Summer Olympics 2012: Highlighting Top 10 Must-See Rivalries Heading into London

Marilee Gallagher@mgallagher17Contributor IIJuly 24, 2012

Summer Olympics 2012: Highlighting Top 10 Must-See Rivalries Heading into London

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    The Olympics may be about bringing countries together through the art of sport, but there is no denying that nationalism is also on hand. Americans cheer on their countrymen, as do the French, the Italians, the Chinese, the Indians and so on.

    With this nationalism comes rivalries—some heated, some friendly.

    Without these rivalries, the games wouldn't be the same. The same luster of watching the competitors would not be there if, say, there was no one to challenge Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt from repeating as gold medalists. The same intensity and jaw-dropping moments wouldn't exist if the Chinese men's gymnastics team did not have to worry about Japan right on their tails.

    Essentially, rivalries are a necessary part to the Olympics, and this year in London, there will be no shortage of them.

    From Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to Veronica Campbell-Brown and Allyson Felix and everything in between, there will be plenty of opportunities to see close races, close matches and the intense, heart-pounding moments that have made the Olympics what they are: amazing.

10. Brendan Hansen vs. Kosuke Kitajima (Men's Swimming)

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    Before Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte challenged each other for gold medals, swimming's best rivalry belonged to American Brendan Hansen and his Japanese competitor Kosuke Kitajima.

    The 30-year-old Hansen and the 29-year-old Kitajima began their rivalry back in 2001, when both participated in their first World Championships. In this matchup, Hansen set a meet record in the 200-meter breaststroke and won the gold while Kitajima finished with the bronze.

    At the same competition in 2003, Kitajima flipped the script by taking the gold in the 200-meter breast while Hansen was the one to finish with the bronze. In 2005, it was Hansen who topped his rival, taking gold in both the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes while Kitajima finished with a silver in the 100 and a bronze in the 50. Kitajima, however, took the double gold by winning both the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics.

    Up until 2008, Hansen, who has mainly focused on the 100-meter breast, was the dominant force, besting Kitajima in three of the four World Championships since 2005. It has been Kitajima, however, who has been dominant at the Olympic stage, keeping Hansen from an individual gold.

    This year, Hansen hopes it will be different and that he will be the one standing atop the podium. After retiring from the sport following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Hansen decided to make a comeback just in time to win the U.S. Nationals in both the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes.

    Although the summer games have yet to begin, this decade-old rivalry has already added another chapter. Kitajima, who trains in the U.S., was on hand at the U.S. Olympic Trials to watch Hansen take home first place in the 100.

    There is no doubt this race and this long-standing rivalry will be one to watch.

9. U.S. vs. Spain (Men's Basketball)

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    Statistically, calling this a rivalry might be a little bit of a reach, as the U.S. is clearly the more dominant basketball power. That said, if any world team can challenge the U.S. for gold, it will be the Spanish team.

    Though not loaded with professional superstars like the U.S., Spain has its share of talented players, including what looks to be a tough trio of the Gasol brothers and the Oklahoma City Thunder's Serge Ibaka. These three give Spain a huge size advantage over Team USA, which is a little weak underneath the basket without Dwight Howard.

    Since the U.S.'s cataclysmic failure in the 2004 Athens Games, the team has been nearly unbeatable. The one exception is the 2006 FIBA World Cup of Basketball, where Spain took home the gold to Team USA's bronze.

    Despite Spain's world title, the U.S. "Redeem Team" was still the overwhelming favorite to win the Olympic gold in Beijing. After cruising through their competition not dropping a game, the U.S. faced off against Spain in the gold-medal final.

    The U.S. ultimately went on to win, 118-107, but it was the closest game they played, as Spain fought hard and put up a strong fight.

    In 2010, the U.S. came back to dominate the World Championships, despite not one member of the Redeem Team being on the roster. It was this performance that showed the incredible depth the U.S. has.

    With injuries to key players, this depth has been important, as the U.S. is still considered the favorite to win the gold. Spain won't be easily defeated, though, as their depth and height advantages could give the U.S. all they can handle.

    Not much is certain, but if and when these two teams face off in the gold-medal match, it is sure to be one hard-fought game, as both teams have the talent and desire to bring home the gold medal.

8. Dalhausser-Rogers vs. Alison-Emanuel (Men's Beach Volleyball)

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    Ever since beach volleyball's addition to the Olympics in 1996, two countries have dominated the sport. Brazil, the home country of FIVB World Tour No. 1 team Emanuel Rego and Alison Cerutti, owns nine of the 24 medals given out. The United States, represented once again by Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, owns seven of these medals, five of which are gold.

    Once again in London, it looks like Brazil and the U.S. will dominate on the men's side of the sport. If in fact these two countries do dominate again, don't be surprised if the gold-medal match is between the aforementioned rivals.

    Emanuel, who is one of the best beach volleyball players of all time, is the only athlete to participate in each beach event held at the Olympics. In 2004, he and partner Ricardo Santos took home the gold, and in 2008 the pair finished in third. Emanuel has also won three World Championships, the most recent of which came last year with his new partner Alison Cerutti.

    Over the past few years, Dalhausser and Rogers have been the class of their sport. Winners of the 2008 gold medal in Beijing, 2007 World Championship and 2010 FIVB Swatch World Tour, this pair has been a great combination.

    It has been these two teams that have really dominated the world circuit ever since 2007, and they will be contending for the gold. Although Dalhausser and Rogers lead the head-to-head, both teams are incredibly competitive and could cause each other some trouble if they face off during their Olympic run.

7. Qiu Bo vs. Tom Daley (Men's Diving)

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    Diving may not be at the top of your list of most exciting Olympic sports to watch, but when it comes to rivalries, the one between teen sensations Tom Daley of England and Qiu Bo of China is going to be one that you don't want to miss.

    The 19-year-old Chinese diving sensation anchors a team that looks poised to sweep the gold-medal podium in London, something they came just short of in Beijing. It's notable that the event China failed to win the gold in—the 10-meter platform men's event—is the event in which Bo specializes.

    Bo's rise to the top has been popularized in his native China. To the rest of the world, however, he was just another diver. All of that changed when he absolutely annihilated his competition in the 2011 World Championships, the competition where Tom Daley finished fifth. Bo recorded 24 perfect "10s" in the meet and ran away with the title after posting over 600 points throughout the rounds.

    As the Olympic diving begins, Tom Daley is really the only person that even has a shot to keep this man from the Olympic gold. Daley, just 18 years old, is one of England's best hopes for a medal. He is the only one who has beaten Bo in international competition, which he did at the 2009 World Championships.

    Although others such as American David Boudia are expected to contend for a spot on the podium, that spot is likely going to be third place. Bo and Daley are the clear favorites to take home gold and silver, respectively. Regardless of how the final results turn out, expect to see some spectacular diving from the two as they jostle for position and Olympic glory.

6. Japan vs. China (Men's Gymnastics)

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    There has been one dominant gymnastics power since the early 2000s, and that is the Chinese national team. Winners of every World Championship since 2003 and all but one Olympic gold during that time, it seemed that there was no more sure thing than China repeating as gold medalists in London.

    All of that changed when Japan, a relatively new gymnastics power, began to produce solid showings on the international stage back in 2009, when two of their gymnasts finished in the top four in the all-around at the World Championships. Kohei Uchimura, Japan's budding new star, took home the individual all-around gold medal.

    Japan contested a tightly-fought event at the 2011 World Championships, the first event where team finals were held since the Beijing Games. Although they finished with a silver, the Japanese team fought hard, keeping it close up until the final few events, when China pulled away and netted a two-point win.

    Although Japan is just starting to assemble the teams needed to knock off the world power that is China, it seems that, in a few short years, it will be Japan dominating the circuits. They have the gymnasts and the skills to get it done.

    China's status as gold-medal favorites isn't going to stop Japan. If there is any team besides perhaps the dark-horse U.S. squad that has a chance to challenge for gold, it will be Japan. Unlike the United States, however, Japan actually has a pretty realistic shot.

5. U.S. vs. China (Women's Gymnastics)

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    It was the most heartbreaking moment for the U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team when Alicia Sacramone erred on her signature event, the balance beam, costing the Americans what should have been a team gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games.

    Instead, the gold went to the heavily-favored Chinese team, who had an extremely strong and consistent showing throughout the entire event.

    Entering 2012, however, it is the U.S. who is favored in London. They are the current world champions and have a team that does not have a true weakness in any of the apparatuses. China, on the other hand, had a disappointing showing, finishing seven points behind the U.S. and in third place.

    Coming into the Olympics, the depth at U.S. trials proved just how tough the team will be to beat and how hard they will fight to win the gold. China is a also a strong team, but they have yet to pull it together as a team ever since the 2008 Olympics.

    Just like Japan and China have developed a fierce rivalry on the men's side, the U.S. and China have been a part of their own rivalry ever since the tournaments leading up to the Beijing Games.  

    Since both of these teams are incredibly strong, it will likely come down to who brings their all and leaves nothing on the table. Just like in 2008, when a U.S. slip that cost them gold, and in 2011, when a lackluster performance by the Chinese nearly kept them off the podium, these teams are going to have to avoid simple mistakes if they want to be Olympic champions.

4. Veronica Campbell-Brown vs. Allyson Felix (Women's Track & Field)

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    Beginning at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown and America's Allyson Felix have been engaged in an eight-year rivalry. Stemming from World Championships to two Olympics, Felix and Campbell-Brown are constantly trying to best one another, which in most cases leads to championship glory.

    The fact that this rivalry has been long-standing is a testament that both of these woman are at the top of their sport. Constantly competing against each other on the circuit, both Felix and Campbell-Brown understand just how difficult the other is in the 200-meter dash.

    Currently, Felix holds three world championship golds to Campbell-Brown's one. Campbell-Brown's gold, however, came in the most recent World Championships, where she barely edged out her rival for the victory and got revenge for Felix's close win two years earlier. Campbell-Brown also has the edge over Felix, as she is the two-time Olympic gold medalist, whereas her rival has yet to win her first individual gold.

    Coming into London, both women seem more dedicated and fit than ever. Felix dropped the 400 from her program to focus on winning gold in the 200, and Campbell-Brown is having a great season internationally.

    Unlike in the past, at the London Olympics, Felix and Campbell-Brown will be fighting for gold in both the 100 and 200. With two races on the docket and two stellar runners both trying to make their mark on the Games, the rivalry will no doubt play out better than ever before. 

3. Usain Bolt vs. Yohan Blake (Men's Track & Field)

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    Up until late this year, Usain Bolt had been the undisputed fastest man in the history of the world. Not only was he the winner of the gold medal in both the 100 and the 200, but he was and still is the world-record holder in both events.

    Bolt is the fastest man in the world according to the record books, but according to recent meet results, including the 2011 World Championship and 2012 Jamaican Olympic Trials, he is not even the fastest man in his home country. That honor belongs to the 22-year-old Yohan Blake.

    Blake has long been Bolt's training partner and good friend, but he was never really a competitor or a rival until this year. When track and field analysts talked about who could beat Bolt, there were really only two names in the conversation: Tyson Gay of the U.S., who was the only man to beat Bolt since the 2008 Olympics, and fellow Jamaican Asafa Powell. 

    As the past few meets have shown, however, the young Blake is for real. 

    It all started at the 2011 World Championships, when Blake beat Gay and Powell to win the title. Bolt had been previously disqualified for a false start, and as part of track and field's new no-tolerance false start policy, it eliminated him from medal contention.

    Although Blake got the win, it was still in question whether or not he could beat Bolt head-to-head. Relishing the challenge, Blake, who has since been the apprentice to his Jamaican mentor, defeated Bolt in both of his signature races.

    Blake posts a career-best 9.75 seconds for the 100 and 19.26 seconds for the 200. Both are a far cry from Bolt's record-shattering numbers, but this season Bolt has not run close to his best times. With Blake right on his tail, Bolt will need to give it his all to defend his gold medal—something everyone was prepared to just hand to him.

2. Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer (Men's Tennis)

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    Over the past few years, almost every tennis tournament has held to form. The "Big Three" of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have dominated the international circuit in every competition in which they have played. In the four majors especially, the last person outside of this threesome to win a major was Juan Martin Del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open.

    The three of them have created an intense tennis rivalry, and it looked like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic would once again be battling for top honors in the Olympics. As it turns out, however, the field is short one defending gold medalist, as Rafael Nadal will not be participating in London.

    Without Nadal to stand in the way, the rivalry between Federer and Djokovic, which is one of the greatest rivalries of the Open Era, will likely once again play out.

    Overall, Federer and Djokovic have faced off against each other 27 times, with the former leading 15-12. In Grand Slams, the 11 times they have met up is the most by any two players in tennis history. Federer also leads these meetings, 6-5.

    Although Federer leads Djokovic in the overall numbers of the rivalry, most of these numbers were one-sided until recently, when Djokovic began to take these meetings and turn them into a true tennis rivalry.

    Besides Nadal, Djokovic is the only player to defeat Federer in consecutive Grand Slams and the only player to have double-digit wins against him. Djokovic is also the only player in history to defeat Federer in straight sets three times at Grand Slams.

    Federer has also had his moments in this rivalry, as he was the one to put an end to Djokovic's 41-0 start to the 2011 season. He also defeated him in the semifinals of the 2012 Wimbledon en route to his seventh title.

    Regardless of how things have played out in the past, it is certain that these two are committed to winning the gold and will fight hard to advance their way through the tournament. Although the top seeds have not fared well in recent Olympics, this is a different breed of tennis.

    If any two players can change the mold, it is Federer and Djokovic.

1. Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte (Men's Swimming)

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    And there's Phelps and Lochte.

    Heading into London, the rivalry between these two Olympic swimmers has not only been fierce, but it has also been incredibly prominent. From the U.S. to the U.K., all eyes are on these two swimmers, who offer the best rivalry to follow in the 2012 London Games.

    If this is the first time you are hearing of the rivalry between Michael Phelps, the winningest swimmer of all time, and Ryan Lochte, his U.S. teammate, competitor and the man that has been living in his shadow since Beijing, then clearly you are living under a rock.

    The Phelps-Lochte rivalry has been all that people can talk about ever since the two had their first post-Olympic faceoff, a meet that saw Lochte finally beat the gold-medal-winning Olympian.

    After Beijing, Lochte began to work harder. He took his training more seriously and ultimately saw better results in the pool. In the years following the 2008 Olympics, Lochte became the best swimmer in the world, setting numerous world records and winning several meets and World Championships.

    Phelps took a few years off after Beijing but was ready to return to the pool just in time to prepare for the U.S. Nationals and Olympic Trials. After being beaten by Lochte at the 2011 World Championships, Phelps realized that his U.S. competitor was going to be the one to beat in London. He came into the U.S. Olympic Trials with a renewed sense of purpose and, after losing his first race to Lochte, came back to win the next two head-to-head matchups.

    In London, Phelps will be tackling seven events, while Lochte is slated to swim in five, maybe six. Two of the events—team relays—could see the two on the same side of the coin, working to bring the U.S. yet another relay gold. Two other events, however—the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys—will put these two to the ultimate test.

    Four years ago, the podium was simple for these two events: Lochte would get the silver; Phelps the gold. This year, however, it is anyone's guess who will stand atop the Olympic podium. Both are just about neck-and-neck, as they will be in their Olympic races.

    Phelps got one of his eight golds in a relay in which both he and Lochte swam, when their teammate out-touched the French opponent by a mere fingertip, the equivalent of a hundredth of a second. In London, if it is even possible, Phelps and Lochte's races could be even closer than that.

    If any two competitors can put on an electric battle, it is these two. That is why their rivalry will be absolutely can't-miss in London.