years since. After winning gold at the 2009 World Championships and silver at the 2011 World Championships, Ennis looks like a strong contender entering London.


    The Cyclers (Cycling)

    Great Britain's 14 cycling medals at the 2008 games were more than double its haul in any of the other disciplines. Gold medalists Bradley Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy are expected back in 2012, as the Brits battle Australia for velodrome supremacy.

Can Usain Bolt Do It Again?

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    As he barreled toward history in Beijing, Usain Bolt looked like some heaven-sent half-blood from the sprinting gods.

    The last few years have undoubtedly rendered him human.

    After winning gold and setting world records in the 100- and 200-meter sprints at the 2008 Games, Bolt has seen American Tyson Gay and fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake emerge as credible rivals over the past two years in the 100.

    Gay smoked Bolt in a 2010 showdown, and a Bolt false start opened the door for Blake to win the 2011 World Championships. And although Bolt's grip on the 200 remains steadfast, his recent struggles in track's showcase event are sure to draw attention.

    If Bolt can rebound and produce another gold-medal sweep, he'll have a strong case as one of history's greatest Olympians. If he breaks another world record or two, his reputation as the greatest sprinter ever would seem assured.

    But for the first time in Bolt's charmed career, those hypotheticals actually seem like ifs.

Michael Phelps Versus Ryan Lochte, the Rivalry

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    Four years ago in Beijing, it was Michael Phelps versus the record books.

    In London, Phelps' adversary has a face and a name—Ryan Lochte.

    Lochte won four gold medals at the 2009 FINA World Championships and followed that up with a stunning five-gold performance at the 2011 Worlds. The latter included head-to-head victories over Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle and the 200 individual medley.

    Observers expect a rematch in both events at the London Games.

    And although Lochte had the upper hand in 2011, there are recent signs that Phelps is rounding into form. At the Indianapolis Grand Prix in late March, Phelps earned four gold medals, while Lochte failed to top the podium.

    With that result, partisans on either side can claim the hotter swimmer. Lochte has been better at the big recent meets, while Phelps' latest effort proves he's on the way back.

    And if that wasn't fuel enough, Phelps' legacy is on the line. With three medals in London, he would become the most decorated Olympian ever, surpassing gymnast Larisa Latynina.

    High stakes, small margin, perfect rivalry.