One last look at the Beijing Games

My original plan was to write about how Bob Costas has morphed into the Dick Clark of sports broadcasting as well as how NBC’s Olympic coverage was xenophobic, shallow and insulting to one’s intelligence.

I was going to do that, but I figured I’ve been there already. No sense retracing my steps.

Besides, there are far smarter people who have written far more eloquently about matters than I could have. Jason Whitlock, writing for Fox Sports had a similar idea as me in that he believes NBC blew it by not offering the competition live. He also sends a warning – as I have – that all of the traditional media ought to wake up in regard to the changing media dynamic.

Who knows, it might even be too late.

Additionally, Gary Kamiya of Salon.com, wrote about how much of a letdown it was not to see “traditional” Olympic sports on TV. NBC virtually ignored track and field, which are the essence of the games.

Actually, NBC chose to ignore track and field – and most other events, too – because they did not fit into its broadcast plan devised way back when Beijing was awarded the games in 2001. According to a story in The New York Times, NBC and IOC chairman, Jacques Rogge, worked together to finagle the schedule of swimming events so that they could be aired during prime time in the United States. But before doing so, Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC sports, had to run the plan the network and IOC past one person:

Michael Phelps.

When was the last time the commissioner of baseball asked a player what time he wanted the games to start? How about the president of ESPN or Fox checking with Jimmy Rollins to see what time would be best to put the game on TV?

Answer: never.

But NBC was so hungry for ratings and the IOC so complicit to make the network happy that they were OK with a TV network setting the agenda at the most prestigious athletic competition on the planet.

Nothing was going to interrupt NBC’s vision for how the Olympics should look. That was the case when an American was killed at the Drum Tower and when political, envornmental and social questions came up regarding China. Instead, NBC dispatched its reporters out to sample some wacky food, like scorpions.

Imagine that, they eat different food in China. Good story.

So when Usain Bolt sprinted onto the scene and suddenly, like lightning, became the face of the Olympics – the unadultered, non-sponsored International star – well, NBC wasn’t having that.

To NBC, Usain Bolt did not turn in the most otherworldly performances in Olympic history. He was a party crasher. Didn’t he get the memo that Michael Phelps was the star?

To knock him down a peg, NBC lapdog Jacques Rogge claimed Bolt’s celebrations were unsportsmanlike (Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post nails it). Costas waded into the fray, too, echoing the IOC boss’ complaints. However, when Phelps pounded his chest, flexed, screamed and posed after several of his victories, they said nothing. Actually, Bob and the gang fawned all over their White Knight and wanted you to do the same.

Please ignore that man running faster than anyone else in history of the world. That has nothing to do with us.

Interestingly, Costas and Rogge sat down for an wide-ranging interview that was divided into three segments where the IOC head was asked all the trenchant questions. But since Rogge’s answers were so nuanced and in-depth, that NBC reasoned there was no way it could be shown to a prime-time audience. Instead, portions of the interview were shown during the gold-medal basketball game, which was one of the network’s few non-Phelps live events. Tip off was 2:30 a.m.

Even some of the former Olympic greats in Beijing backed off when asked about Bolt’s epic performances. In the instance of Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic medalist, it had nothing to do with TV, networks or overt agendas. But it had everything to do with corporations.

When asked for his thoughts on Bolt becoming the first man to win the sprint double in the Olympics since he did it in 1984, Lewis demurred with a nod to his sugar daddy:

“He’s a Puma guy. I really can’t say anything,” Lewis said “I said something the other day and the Nike people saw it and they weren’t happy.”

Join the club.

Nevertheless, to the rest of the world and for those not influenced by NBC Chinese-government-esque agenda, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were one hell of a track meet. Bolt clearly stole the show and become – to most – the face of the games, but the Jamaican prodigy had some competition.

After Bolt (and Phelps) here are the performances I will remember the most from the 2008 Games:

Sammy Wanjiru sprinting wire-to-wire to win the marathon
OK, he didn’t sprint, per se. But the 21-year-old Wanjiru ran the first mile in 4:41 and didn’t slow down until he shook off all challengers to set an Olympic-record (2:06:32) and to become the first Kenyan to win gold in the Olympic marathon.

The thing that makes Wanjiru’s run so amazing wasn’t exactly the time. After all, Wanjiru set the world record in the half marathon with a 58:53 in 2007 and ran 2:05:24 in April at the London Marathon – just his second attempt at the distance.

No, what was amazing about Wanjiru’s run was the fact that he kept his pace even though the temperature in Beijing rose to 80 degrees while the humidity held steady over 70 percent under sunny skies. Anyone who has ever run in the summertime when the humidity is over 50 percent knows it’s pretty damn difficult. But to run routine 4:40 miles over and over again in such conditions coupled with the stress of the deepest field ever assembled for an Olympic Marathon is more than impressive.

Sitting at home and watching the spotty coverage on television, I shook my head in disbelief figuring Wanjiru had set off on a suicide mission at his pace. Apparently, I wasn’t alone – Wanjiru’s competitors thought the same thing.

“I was running three minutes per kilometer,” said Ryan Hall, the U.S. champion who finished a minute behind Wanjiru in London last April, but 10th in 2:12:33 in the Olympics. “That was plenty fast.

“It was insane,” said Hall of the pace in the heat. “You’re just hoping the crowd will come back – hoping that guys will drop out or something.”

Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished first amongst the three-man U.S. team in ninth place in 2:11:59, also impressed.

“To run 2:06 in this is incredible,” Ritzenhein said. “He’s a very young guy. He’s going to be an incredible marathoner.”

“I thought I had a chance at a medal, and tried to put myself in it early,” he said. “But I looked at the clock at 5k and we were already out at, I think, 14:55. I knew if I kept that up, that I wouldn’t be finishing.”

The Redeem Team gets back the gold
I actually stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to watch the U.S. play Spain in basketball for the gold medal. The plan was to watch the game until it got out of hand and then I would trudge off to bed knowing that the U.S.A. was again the Olympic champion in basketball.

It was a solid plan, I felt, because the U.S., led by one-name stars Kobe and LeBron as well as Dwyane Wade, had been chewing off the faces of every team it had faced in the tournament. Earlier in the week the Kobe, LeBron and the gang beat Spain by 37, which meant my plan was solid.

But instead of getting to bed by halftime, I was up until the team stepped on the podium to get the gold medal.

So much for my plan, huh?

Regardless, it was pretty cool to see a team of NBA players engaged in the Olympics for a change. Though Kobe had begged off in the past, he said all the correct things and filled an important team-centric role. It was very cool.

Even cooler was when the players slipped their medals around coach Mike Krzyzewski’s neck. Coaches don’t get medals in the Olympics and the tribute to the guy who kept the team together and motivated was quite touching.

On another note… how about that game against Spain? Every time it looked as if the U.S. was about to flip the switch and end it, Spain came back with some crazy rally spurred by some wild offense.

In that regard, it was kind of worth it to stay up so late… or early.

Other moments of greatness:

  • Constantina Diṭă-Tomescu, the 38-year-old Romanian runner from Boulder, Colo., ran away from the pack to be a bit of a surprise winner in the women’s marathon. Inexplicably, when Tomescu made her move, no one else gave chase. The result was an cake walk in 2:26:44.

The thing that made this race so significant wasn’t the victory by Tomescu – she has won big races in the past. The neat part was that a 38-year-old runner is the Olympic champ. For those of us quickly approaching the latter part of our 30s, 38-year-old gold medal runners from Boulder are always cool.

  • Misty May-Treanor/Kerri Walsh in the gold medal beach volleyball game played during a downpour turned into a veritable wet t-shirt contest. I’m not sure about the legitimacy of beach volleyball as an Olympic sport, but I do get why NBC chose to show this one live.
  • Bryan Clay’s victory in the decathlon used to mean a shot at the Wheeties box, or, at the very least, a Reebok ad a la “Dan and Dave.” This time around it means the decathlon and Clay come out of obscurity for a moment or two.

Heck, Clay even appeared on NPR on Tuesday.

  • The U.S. sweep in the 400-meters, particularly LaShawn Merritt’s victory over defending champ, Jeremy Wariner. Those two runners have created quite and interesting, back-and-forth rivalry lately with Merritt winning six of the last 11 meetings. That tally should even out if the pair go head-to-head in European track circuit this summer.
  • Shalane Flanagan winning the bronze in the 10,000-meters on the first day of the track program was an apt achievement for a runner quickly moving up the all-time best charts in U.S. running. With an American record in the Olympics, Flanagan is the fastest American ever in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000-meters. Better yet, some believe her best event might be the marathon. Look for her to move up by 2012.
  • The Ethiopian doubles in the distance events was pretty spectacular, especially Kenenisa Bekele’s victory in the 10k. Though the great Haile Gebrselassie made the race by serving as a highly decorated rabbit for his countryman, Bekele went on to set Olympic records in the 5,000 and 10,000-meters and was the first double champ since Lasse Viren in 1972 and 1976.

Fellow Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba set the Olympic record with a blistering 10k for gold, but then showed some range in the 5,000 in a ridiculously tactical race. In fact, Dibaba’s winning time for the gold in the 5,000 wouldn’t have won a lot of local weekend road races. Still, it’s doubtful Dibaba would have lost any race in Beijing regardless of the pacing.

Disappointments

  • Tyson Gay – Amazingly, a sprinter some picked to win gold over Usain Bolt (who knew?) failed to qualify for the finals in the 100-meters.
  • Bernard Lagat – Looking to bring home a gold for the U.S. in the 1,500-meters for the first time since 1908, Lagat, a past Olympic medalist and defending world champion, failed to qualify for the finals. In the 5,000-meter finals Lagat couldn’t match Bekele’s blazing finishing pace to come in ninth place.
  • U.S. 4×100 team – can’t drop the stick in the heats, folks.

Anyway, that’s it for now. Hopefully we can do this in London for the 2012 games from a closer vantage point.

The big debate: Bolt or Phelps?

Almost since the hundredth of a second after Usain Bolt crossed the line of the 200-meters and entered Olympic history, the argument started. In fact, I started fielding the questions and e-mails about it as soon as word trickled out from Beijing about Bolt’s explosion in the 200-meters.

The question:

Which is more significant in Olympic history – Usain Bolt winning the 100 and 200-meters and obliterating the world record in both events, or Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals in eight events in the swimming competition?

It was an easy question and one that I didn’t put too much thought into.

“Bolt,” was my knee-jerk answer and I just left it at that.

Mostly, my answer was based on my own biases. Track and running is far and away my most favorite sport and easily the most exciting. Actually, I just received a message from a writer covering the Olympics in Beijing in which I was officially proclaimed, “The Duke of Running Dorkdom.”

It’s a proud honor.

Nevertheless, I thought about the comparison between Bolt and Phelps on the drive back to The Lanc last night and came to the conclusion that the argument is odious. There is no way to quantify the two sports simple because they are so different. Sure, athletes in running and swimming go anaerobic for significant amounts of time. Fitness and training is the cornerstone of being good at both sports. However, one is non-impact and in the other the athlete takes a beating.

I don’t know about swimming mostly because it always seemed like a bit of a country club sport to me (maybe I’m wrong), but it doesn’t seem as if there are many injuries outside of sloppy training issues. For instance, overtraining and fatigue are probably the biggest culprits that could derail a swimmer’s career.

But in running everyone will get injured at one point or another. Guaranteed. If you train to run you will get injured at some point in your career.

This is not to compare which one is tougher. That’s odious, too. Besides, whenever I get in the pool I sink right to the bottom. I’m about as buoyant as a brick and that makes swimming difficult. But in terms of significance and the event that will have the most impact on its sport, I’m sticking right there with Usain.

Firstly, Bolt’s double was a Neil Armstrong moment. The fastest any human had ever run the 100 meters was 9.69 by Obadale Thompson in 1996, but that record was thrown out because a significant tailwind had pushed the sprinters to the finish line. When Bolt ran his 9.69 in Beijing last Saturday, he was the second slowest runner out of the blocks and then shut it down over the last five strides of the race so he could celebrate.

Bolt had built such a devastating lead over the rest of the Olympic field that he had time to look back to see if anyone was gaining on him. In a race decided by tenths of a second, such a notion is absurd – especially in a race where the best runners in the world are present.

Ato Boldon, a track commentator for NBC and four-time Olympic medalist in the 100 and 200 meters said Bolt could have broken 9.6 if he had run to completion.

It was otherworldly.

“You have people who are exceptions,” said Stephen Francis, the coach of Bolt’s main Jamaican rival, Asafa Powell, the former 100 world-record holder. “You have Einstein. You have Isaac Newton. You have Beethoven. You have Usain Bolt. It’s not explainable how and what they do.”

Bolt ran to completion in the 200 and the result was the same. However, this time Bolt smashed a record that most track aficionados thought would never be broken – or at least not broken in just 12 years. When Michael Johnson ran 19.32 in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics, it was viewed as a man-on-the-moon moment. No one had come closer than 19.62 before or since Johnson stunned the world.

In calling the action on TV, Boldon screamed about how he could not believe that he just saw the one record he believed was untouchable, torn apart. Watching the race as a commentator for the BBC, Johnson celebrated along with 90,000 in the Olympic Stadium. Not only had Johnson seen his record beaten, but also Bolt had run into a headwind to do it.

At its essence, Bolt’s feat was a transcendent sports moment. It was the “Shot heard ‘round the world.”

“It’s ridiculous,” said Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis, who finished sixth in the race. “How fast can you go before the world record can’t be broke? How fast can the human being go before there’s no more going fast?”

People thought the same thing when Johnson ran 19.32 in Atlanta.

“I didn’t think I’d see under 19.30 in my lifetime,” said Renaldo Nehemiah, a former gold medalist in the 100 hurdles for the United States. “[Bolt is] doing something we’ve never seen before.”

Phelps, with the jingoist coverage of NBC promoting his every move (not his fault), took advantage of the technological advances in his sport to one-up Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in 1972. Some have called the new swimming suits and the scientifically-engineered pool in Beijing, “technological doping.” In fact, even Spitz points out that if there were the same amount of events in 1972 that exist now, he would have won more than seven gold medals.

Though he appears to be the best swimmer, Phelps did not look invincible during the Olympics. Perhaps in another time without the cameras and technology draped over every angle and inch of the Olympic pool, Phelps might have been awarded the silver in the 100-meter butterfly that he won by .01. Or if his relay anchor had swum just .01 slower Phelps would have bagged an early silver while watching from poolside.

Not to diminish the feat – especially since he swam in 17 preliminaries and finals to get his eight medals – but Phelps had some luck on his side.

Bolt left no doubt.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, the cultural significance of Bolt’s show in Beijing can’t be understated. Though NBC downplayed Bolt’s races, showing them some 13 hours after they occurred and then offering just one replay, the rest of the world was tuned in live and celebrating right along with the Jamaicans. Part of that is because track and field is wildly popular in the rest of the world and part of it is because NBC doesn’t get it.

Regardless, thanks to Bolt and the rest of the Jamaican sprinters that piled up the medals on the track in Beijing, the tiny island country is galvanized. Jamaica is a poor island country of just 2.8 million people with a high crime and poverty rate. As a result, the most popular sports are the ones that don’t require a lot of expensive equipment.

Running, the most egalitarian of sports, is clearly where the Jamaicans are best. In fact, three of the top five best times in the 100- meters have been run by Jamaican-born athletes. Meanwhile, three out of the last five Olympic champions in the 100 have been born in Jamaica.

This time around, Jamaica has won eight medals on the track.

In the U.S., Phelps is undoubtedly one of the most popular athletes. However, will his popularity last when the NFL season hits its stride? Is Phelps’ popularity to a level that teems of kids are asking their parents for memberships to the aquatic club in order to train to be the next Michael Phelps?

Probably not. Take what Olympic scholar, Kyle Whelliston wrote on his site, Swifter Higher:

No matter what Jacques Rogge says on Sunday night, these are not the Greatest Games Ever, Dream Games, or even Spectacular Games. The International Olympic Committee awards a nation and city the right to carve out a place for a temporary Olympia every four years, and no government has accomplished this as destructively and as cruelly as China. Thousands have been displaced to create these stadiums, and countless numbers of citizens have been detained and killed in the name of Olympic security.

But this is just another chapter — the twenty-ninth — in the history of the modern Games, and it’s certainly not the first time the Olympics have fallen short of its goal to better the world through sport. But the local and national governments have tackled the problem of hosting this festival in an unprecedentedly negative and destructive way, nearly always at odds with the high human ideals of the original founders. Beijing 2008 will always be remembered as a show of brutal strength.

To me, Usain Bolt is the true center and defining face of these Olympics. Not Michael Phelps, who had promised to show us something we’ve never seen before. The thing is that we have seen this before — the white American hero who conquers the world and takes home all the prizes.

This time, though, it comes during an era when the U.S. has a tragic misunderstanding of the East, a damaged global reputation due to its own government’s bloody conquests, as well as an economy dangerously dependent on foreign credit. Phelps’ eight gold medals are little else than a distraction, pleasant nostalgia of easier times for those who don’t want to accept 21st Century reality. Underneath all the forced politeness, the Olympic host country is America’s mortal enemy — and a formidable loan shark in the making.

Amidst all this, a happy young man from an island nation who rewrote the books of records and rules, here in the miniature and insignificant world of athletic achievement. Sure, this is a lot to be made of people running around a rubber track, but maybe Usain Bolt can represent a symbolic ray of hope.

Maybe on a larger scale, there are still some new solutions to be found for old problems.

In Jamaica, a country seen by outsiders only from the resorts, the celebration for the 22-year-old Bolt is just getting warmed up.

So which man feat is the most remarkable? Who knows. But don’t doubt that Bolt’s runs were more significant.

Bolt smashes World Record… or did he?

I will be posting women’s marathon updates on the Twitter page. Race starts at 7:30 p.m. U.S. Eastern.

Nearly three hours after Tyson Gay had un-triumphantly pulled off one of the biggest Olympic flops since Dan & Dave of the Reebok ads in 1992, and an hour after Usain Bolt ran the fastest a human being as ever run for 100 meters, NBC decided it was a good time to run its first advertisement/feature hyping the 100-meter showdown between Gay and Bolt.

Gay was “quietly fierce” and determined to bring gold home for the ol’ U.S.A. He talked about how his sister had inspired him to run and how he loves to sign autographs for fans because athletic careers are short and one day no one is going to ask.

It was very sweet and, no, that’s not sarcasm. How often do we ever hear about athletes that enjoy all the trappings of their celebrity?

Nevertheless, the Gay-Bolt hype felt a lot like reading last week’s newspaper… or worse. Actually, it felt insulting as if NBC were pretending that we all live in caves that are wired just for cable TV. To NBC, nothing else exists beyond what they beam out for air.

Frankly, it’s a lot like the offerings the Chinese government transmits through its state-run TV networks, which, incidentally, anyone can watch live on the Internet at CCTV. Yeah, that’s right – Americans can watch Chinese television on the Internet, but not NBC.

How does that work?

Actually, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s quite mean. Yeah, it’s mean as if a big monolithic corporation once owned primarily by a group best known for making light bulbs and nuclear bombs were making fun of us. They’re taunting us nanny-nanny-boo-boo style as if they were the big bully on the playground.

But the worst-kept secret behind every bully is that they are insecure. The fear is right there on the surface, lurking around with nervous glances and irrational behavior. Because they can’t reason with the changing media dynamic (much like the majority of the newspaper business, incidentally) they throw punches and force feed things in the same, tired way. Sit still, be quiet and take whatever it is we give you, they say.

It’s mean.

The television is as much an anachronism as a newspaper. Sure, people still watch TV – they numbers bear that out. But people aren’t going to sit down at 8 p.m. because corporations like NBC tell them that’s when the show will be on. It doesn’t work that way anymore.

More importantly, if something occurs and NBC has the ability to air it live, it is their responsibility to do so. If they want to put on a basketball game on the TV because people are tied to their old habits, fine. Do it. But if a basketball game and a big track meet are taking place at the same time, it’s OK to put one on TV and the other on, say, the Internet. It’s OK to do that now. We all seem to understand how the Internet works and fits into the modern household. Let’s just stop pretending that that the message can only be delivered one way when there are many different methods of delivery.

This isn’t just about the Olympics coverage. Oh no. It goes for politics, news and everything else. If the whole world is watching, as they say, I want to know what they are looking at. I want the truth, not the script.

Instead, fans of certain sports are being forced to live in a parallel universe. It’s the bizarro world where what you might know didn’t really happen. It’s like the old “if a tree falls in the woods” bit except it’s more like, “if a guy runs the 100 in 9.69 and NBC doesn’t air it or stream it, did it happen?”

According to The New York Times, The Washington Post, ESPN, CNN, Pravda, Al Jazeera and any other organization in the world that claims to report news, it did. But, you know, they aren’t the rights’ holders. Those people – the people that own air – are letting you watch Chris Paul talk to Craig Sager about basketball.

Yeah, yeah, yeah… I know. It’s the same old argument every four years. Track fans (or fans of rowing, shooting, horse jumping, tae kwon do, etc., etc.) don’t get to see the events they like best. Instead it’s too much hype about Michael Phelps powering through the water from 1,629 different angles – all in high definition. Too much Misty May all sandy and sweaty with all that skin slowly slipping out of that skimpy, tight beach volleyball bikini – in high def. Too much of Bob Costas’ hair, meticulously groomed as if it were the actual Olympic Green – again, in high def.

Bring back the TripleCast. Give us pay-per-view because the Olympics happen once every four years and it’s cheaper to own a TV than travel to China.

But come on. Give us something. Sure, NBC is streaming a lot of events – tons actually. However they only show it if they can’t package it or only after it aired on one of the handful of NBC-owned networks. Things like the track & field card were not only aired on television until at least 12 hours after it occurred, but also not streamed. For instance, the women’s 10,000-meters finals (a big event for track geeks, especially since Shalane Flanagan won bronze) went off at 10:15 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time on Friday, but was not shown in the U.S. until approximately 1 a.m. on Saturday morning.

What, were they trying to get the smallest audience possible?

I get it. Track is not very popular in the U.S. (something I don’t get, but that’s me), but at least give us an option. Charge us $10 to watch a full slate of a specific event. Give us something.

Hell, even throw in the commercials, we’ll take ’em. We’re desperate. Look, we know the reason NBC won’t put certain events on the Internet is because they are afraid of the truth – they are afraid that TV is quickly heading in very much the same direction that newspaper business finds itself. They’re afraid of how good the numbers on the Internet coverage will be. They’re afraid that viewers will make the switch and never come back. The Internet gives just too much portability, responsibility and power to the viewer. Imagine, someone can lug around a laptop or a cell phone or an iPod or a PDA and watch the Olympics. Come on, imagine it.

But oh, no, no, no… not on NBC’s watch. Not if they can help it. Not if they can tell you one thing and show you another.

Plus, the network sold the TV air time. Coke, Visa, McDonalds, AT&T, Budweisser and all of the major sponsors want their shiny, over-produced ads superimposed on Michael Phelps’ Speedo as he swims to another gold medal – in high def. Maybe the execs at the big advertisers are just like their counterparts at the networks in that they are too old for the new demographic. They don’t get this new-fangled techie stuff. Why in their day they had 12 channels and rabbit ears and they liked it that way. They prefer things the way they used to be.

You will watch what they tell you when they tell you…

But not for long.

Looking past Phelps: The epic Finger Food Olympic track preview

edited Aug. 14 @ 2:34 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time
edited Aug. 16 @ 4:58 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time

The Olympics has been a huge ratings bonanza for NBC and its web site, NBCOlympics.com. Certainly there are a lot of reasons for this such as the common sports fans’ disinterest in regular-season baseball and pre-season football; actual live coverage of big events, and of course all of the drama.

Certainly it doesn’t hurt to have Michael Phelps chasing Olympic history during the first week of the coverage. Nor does it hurt to have a rare interview with the President of the United States in China on a Sunday night in the summertime.

It’s almost as if NBC has a captive audience.

Nevertheless, it seems as if the schedule will break nicely for NBC because after the swimming winds down, the track & field programme will start this Thursday night in the Eastern Time Zone.

Needless to say there will be some huge differences in the competition in the swimming and track events. Aside from the obvious (one has water the other just sweat), the actual elements of Beijing will become a factor. While world-records fall in nearly every heat in the swimming programme because of the turbo-charged pool and technological advances of the sport, the runners on the track will be attempting to beat the heat.

And when the heat and humidity come into play, running becomes a war of attrition.

So when Michael Phelps wraps up his assault on the record books, NBC will have Tyson Gay, Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell in the 100-meter preliminaries beginning at 9:45 p.m. on Thursday.

If it isn’t enough to have the glamour event of track & field front and center on Day 1, the glamour event for distance geeks also gets going with the opening round qualifiers for the mile. Americans Bernard Lagat, a contender for the gold, as well as Lopez Lomong, the flag bearer for Team U.S.A. during the Opening Ceremonies, will be in action.

With the weather expected to turn warm this weekend in Beijing, the heat, humidity and air quality will be fairly significant. According to AccuWeather, the runners can expect temperatures in the 90s on Friday with a high UV index and humidity reaching over 60 percent. Fortunately, when the women toe the line in the 10,000-metre finals at 10:45 p.m. Beijing time, the cover of night should cool things down a bit.

It will be humid on Sunday morning (Saturday night for the U.S.) for the women’s marathon, though. Certainly, the women’s race will be a good chance for everyone to see just how much the pollution, fog, smog or whatever else they call it in Beijing, truly affects the athletes.

Anyway, here’s a little primer for the track events of the Beijing Olympiad, complete with short synopsis and predictions.

Hell, if Sports Illustrated can do it, why can’t I?

Women
(all times and dates are for the U.S. Eastern Time Zone)

100-meters
(Sunday, Aug. 17 – 10:25 a.m.)
With defending World Champion Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica not in the race, this one is poised to be a U.S. sweep.

1.)    Muna Lee, U.S.A.
2.)    Torri Edwards, U.S.A.
3.)    Lauryn Williams, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Shelly-Ann Fraser, Jamaica
Silver: Sherone Simpson, Jamaica
Bronze: Kerrone Stewart, Jamaica

200-meters
(Thursday, Aug. 21 – 9:10 a.m.)
Undoubtedly this will be hyped as the duel between Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown and American Allyson Felix. In Athens Campbell-Brown won gold and Felix got silver. During the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Felix got gold and Campbell-Brown took silver. Whose turn is it in Beijing?

1.)    Veronica Campbell-Brown, Jamaica
2.)    Allyson Felix, U.S.A.
3.)    Kerron Stewart, Jamaica

Results
Gold: Campbell-Brown, Jamaica
Silver: Felix, U.S.A.
Bronze: Stewart, Jamaica

400-meters
(Tuesday, Aug. 19 – 10:10 a.m.)
Jamaican-born, U.S.-raised Sanya Richards has a lot to prove in this event. She finished fifth in the 2007 World Championships, ninth in the 2006 World Indoor Championships, second in the 2005 World Championships and sixth in the 2004 Olympics. Mixed in, Richards smashed the U.S. record for the event, swept the 2006 Golden League meets and won the 2006 World Cup and World Athletics meets. Meanwhile, her fiancé is New York Giants’ cornerback, Aaron Ross.

1.)    Sanya Richards, U.S.A.
2.)    Novlene Williams-Mills, Jamaica
3.)    Rosemarie Whyte, Jamaica

Results
Gold: Christine Ohuruogo, Great Britain
Silver: Shericka Williams, Jamaica
Bronze: Richards, U.S.A.

800-meters
(Monday, Aug. 18 – 9:35 a.m.)
Veteran Olympian Hazel Clark is the top U.S. runner in this event as well as a member of the legendary Clark family. Her sister is 800m legend Joetta Clark-Diggs, her sister-in-law is American record holder Jearl Clark and her father is Joe Clark, who was played by Morgan Freeman in the movie, Lean on Me. But Kenyan Pamela Jelimo has run five of the top seven times in the world this year.

1.)    Pamela Jelimo, Kenya
2.)    Janeth Jepkosgei, Kenya
3.)    Hasna Benhassi, Morocco

Results
Gold: Jelimo, Kenya
Silver: Jepkosgei, Kenya
Bronze: Benhassi, Morocco

1,500-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 7:50 a.m.)
Haddonfield, N.J. native Erin Donohue is the local favorite, though she will have a tough time making the finals. Shannon Rowbury of San Francisco is the top American miler, though she has her work cut out for her, too. Three runners stand out in this race, but which one will take gold is up for grabs.

1.)    Maryam Jamal, Bahrain
2.)    Geleta Burka, Ethiopia
3.)    Iryna Lishchynska, Ukraine

Results
Gold: Nancy Langat, Kenya
Silver: Lishchynska, Ukraine
Bronze: Nataliya Tobias, Ukraine

3,000-meters Steeplechase
(Sunday, Aug. 17 – 9:30 a.m.)
Recent U. of Michigan grad Anna Willard dominated the steeple in the Olympic Trials to set an American record. However, in international competition, Willard came in eighth in the heats of the 2007 World Championships. Willard will be easy to spot – she will probably color her hair pink, fuscia or electric blue. She will also be the one with U.S.A. on her jersey chasing the pack.

1.)    Yekaterina Volkova, Russia
2.)    Eunice Jepkorir, Kenya
3.)    Gulnara Galkina, Russia

Results
Gold: Galkina, Russia
Silver: Jepkorir, Kenya
Bronze: Volkova, Russia

5,000- meters
(Friday, Aug. 22 – 8:40 a.m.)
The U.S. has a solid team in the 5k with Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan and Villanova’s Jen Rhines. Goucher won the event in the Olympic Trials and set the American record in the half marathon in late 2007. Rhines is a three-time Olympian in three different events, and Flanagan might have been the top American distance runner heading into the Trials. Beginning in early 2007, Flanagan set the American record in the 3,000-meters, 5,000-meters and 10,000 meters. However, a bout of food poisoning she picked up Tuesday at the U.S. distance camp in Dalian, China could derail her chances. If food poisoning wasn’t bad enough, the U.S. team will face two of the best 5,000-meter runners in the world.

1.)    Meseret Defar, Ethiopia
2.)    Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia
3.)    Vivian Cheruiyot, Kenya

Results
Gold: Dibaba, Ethiopia
Silver: Cheruiyot, Kenya
Bronze: Defar, Ethiopia

10,000-meters
(Friday, Aug. 15 – 10:15 a.m.)
Goucher and Flanagan double for the U.S. in the 10k with Amy Begley, the Trials’ Cinderella Story. Again, the issue will be how well Flanagan recovers from food poisoning and the strong Ethiopian and Kenyan teams.

1.)    Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia
2.)    Mestawet Tufa, Ethiopia
3.)    Kim Smith, New Zealand

Results
Gold: Dibaba, Ethiopia
Silver: Elvan Abeylegesse, Turkey
Bronze: Flanagan, U.S.A.

Marathon
(Saturday, Aug. 16 – 7:30 p.m.)
Oh man… this one is deep and wide open. That’s especially the case when it was announced that defending Olympic champion Mizuki Noguchi dropped out this week with fatigue issues. Moreover, world-record holder Paula Radcliffe has missed significant training time because of a stress fracture in her left thigh suffered just three months ago. Radcliffe, of course, has won every major marathon she has entered except for the Olympics and seems determined to get after it this weekend. She reports that she feels “fresh” but “undertrained.” American-record holder and 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor is in the race looking to improve on her finish in Athens, while Kenyan star Catherine Ndereba (who used to train exclusively in Valley Forge, Pa.) aims to add another Olympic medal to an epic career.

Oh, there’s more. Ethiopians Gete Wami and Berhane Adere are gold-medal threats. Others to watch include Japan’s Reiko Tosa, and Russians Svetlana Zakharova and Galina Bogomolova.

Most notably, though, is China’s Zhou Chunxiu who has the distinct advantage of training on the course with all of the elements that could prove to be too much for the foreign runners.

Meanwhile, the forecast is calling for somewhat cool temperatures but 80 percent humidity. That means anything goes.

1.)    Paula Radcliffe, Great Britain
2.)    Zhou Chunxiu, China
3.)    Catherine Ndereba, Kenya

Results
Gold: Constintina Tomescu-Dita, Romania
Silver: Ndereba, Kenya
Bronze: Chunxiu, China

Men
(all times and dates are for the U.S. Eastern Time Zone)

100-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 16 – 10:30 a.m.)
Tyson Gay or Usain Bolt? Usain Bolt or Tyson Gay? Gay, Bolt or Asafa Powell? Either way, all three of the top contenders in the 100 have had the world-record for a bit in the past year. We give the advantage to Gay because he won’t run the 200 and can focus on one event.

1.)    Tyson Gay, U.S.A.
2.)    Usain Bolt, Jamaica
3.)    Asafa Powell, Jamaica

Results
Gold: Bolt, Jamaica
Silver: Richard Thompson, Trinidad and Tobago
Bronze: Walter Dix, U.S.A.

200-meters
(Wednesday, Aug. 20 – 10:20 a.m.)
With Gay out after pulling up with a hamstring injury during the Trials, it opens the door for Bolt to stake his claim. Watch out for Americans Shawn Crawford and NCAA Champ, Walter Dix.

1.)    Usain Bolt, Jamaica
2.)    Walter Dix, U.S.A.
3.)    Shawn Crawford, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Bolt, Jamaica
Silver: Crawford, U.S.A.
Bronze: Dix, U.S.A.

400-meters
(Thursday, Aug. 21 – 8:55 a.m.)
Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt each have five of the best 10 times in the world this year. More interestingly, Wariner and Merritt have split their last 10 head-to-head meetings, with Merritt taking the past two. Wariner, though, as the defending Olympic Champ, might have the most to prove.

1.)    Jeremy Wariner, U.S.A.
2.)    LaShawn Merritt, U.S.A.
3.)    David Neville, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Merritt, U.S.A.
Silver: Wariner, U.S.A.
Bronze: Neville, U.S.A.

800-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 7:30 a.m.)
People are still talking about the 800-meters finals from last month’s Olympic Trials where five men all finished within a second of each other for the three spots to go to Beijing. Christian Smith was the surprise member of the team after his dive at the tape past K.D. Robinson and Lopez Lomong punched his ticket. Needless to say, the mystery over the U.S. team remains. Nick Symmonds could surprise in Beijing because of his ability to start his kick from long range, while no one really knows how good Andrew Wheating is or can be. Wheating just finished his second year at Oregon and has only been running seriously for two years.

Be that as it is, the U.S. runners will have to perform just like they did in Eugene last month to be a factor. Besides, wouldn’t it be cool if a Sudanese runner took gold in China?

1.)    Abubaker Kaki-Khamis, Sudan
2.)    Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, South Africa
3.)    Wilfred Bungei, Kenya

Results
Gold: Bungei, Kenya
Silver: Ismail Ahmed, Sudan
Bronze: Alfred Kirwa Yego, Kenya

1,500-meters
(Tuesday, Aug. 19 – 10:50 a.m.)
The old glamour event on the track always excites. It might have lost some of its luster to the faster races, but the fields have always been deep, talented and the races exciting. This year will be no different, though an American could win gold for the first time since Mel Sheppard in the 1908 London Games.

1.)    Bernard Lagat, U.S.A.
2.)    Augustine Choge, Kenya
3.)    Abdalaati Iguider, Morocco

Results
Gold: Rashid Ramzi , Bahrain
Silver: Asbel Kiprop, Kenya
Bronze: Nicholas Willis, New Zealand

3,000-meter steeplechase
(Monday, Aug. 18 – 9:10 a.m.)
One of the more interesting athletes representing the U.S. this time around is Anthony Famiglietti, a New York-native who until recently trained exclusively in Brooklyn. And no, he didn’t train on the streets of New York City to better prepare him for the pollution of Beijing. Versatile and passionate as a runner, Famiglietti is more philosopher and scholar than quintessential jock. He also has been the producer and subject of two documentaries and is keeping a riveting video journal of his time in China for Runner’s World, including the latest installment where he tapes the Chinese security hiding in the bushes or sitting outside his room.

But Fam will be overmatched in Beijing. Actually, the entire field will be swimming in the wake of the Kenyan team. All that’s left to determine is what color the Kenyan’s medals will be.

1.)    Ezekiel Kemboi, Kenya
2.)    Brimin Kipruto, Kenya
3.)    Richard Matelong, Kenya

Results
Gold: Kipruto, Kenya
Silver: Mahiedine Mekhissi-B., France
Bronze: Matelong, Kenya

5,000-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 8:10 a.m.)
This was Steve Prefontaine’s signature distance, and the U.S. hasn’t had a contender close to challenging the world in the 5,000 since Pre’s run in Munich in ’72. Sure, Bob Kennedy surged to the lead with 300-meters to go in the 1996 finals in Atlanta, but was quickly swallowed up by the rest of the field to finish sixth. No American has medaled in the 5k since Jim Ryun got silver in 1968, while no American has won gold since Mel Sheppard in 1908.

However, all Bernard Lagat is missing for his medal collection in the 5,000 is the gold. In Beijing he is not only looking for gold in the 5,000, but also he’s attempting to pull off an incredible double in the 1,500 and 5,000.

Tall order.

Look out for Australian Craig Mottram… he’s tough as hell.

1.)    Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya
2.)    Bernard Lagat, U.S.A.
3.)    Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia

Results
Gold: Bekele, Ethiopia
Silver: Kipchoge, Kenya
Bronze: Edwin Soi, Kenya

10,000-meters
(Sunday, Aug. 17 – 10:45 a.m.)
edit: Haile Gebreselassie is on the official entry list from the IAAF for the 10,000-meters, an event in which he won gold in 1996 and 2000. However, though Gebreselassie says he’s fit and set for one more crack at the 10k gold, nagging injuries and the fact that he is racing in the Berlin Marathon in September doesn’t change my predictions submitted earlier.

But yes, Geb will be a factor.

It would seem as if the 10k would be wide open with all-time great Haile Gebreselassie out of the Olympics in order to lower his record in the marathon in Berlin. But even with the great Geb going after the money, the Ethiopian grip on the event is still strong. After all, the defending champ will return as the prohibitive favorite.

Kenenisa Bekele will be running for two in a row as well as for his fiancé, who died while out for a run with him. Bekele’s countryman, Sileshi Sihine, is also a contender. The American hope is Abdi Abdirahman, who will head to a third straight Olympics. But, “The Black Cactus” has not broken 27-minutes (no American has), which seems to be a prerequisite for winning an Olympic medal.

1.)    Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia
2.)    Sileshi Sihine, Ethiopia
3.)    Moses Masai, Kenya

Results
Gold: Bekele, Ethiopia
Silver: Sihine, Ethiopia
Bronze: Micah Kogo, Kenya

Marathon
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 7:30 p.m.)
Edit: Robert Cheruyiot withdrew from the marathon with an undisclosed injury on Aug. 16. The Kenyan team replaced him with runner Luke Kibet. As a result, I changed my predictions to what is displayed. Originally I had chosen Cheruyiot for the silver.

The traditional last event of the Olympics could be the most thrilling. No, Gebreselassie is out and Paul Tergat of Kenya deferred to the younger, up-and-coming runners. But the race will feature some of the champions from the major marathons. Martin Lel of Kenya, who has won three out of the last four London marathons and the last New York City Marathon, is the favorite. Countryman Robert Cheruyiot, the winner of four of the last five Boston marathons and the 2006 Chicago Marathon can run in all sorts of conditions as evidenced by his win in Boston in ’06.

Deribe Merga (2:06:38) and Tsegaye Kebebe (2:06:40) of Ethiopia will be threats, as well as Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru (2:05:24), who lost to Lel in London last April and holds the world record in the half-marathon.

Meanwhile, defending Olympic champ Stefano Baldini of Italy will toe the line along with two-time New York champ Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa and Abderrahim Goumri (2:05:30) of Morocco.

But all eyes will be on the baby-faced, blonde-haired kid from California.

Ryan Hall has been called everything from the “future of American running,” to a serious contender for gold in Beijing. Both seem true. Based on the story in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, Hall will is headed to Beijing prepared to be in the mix the entire race. His 2:06 in London last April was groundbreaking, but is it enough to put him with the elite of the elite?

Meanwhile, Americans Dathan Ritzenhein and Pennsylvanian Brian Sell have legitimate shots to finish in the top 10. For a runner like Sell, who is quasi-local, a top 10 finish in the Olympic marathon is mind-boggling.

1.)    Martin Lel, Kenya
2.)    Sammy Wanjiru, Kenya
3.)    Ryan Hall, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Wanjiru, Kenya
Silver: Jaouad Gharib, Morocco
Bronze: Tsegay Kebede, Ethiopia

All Brett, all the time

I have a theory. No, it’s not the one where I offered that everyone, at one point or another, has dined on a loogie at a restaurant. This new theory is totally different and much less solid than my other theory.

This one has to do with Brett Favre and ESPN, which based on the recent wall-to-wall coverage of all things Favre and the Packers, is almost like eating a loogie in a TV viewing sense.

Anyway, my theory is since the Olympics are set to begin and NBC has decided to devote 23 ½ hours of its programming per day to Olympics coverage, the so-called World Wide Leader is going to the dance without a date… so to speak. ESPN/ABC cannot show the Olympics – they can only attend and cover it like everyone else. So to turn away heads from the biggest sporting event in the world this year, ESPN has barraged the sports-viewing public with “All Brett, All the Time.”

No, I don’t think it’s anything as sinister as choosing to report a less important story. After all, the Olympics haven’t even started yet. However, a lot of newspapers have sent teams of writers to China to cover one of the more mystifying and intriguing set of Games in a long time. From what I recall, there was no such intrigue regarding the Olympics in Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney or Athens.

China, to those of us in the West, is still mysterious. That’s especially the case when one takes in account the political, social, environmental and human rights concerns. For Americans it’s kind of odd that we actually have someone to look down upon in those regards, but there China is, anchoring an entire continent with its sprawling landscape that is becoming more and more developed by the day.

Think oil prices are high now? Wait until the Chinese citizens in the outer provinces put down the bikes and get cars.

So with the writers heading for the Far East, the MLB season entering the so-called dog days and the football season still a month away, why wouldn’t ESPN try a little misdirection? It’s as if they are screaming, “Hey, don’t look at the biggest sporting event in the world – you know, the one where we are not the rights’ holders. Look over here – to Wisconsin, U.S.A. That’s where the real story is. Come watch.”

And like the Chinese government, ESPN adds, “If you choose not to, we will make you.”

OK, it’s just a theory. There are more holes in this argument than Swiss cheese, but it’s out there nonetheless.

Speaking of out there, my friend and all-around swell guy (and ex-Phillies writer), Marcus Hayes, is in China for the Olympics. He arrived Tuesday at 2 p.m., which was 2 a.m. Tuesday morning here on the East Coast… or 2 a.m. tomorrow — time zones always mess me up. Chances are he’s pretty jet lagged.

Nevertheless, Marcus will be updating a blog (do people even use that word anymore… seems outdated to me) for the Daily News and I suggest everyone read it.

OR ELSE!

Seriously, it might be the second or third place I go when I make my rounds through the Internets every morning. Meanwhile, I had hoped to do one of those Slate.com-esque e-mail exchange columns with Marcus and the Inquirer’s Phil Sheridan, but it seems as if they are going to be too busy.

Instead I’ll just tune in to the 23 ½ hours of daily coverage and write about it here.

In the meantime, Marcus reported that he made it to Beijing after a 14-hour flight. In response to an e-mail where I told him I was envious that he got to go to the Olympics and I get to go to Citizens Bank Park, our hero wrote, “You wouldn’t be so envious if you just spent 4 hours sitting across from a smelly Latvian with 4 spiked hairs.”

See, Beijing isn’t all that different than Philadelphia.

He also reported that he cannot read his own site because it has been blocked by the Chinese government.

Anyway, I told Marcus that it would not surprise me if he went to China and an international incident occurred. Marcus Hayes in China just screams “international incident.”

Better yet, remember Christopher Walken’s character in The Deer Hunter? You know, he went to Vietnam and never made it back because he went AWOL from a hospital in Saigon in order to play Russian roulette for money… for some reason I foresee a similar fate for Marcus.

OK, back to the Brett Barrage, which is kind of like Russian Roulette but only brain cells are in danger.

Read: Marcus Hayes’ Olympic Proportions site