It's almost time for Mitt Romney's favorite Olympic sport.
Beach volleyball may seem glamorous and frivolous and all about the wardrobe rather than the sport (and our Republican presidential nominee didn't do much to defeat those assumptions), but this isn't your average beach showdown. According to Box Score News, 48 pairs from 23 countries participate in beach volleyball, a sport that's only been an official part of the Olympic grind since 1996.
And it happens to be one of the sports in which the U.S. women are totally dominant.
Most likely, this year's race toward the gold will come down to the same two nations it generally tends to come down to: the U.S. and Brazil. According to NBC's Jon Ackerman, Brazil has nine medals, but just two of them are gold; the U.S. has fewer medals with seven, but five of them are gold.
If somehow it doesn't come down to those two, China is the most likely nation to be in the mix.
Here's a closer look at the favorites heading into London 2012.
Saying that Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings are going to be the key to the U.S. team is like saying LeBron James will be a significant component of Team USA basketball. The pair is the best America has to offer, and after winning the gold in Beijing in 2008, they became the first-ever beach volleyball pair to win back-to-back golds, according to NBC Sports.
However, they're four years older now with two kids (Walsh Jennings) and a serious Achilles injury (May-Treanor) behind them. It's a given that they're not going to be as dominant as they once were, and there's a reason why the same teams don't win three straight gold medals. That's a lot of years and a lot of wear and tear on the body, and it's difficult to remain on top.
Can the most skilled duo in the history of beach volleyball three-peat? Maybe, but it won't be easy, given the fact that they've been unable to train together for large chunks of time since the 2008 Games, according to NBC. But given their dominance in the past, it's hard to bet against them.
Even given the U.S.'s dominance in the past, this could be the team that sweeps the gold medal out from under the Americans. Brazil, headed up by Larissa Franca and Juliana Silva, is one of the only teams with any history of success against the U.S. This is the pair that took down the illustrious May-Treanor/Walsh Jennings duo back at the 2011 World Championships. In London, they'll try to pull it off again.
Perhaps these two could've stood in the way of the Americans in 2008, too—if Juliana Felisberta hadn't missed out because of a knee injury. This Brazilian team, which owns the most medals in the history of beach volleyball, can't be counted out.
Which nation will win the gold in 2012?
The Brazilian team's confidence is at an all-time high, knowing it can pull off the win against the back-to-back gold medalists. This could be their best chance ever of earning the victory.
Aside from the U.S. and Brazil, China is one of the winningest nations in the world in the sport, tallying two medals since 1996, a mark that ties it with Australia. In the 2008 Olympics, Chen Xue and Zhang Xi snagged the bronze medal and they'll be back in action in London, according to Box Score News. On the negative side, the nation's silver medalists from that year are no longer on the team.
As a result, it'll be up to Xue and Xi to make a name for China against the scintillating Brazilian and American teams. They have Olympic experience under their belts, but the 2012 Games will truly be the test of whether they can play at the same level as the top contenders.