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BEIJING 2008 : HELENE ELLIOTT

Like all Games, the stage is set for history

August 08, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

BEIJING -- At every Olympics an athlete or team emerges to define the Games, for better or for worse -- and forever.

The face of the Beijing Games could turn out to be Liu Xiang, who has carried China's hopes on his shoulders every day since his lunging finish earned him the gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles in Athens.

Yao Ming, the first Chinese basketball player to find major success in the NBA and the host nation's chosen flag bearer in today's opening ceremony, also will be among the most watched and recognized athletes here.

But the faces best remembered after these Games could very well be very young.

The skill and charm of Chinese gymnasts He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan are indisputable, but the legitimacy of the birth dates on their passports is questionable. According to national registration lists that have appeared -- and disappeared -- from various websites, both girls may be 14 instead of the minimum age of 16, giving them flexibility and fearlessness in a sport that rewards both traits.

Over the next 16 days we will see athletes whose Games end soon after they start, eliminated in a preliminary heat or first-round match, their participation here constituting a personal triumph.

We will meet others whose excellence and exertion carry them close to a gold medal, leaving the length of a pool or the 4-inch width of a balance beam between them and athletic immortality.

If we're lucky, someone will produce a transcendent moment that will match Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj's valiantly winning the 1,500 in Athens after years of trying, a feat that measures up to Kerri Strug's brave vault on a terribly injured ankle at Atlanta in 1996 or creates chills the way Australian Cathy Freeman did when she ran the race of her life and won the 400 at Sydney.

Inevitably, we will meet some cheaters, the ugly faces of the Games.

Ben Johnson's positive steroid test after he won the 100-meter dash at Seoul remains the lasting memory of the 1988 Games. Since then, every extraordinary performance on the track has, by necessity, been viewed through a veil of skepticism.

Marion Jones, the golden girl of Sydney for her five-medal performance, was surrounded by doping suspicions four years later but was defiant about her innocence. She left Athens empty-handed and in tears, though nothing like the tears she shed this year when she was sentenced to six months in jail for lying to federal authorities about her drug use and participating in a check-fraud scheme.

The faces and performances we remember most clearly might depend on who we are and where we live.

For most Americans, the face of the Games will be swimmer Michael Phelps, whose pursuit of a record eight gold medals will begin Saturday.

If he goes eight for eight and breaks Mark Spitz's single-Olympics standard, he's a huge story. If he doesn't win his five individual events and three relays, he still will be a story, unfairly labeled a failure.

Either way, his quest is likely to overshadow fellow swimmer Katie Hoff's attempt to win six gold medals.

Gymnasts Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, the former so dynamic and the latter so lithe and elegant, have the potential to become marquee performers while they twist and tumble their way into the hearts of TV viewers -- and onto the front of Wheaties boxes on the shelves of American supermarkets.

Much of the rest of the world will be engrossed by the sprinters and the promise of great rivalries in the two shortest races.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt, who considers himself a 200-meter specialist but set a world record of 9.72 seconds in the 100 in May, could run off with four gold medals if whispers about his selection to the 1,600-meter relay team are true. Three wouldn't be a bad haul, from the 100-200 double and the 400-meter relay.

U.S. Olympic trials champion Tyson Gay and fellow Jamaican Asafa Powell, the former world-record holder, stand in Bolt's way in the 100. In the 200, watch for powerfully built Walter Dix, the only U.S. man attempting the sprint double, to spoil Bolt's party.

No one is more capable of providing memorable moments than distance runners, whose stoicism will be tested if the oppressive heat and humidity continue to make breathing a challenge here.

Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele is expected to defend the 10,000-meter title he won at Athens and try to improve on his silver-medal finish there in the 5,000. He's the world-record holder at both distances. His compatriot, Tirunesh Dibaba, set a world record in the women's 5,000 this year and will attempt a 5,000-10,000 double if the conditions permit, a challenge well worth watching.

Anyone among the thousands of athletes who march into National Stadium during today's opening ceremony may be carried there in triumph when the Games end Aug. 24. Let the Games begin, best foot -- and best face -- forward.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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