Phelps vs. Lochte, Bolt vs. Blake to spice up Games

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Phelps vs. Lochte, Bolt vs. Blake to spice up Games

LONDON - Swimming dominates the first week of the Games, athletics the second while gymnastics continues throughout at the North Greenwich Arena. The swimming features a potentially thrilling individual duel between two athletes from the same country.

Michael Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals in Beijing, will attempt seven events this time before he retires.

In two of them, the 200 and 400 meters individual medley, he will come up against Ryan Lochte, who collected five gold medals at last year's world championships and became the first swimmer to break a long course world record since controversial polyurethane suits were banned.

Other rivalries to add spice to the Games include Britain versus Australia in cycling and the men's triathlon in Hyde Park where Britain's world champion Alistair Brownlee competes against his younger brother Jonathan.

The country which produced Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson now possesses 35-year-old sailor Ben Ainslie, who if he wins in Weymouth will equal the four gold medals of the great Dane Paul Elvstrom.

Ainslie, who also won a silver at the 1996 Atlanta Games, will represent Britain in the single handed dinghy Finn class.

The Games showcase national strengths in sports which get little international attention outside Olympic years.

South Korea, who has won 16 archery gold medals, more than any other country, will display its skills at Lord's, the spiritual home of world cricket.

Cuba, aided by a system which nurtures talent while banning professionalism, has a proud boxing pedigree, Japan sets the pace in judo and China rules the world in table tennis.

Ultimately it is individuals, even within the context of a team sport, who are at the beating heart of the Olympics.

They include Italy's Valentina Vezzali, a glamorous figure in a glamorous sport, who bids for a fourth individual foil gold medal. Women's boxing, an exhibition sport at the 1904 St. Louis Games, has finally been included in the program and four times world lightweight champion Katie Taylor has been selected to carry the flag for Ireland at Friday's opening ceremony.

At the age of 30, Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva is battling to prove she can still pole vault higher than any other woman in the world. And Iranian Behdad Salimikordasiabi will show just why weightlifting is such a gripping spectacle when he competes in the super-heavyweight class.

What happens in the split second after the gun fires and the stadium resounds to the clamor generated by 80,000 spectators will in all likelihood determine the result of the men's 100 meters final.

If Usain Bolt's troublesome right hamstring has healed and he gets a good start there is nobody in the world who can catch the defending champion. If he takes too long to unwind his long legs and body, his Jamaican club mate and world champion Yohan Blake is the probable winner.

The 100 meters is the most unforgiving of all foot races and one mistake by any of the finalists, as Bolt knows from bitter personal experience after false starting at the world championships last year, will mean the race is over.

Unlike the theater, where Hamlet will always die in the final act, unpredictability and the unexpected give sport its special appeal and there are no guarantees that any of the contestants who line up in Saturday's first round will still be contenders on Sunday night.

But if Bolt and Blake do come through unscathed, Sunday's final will rival the Carl Lewis-Ben Johnson clash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics for drama and excitement. The field should also feature American Tyson Gay and another Jamaican Asafa Powell who have both run faster than Blake.

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