50 Biggest Storylines Heading into the 2012 Olympics

Avi Wolfman-Arent@@awolfmancomethCorrespondent IIJuly 13, 2012

50 Biggest Storylines Heading into the 2012 Olympics

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    There is no greater pageant in sports than the Olympic Games: 19 days, 36 athletic disciplines and thousands upon thousands of athletes—each bringing their own backstory or sliver of intrigue.

    From that bunch, here are our 50 favorite storylines heading into the 2012 London Olympics.

    Enjoy, and be sure to comment below.

Phelps' Final Assault on the Record Books

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    With seven races on his docket, it's all but assured that Michael Phelps will earn the three medals he needs to pass Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian of all time.

    Not that we should let inevitability obscure what Phelps is set to accomplish. The swimming legend, who says he will retire after these Games, could leave London with every significant medals-based record in Olympic history.

'Blade Runner' Breaks New Ground

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    Middle-distance sprinter Oscar Pistorius—known as "Blade Runner" because he runs on two curved, carbon-fiber prosthetics—is set to become the first amputee ever in an Olympic track and field event.

    The South African Paralympic star will compete in both the 400-meter sprint and the 4x400-meter relay.

    For his inspirational accomplishments, Pistorius was named one of Time's "100 most influential people in the world."

Missy Franklin, the First Chapter

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    Dubbed "The Female Michael Phelps" by various media outlets,17-year-old Missy Franklin is on the verge of swimming superstardom.

    If she medals in all four of her individual events and makes each of Team USA's three relay squads, she could become the first American female athlete to win seven medals at one Olympiad.

    And this is just the beginning...

Usain Bolt Goes for Unprecedented Repeat

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    Four years ago, Usain Bolt was the quintessence of dominance, winning each of his three gold medals (two individual, one relay) in world-record time.

    With a repeat of his Beijing performance, Bolt would become the first sprinter in history to win the 100- and 200-meter sprints at consecutive Olympic Games.

U.S. Men's Basketball Team Takes on Injuries, World

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    Injuries to key cogs like Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose combined with an improving international field have some folks questioning whether or not the U.S. men's basketball team can repeat as Olympic champions.

    The pressure is on LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant to bring home one last gold medal before the NBA follows through on its proposal to limit—or perhaps withdraw from—Olympic participation.

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings Hunt Threepeat

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    Though they dominated the last two Olympic tournaments, beach volleyball legends Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings haven't been their usual, unbeatable selves since going on an extended hiatus after the Beijing Games.

    The duo will have to contend with strong challengers from Brazil and China if they are to win a record-setting third consecutive beach volleyball gold.

U.S. Women's Soccer out to Avenge World Cup Loss

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    Led by the likes of Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, the U.S. women's soccer team should be one of the most recognizable squads in London.

    But will big names beget victory?

    After a crushing loss to Japan in the 2011 Women's World Cup final, that question looms larger than ever for this group.

Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas Battle for Gold

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    As it was in Beijing with Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, Team USA has two female gymnasts capable of capturing the individual all-around title.

    Reigning world champ Jordyn Wieber fits the Johnson prototype—powerful, sturdy and well-rounded.

    U.S. Trials winner Gabby Douglas reminds many of Liukin, particularly with her grace and acrobatics on uneven bars.

    If either can win Olympic gold, it would mark a third consecutive title in the event for Team USA.

All Eyes on Lolo Jones

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    American sprinter Lolo Jones enters London as a gold-medal long shot in the 100-meter hurdles, but that hasn't dampened media enthusiasm for this attractive, witty crossover star.

    Jones became a household name after discussing her struggle to remain a virgin in an interview with HBO's Real Sports.

    Expect to hear her name plenty this summer, especially if she can qualify for the event final.

Allyson Felix out for Elusive Gold Medal

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    There is no greater pageant in sports than the Olympic Games: 19 days, 36 athletic disciplines and thousands upon thousands of athletes—each bringing their own backstory or sliver of intrigue.

    From that bunch, here are our 50 favorite storylines heading into the 2012 London Olympics.

    Enjoy, and be sure to comment below.

Ashton Eaton Steps into the Limelight

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    Ashton Eaton, 24, announced his arrival as the next great decathlete by breaking the event's 11-year-old world record at U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., this summer.

    If he can follow that breakout performance with a gold medal, we could be looking at the most marketable American decathlete since Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson ruled the sport two decades ago.

Tennis Titans Take Wimbledon

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    The quality of Olympic tennis has been on the up since the sport was re-introduced to the Games in 1988, and London should mark an all-time high.

    Staged at the historic All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club—same site as Wimbledon—this year's tournament will feature the two top-seeded men in the world—Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic—along with a full complement of well-regarded challengers.

    Rafael Nadal, the defending Olympic champ, has pulled out due to injury, but we're bound to see some great moments. Federer, perhaps the greatest grass-court player of all time, holds momentum after having won the Wimbledon title in early July.

A Very British Opening Ceremony

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    If you can see beyond its artistic decadence, an Olympic Opening Ceremony offers great insight into the host city's personality and trajectory.

    Beijing went for awe, producing a gutsy, wondrous spectacle that said, "I have arrived!"

    London, from early indications, seems to have a more muted tone in mind. Artistic director Danny Boyle's "Isle of Wonder" pageant will pay homage to England's bucolic past and include a full cavalry of live farm animals, substituting sheer awe, it would appear, for a distinct slice of British charm.

Could China Win More Medals Than the U.S.?

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    At the 2008 Beijing Games, China won more gold medals than the United States for the first time in its Olympic history and finished just 10 medallions behind the U.S. in overall medal count.

    As China continues to gather strength in historically weak disciplines like swimming, some prognosticators predict the Chinese will knock America from atop the medal table in London.

    If they do, it would mark the first time since 1992 that Team USA hasn't led the medal count.

Phelps vs. Lochte

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    There will be more than simply gold medals at stake when Michael Phelps races against fellow American Ryan Lochte in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys.

    The pair will also be battling for the title of "Best Swimmer on Earth" and all the legacy implications that come with it.

Jordan Burroughs, U.S. Wrestling's Next Star

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    Freestyle wrestler Jordan Burroughs, a former NCAA champion and the reigning world champ at 74 kg, is one of America's best hopes for wrestling gold.

    He also has designs on bringing American wrestling back to the forefront after a decade that has seen much of the sport's top talent gravitate toward professional mixed martial arts.

    He'll have a chance to do both in London.

Weightlifter Holley Mangold Blazes Her Own Trail

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    Considered more a prospect for the 2016 Games than a 2012 contender, Holley Mangold, sister to New York Jets' All-Pro center Nick Mangold, surprised the weightlifting community when she qualified for London.

    Though she's a medal long shot, there's hope that Mangold's rapidly improving form and celebrity cache could help bring needed attention to one of Team USA's weakest Olympic disciplines.

The Social Media Games

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    Social media's presence has grown exponentially since Beijing, but that's not the only reason we should expect hash tags and status updates galore during the London Games.

    As Sports Illustrated's Nick Zaccardi notes, many marquee Olympic events will air during East Coast work hours (2-5 pm). Not surprisingly, Twitter and Facebook usage peaks in that window.

    The likely result? An interactive, online sporting experience unlike any this planet has ever seen.

Can U.S. Women's Gymnastics Fulfill Its Golden Destiny?

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    The U.S. women's gymnastics team entered each of the last two Olympic competitions as defending world champions, only to walk away with silver.

    The 2012 squad hopes history won't repeat itself.

    After an emphatic victory at 2011 worlds, Team USA comes in to London with gold-or-bust expectations. That, combined with the burden of recent failures, puts a large onus on this year's team, but they certainly have the talent to become America's first Olympic gymnastics champions since 1996.

Anthony Ervin's Odyssey

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    There are comeback stories, and then there's Anthony Ervin.

    Three years after he won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the American freestyle sprinter left swimming and embarked on an eight-year personal journey.

    He returned to the sport in early 2011 and was soon posting elite times—both in homage to his physical gifts and to the latest chapter in his mysterious, meandering life story.

    Ervin, now 31, will swim the 50-meter freestyle for Team USA in London, the same event he won 12 years ago. His times at U.S. Trials mark him as a medal contender.

Natalie Coughlin's Final Lap?

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    Legendary U.S. swimmer Natalie Coughlin remains mum on her post-London future, but a disappointing meet at Olympic Trials suggests the end is near.

    Coughlin, 29, qualified for the U.S. Team as a member of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay pool. With a medal in that event, she'll tie fellow swimmers Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson as the most decorated American female Olympians of all time.

U.S. Track and Field Seeks Redemption

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    While swimming's best rose to the occasion in Beijing, USA Track and Field watched some of its highest-profile athletes fall short.

    Sprinter Tyson Gay, hurdler Lolo Jones, sprinter Allyson Felix, long-jumper Brittney Reese (pictured above) and sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross are all among the athletes who underperformed four years ago, but they have returned for redemption in 2012.

Kayla Harrison Chases U.S. Judo History

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    In London, Kayla Harrison can become the first American gold medalist in Olympic judo history.

    What a remarkable capstone it would be for a woman who nearly quit the sport after she was sexually abused by her first judo coach.

    Harrison went public with her painful past in a 2011 USA Today story and hopes to inspire others who've undergone similar torment.

Liu Xiang Returns from Beijing Heartbreak

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    Liu Xiang knows heartbreak.

    In 2008, the star Chinese hurdler and 2004 gold medalist—easily one of his home nation's most popular Olympic athletes—withdrew from the 110-meter hurdles due to injury. The scene sent shock waves around China and even prompted a few tears from the partisans in attendance.

    Four years later, Liu is healthy and in great position to reclaim the Olympic title he first won in Athens.

    It's always newsworthy when an athlete wins gold medals eight years apart, but it's even more so when that athlete is one of the most recognizable figures in one of the most populous nations on earth.

NBC Moves Its Coverage Online

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    For the first time ever, NBC will live stream every Olympic sport on its website.

    There are some caveats. Certain big-ticket events won't be archived until they are shown on tape delay in prime time, and users will need a cable or satellite subscription to access online streams.

    Even so, NBC's London plan marks a huge step forward for Olympic sports coverage in the digital age.

Will the Weather Cooperate?

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    Those who watched rain wreak havoc on Wimbledon 2012 know just how fickle London weather can be.

    Early forecast projections for the Olympic Games aren't promising, and the prospect of a dreary, sloppy competition can't be welcome news for the fans shelling out major coin to see the world's best.

    Team USA's Track and Field athletes can at least take heart in the fact that they battled through similar conditions at U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.

Gatlin and Gay, Sprinting's Comeback Kids

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    Team USA will rely on two familiar faces in the 100-meter dash, each with their own unlikely journey to London.

    Athens gold medalist Justin Gatlin served a four-year doping ban from 2006 to 2010 and was largely considered a non-entity on the sprint scene after his reinstatement. He surprised many by shedding time through 2011 and 2012 and winning the U.S. Trials with a mark that places him third in the world this season.

    American record holder Tyson Gay overcame multiple hip surgeries in the past year to finish second at U.S. Trials. He hopes to bounce back from an injury-plagued Beijing to win his first Olympic medal.

    Both are long shots to upset the Jamaican duo of Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. Then again, one could've said the same about their chances to re-emerge as elite-level competitors.

Neymar Takes Center Stage

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    The Olympic men's soccer tournament is known as a showcase for young luminaries, and none bring more hype to London than Brazilian forward Neymar.

    With his dazzling on-ball skills and wonderful pace, the Santos striker has long been considered one of international soccer's great emerging talents.

    At the 2012 Games, his first major international tournament outside South America, Neymar will get a sterling opportunity to validate the praise and silence for those critics who say he hasn't tested himself abroad.

Yohan Blake on the Rise

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    After victories over training partner Usain Bolt in the 100- and 200-meter sprints at Jamaican Trials, 22-year-old Yohan Blake looks like the next great Jamaican track star.

    With follow-up wins in London, he could usurp his countryman as the fastest man on the planet and take the first step toward international celebrity.

U.S. Men's Gymnastics Team Built in Cuba and the Bronx

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    Danell Leyva, 20, and John Orozco, 19, are not only the consensus top two male gymnasts in America; they are also the face of their sport's changing demographics.

    Born in Cuba, Leyva defected to the States with his mother when he was one year old. His stepfather later joined them in Miami, opening the gym that would propel Leyva to greatness.

    Orozco, the son of Puerto Rican parents who often struggled to keep the family afloat, grew up in the Bronx, where he was often ridiculed for his choice of sport.

    Together, as Sports Illustrated's Brian Cazeneuve puts it, they have become symbols of America's most talented male gymnastics team in decades:

    "They are the new melting pot that has graced the surging U.S. program with talent, diligence and two great stories."

     

    Post Script: This isn't to say there haven't been notable American gymnasts of color. Names include Ron Galimore of the 1980 team, '92 high bar gold medalist Trent Dimas and '96 silver medalist Jair Lynch.

Russian Gymnasts Aim to Dash Dreams of U.S. Women

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    After an embarrassing O-fer at the 2008 Games, Russia's women's gymnastics team is back to reclaim its place among the world elite.

    Russia poses perhaps the strongest threat to the United States' quest for team gold and could also play spoiler to America's top hopefuls in the individual all-around.

    Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina (pictured above) both have big-meet experience and the skills to reign supreme this summer. 

Williams Sisters in Olympic Spotlight

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    The women's Olympic tennis tournament will be all about one name: Williams.

    In the course of a single July afternoon this year, Serena Williams won the Wimbledon singles title and nabbed the doubles title alongside her sister Venus.

    Serena should be the oddsmakers' favorite in both events this August and could be the first woman to win double-gold in tennis since her sister did it in Sydney.

Caster Semenya Goes for Gold

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    Caster Semenya, then 18, set the track world on fire in 2009 when she emerged from relative obscurity to win gold at the World Championships in the 800 meters.

    Semenya's dramatic improvement and startling physique prompted questions about her gender, which, in turn, led to an IAAF investigation.

    The IAAF never released its findings, but they did clear Semenya for competition in the summer of 2010.

    Though she has yet to regain her '09 form, Semenya has been among the better 800 runners in the world and should challenge for gold in London. Regardless of whether or not she prevails, expect plenty of media noise to follow the woman who has become one of track's most heavily scrutinized athletes.

A Nation Lives and Dies with Every Andy Murray Shot

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    A month after he was run through the Wimbledon pressure cooker, Andy Murray—Great Britain's great tennis hope—returns to the All England Club chasing a new set of ghosts.

    With a medal in London, the lanky Scot would become the first British singles tennis medalist since 1924. Needless to say, there will be ample interest in his fate among the home partisans.

Could This Be Best Year Ever for U.S. Gymnastics?

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    The fortunes of U.S. gymnastics have been on the rise for decades, but never have they looked this good.

    The men's team is deep, young and poised to challenge traditional powers like China and Japan in London. The women are even better, led by all-around wizards Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas.

    London could yield huge medal returns for Team USA, and the program shows no signs of slowing.

Women's Boxing Makes Its Olympic Debut

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    Although London won't feature any new athletic disciplines, it will host the first-ever women's boxing tournament.

    American entrants Marlen Esparza, Queen Underwood and Claressa Shields hope to break ground for Team USA, while legendary fighters like Ireland's Katie Taylor and India's MC Mary Kom look to validate long and distinguished careers in the sport.

Awesome Aussies

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    Although Australia's 2012 Olympic contingent is its smallest in 20 years, there are more than a few big names to watch from Down Under.

    Sally Pearson has been a dominant force in the women's 100-meter hurdles this season, while 21-year-old James Magnussen looks like the nation's next great swimming star.

    It isn't the deepest team, but Australia has the talent to make noise in its colonial homeland.

Ryan Lochte, the Greatest Swimmer Alive?

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    Ryan Lochte isn't just the "other" guy in the Phelps-Lochte swimming rivalry—he's quite possibly the best swimmer on planet Earth.

    In addition to his two showdowns with Phelps, Lochte is a favorite in the 200-meter backstroke and should swim on at least two relay teams.

    Even if he's overshadowed by Phelps in London, Lochte is still in line for one of the better swimming performances in Olympic history.

Who Will Emerge as a Home Country Hero?

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    Coming off a great haul in Beijing, Great Britain is primed to make a big medal splash on home soil. And you can bet the folks in London are pretty pumped about the prospect.

    A few of the more prominent athletes competing for the home country:

    — Jessica Ennis (Heptathlon)

    — Mo Farah (Distance Running)

    — Rebecca Adlington (Swimming)

    — Paula Radcliffe (Marathon)

    — Chris Hoy and Mark Cavendish (Cycling)

    — Ben Ainslie (Sailing)

    — Tom Daley (Diving) 

Breakthrough Games for Women Athletes

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    Thanks to the late addition of two Saudi athletes, London marks the first time that every country represented at an Olympic Games will have a female competitor present.

    Team USA is also making history on the gender equity front. The U.S. Olympic contingent has more women than men for the first time in its history.

Can U.S. Diving Get Back on the Podium?

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    Though America still has more diving medals than any other nation, the halcyon days of Greg Louganis and Pat McCormick are long gone.

    Team USA hasn't medaled in the discipline since 2000, and even then, they tallied just one (Laura Wilkinson's gold in the 10-meter platform).

    This year's contingent hopes to end that drought, led by platform contender David Boudia and the synchronized springboard team of Troy Dumais and Kristian Ipsen.

Golden Opportunities for U.S. Teams

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    In name, there will be only one U.S. Dream Team this summer, but Uncle Sam has more than a few squads capable of gold.

    Start with the U.S. women's volleyball team, a unit that has surprisingly never won an Olympic title. Led by rising star Destinee Hooker, veterans Danielle Scott-Arruda, Logan Tom and former men's coach Hugh McCutcheon, that streak could well end in London.

    Both the men's and women's water polo teams have similar aspirations and similar pedigrees, both having never won gold at a fully attended Olympiad despite multiple second-place finishes.

    And then there's the U.S. women's basketball team, loaded with stars as always and looking like a prohibitive gold-medal favorite.

David Rudisha Set to Dominate

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    Kenyan runner David Rudisha's exploits over the past two years place him on a plane of dominance reserved normally for the likes of Phelps, Bolt, May-Treanor and Walsh-Jennings.

    The 800-meter maven broke his event's 13-year-old world record in 2010 and then re-broke the record a week later. Since then, he's been virtually unbeatable at the distance and appears ready to make another serious run at the all-time mark in London.

    Rudisha may not be a household name among American sports fans, but the track world will have a keen eye on his August exploits.

Duel in the Pool: U.S. vs. Australia vs. France

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    The 100-meter sprint might be the most storied race in Olympic history, but in this millennium, the most entertaining has been the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay.

    Always bubbling with trash talk and intrigue, the event has become a statement race for world swimming's lead powers.

    This year should be no different, with co-favorites Australia and France taking on a U.S. team that will likely feature Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.

Galen Rupp out to Erase U.S. Distance Failures

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    To understand the phenomenon of Galen Rupp, you must first know that an American man hasn't medaled in a running event over 800 meters since 1968 (marathon excluded).

    The Oregon-born Rupp has a chance to do it twice this summer, running in both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races. Though two medals aren't likely, Rupp's talent has the nation's distance community buzzing with anticipation.

China's Rising Tides in the Pool

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    China's six swimming medals at the 2008 Games were the second most in its Olympic history and just a small slice of what's to come from the world's newest swimming power.

    The Chinese won 14 swimming medals at the 2011 FINA World Championships, second only to the United States. And with budding superstars like Sun Yang (pictured above) and Ye Shiwen in the pipeline, China figures to stay near the top of the medal table for a long time.

Sanya Richards-Ross Attempts Rare Double

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    Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Michael Johnson and Marie-Jose Perec are the only three athletes to win gold medals in the 200- and 400-meter sprints at one Olympic Games.

    Might Sanya Richards-Ross become the fourth?

    The wife of Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back Aaron Ross is a favorite in the 400 and owns the world's second-fastest time this season in the 200.

    It's far from assured, but Richards-Ross has history in her sights.

Young Guns Taking over Men's 400-Meter Sprint

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    The next decade should be an entertaining one in the men's 400-meter sprint, and it starts in London.

    Youngsters like Grenada's Kirani James (19), the Dominican Republic's Luguelin Santos (18) and American Tony McQuay (22) have all flashed enough potential at their respective ages to portend medal-rich careers.

    And although defending Olympic champ LaShawn Merritt is a pre-race favorite, it's the event's youth movement that will have track fans going gaga.

London Doubles Down on Security

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    Talk of security at the London Games has been omnipresent for months.

    Will the venues be properly secured?

    Will security be too heavy-handed?

    And now the latest row regarding a government decision to activate 3,500 British troops after a private firm failed to hire enough security personnel.

    Security at major sporting events is a touchy subject these days, and it appears the Olympic Games are not immune.

No World Records in the Pool?

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    Don't get too attached to the moving world-record line NBC introduced to its 2008 Olympic swimming coverage. We might not see much of it this year.

    Amid a record-breaking bonanza at the 2009 World Championships, FINA issued a drastic overhaul of its swimsuit regulations.

    Over the two-and-a-half years since, broken records have become exceedingly rare, as evidenced by the fact that there were no world records set at U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha.

    In a sport where excitement over world records is integral to the pre-Olympic buzz, there's credible concern that London won't deliver many best-ever aquatic moments.