China's top 10 Olympic stories
BEIJING -- Michael Phelps may rule the American sports universe for these Olympics, but in China, ask local fans who they're supporting and you'll start hearing names like Lin Dan (badminton), Zhang Yining (table tennis) and Zhao Ruirui (volleyball).
These Olympics are proof that more than ever, the international sports world is a tapestry of stories that span the globe -- or in China's case, the most populous country on earth. Turning our eyes toward the home team, here's SI.com's list of the top 10 Chinese sports stories we're expecting to come out of these Games.
1. LIU XIANG: The loss of his world record and his failure to complete a single outdoor race this year has taken a bit of the luster off Liu's bid to become only the third man in history to win back-to-back gold medals in the men's 110-meter hurdles, but that won't stop China's most famous athlete from going all-out to attempt it.
2. MEN'S BASKETBALL: The biggest cultural crossover sport -- Chinese fans will cheer Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and the rest of the men's basketball team as they claw their way through the round-robin competition, and they'll simultaneously be cheering for "Dream Seven" -- China's nickname for the Redeem Team -- to take gold. As long as China's not its opponent in the gold-medal game, of course.
3. GUO JINGJING: The sultry Guo is as famous a female athlete as has ever graced China's sports scene, and she's a potential double gold-medal winner in the three-meter springboard events (individual and synchronized). This will be her last Olympics and the home crowd will be looking for her to be the highest-profile of stars in one of China's crown jewel Olympic events.
4. GYMNASTICS: A double serving of gold-medal madness will hit the National Indoor Stadium. On the men's side, Yang Wei will attempt to take the all-around crown, a task made exponentially easier by the absence of defending Olympic champion Paul Hamm. The women's team competition will be a China-U.S. battle, with Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin facing off against Cheng Fei, the 2007 world champion vaulter who is one of China's top Olympic stars in her own right. Yang should get his gold; the women's medal is a toss-up.
5. TABLE TENNIS: How's this for a stacked deck: China's three women's singles entries in the table tennis tournament are the Sydney Olympic gold medalist (Wang Nan), the Athens Olympic gold medalist (Zhang) and the '07 world champion (Guo Yue). Add Wang Hao, Wang Liqin and Ma Lin on the men's side and China could sweep all the golds in this sport -- and maybe even all of the women's singles medals of every color.
6. VOLLEYBALL: Chen Zhonghe, the coach of China's '04 Olympic gold medal-winning volleyball team, was handpicked for his job by his predecessor, Lang Ping, who is now the coach of the U.S. team. In China, they call the China-U.S. matchup in women's volleyball the "peaceful war," a play off their given names (heping dazhan). No matter the language, China will be a sentimental favorite to defend its gold medal, and Lang's U.S. women will be cheered wherever they go. As long as China beats them in the end. Final: Aug. 23.
7. BADMINTON: Two-time world champion and current world No. 1 Lin is the top seed on the men's side, but he'll have to shake the Athens jinx, where he was upset in his first match of the tournament. Lin's girlfriend, Xie Xingfang, is a two-time world champion in her own right; together the two should deliver double happiness to China in the form of double singles gold medals.
8. SHOOTING: In 1984, Xu Haifeng won China's first gold medal in the men's 50-meter pistol event in Los Angeles, and China has never forgotten it; it still ranks as one of the greatest victories ever in China's Olympic history. On the first day of competition at the '08 Olympics, Du Li will have the same opportunity on the women's side in the 10-meter air rifle competition; the final kicks off at 10:30 a.m.
9. WOMEN'S TENNIS: Sichuan native Zheng Jie will vie for the women's singles medal a month after achieving China's best showing in a singles Grand Slam event -- the Wimbledon semifinals. She's also entered in doubles with Yan Zi. Together, the two won the '06 Australian Open and Wimbledon, making Zheng another double-gold medal threat at these Games.
10. THE MEDAL COUNT: Make no mistake, the Chinese fans will be paying close attention to the gold medal count -- for the first time in history, they're favored to top it by the time competition ends on Aug. 24. Look for the Chinese rowers to make a splash (they're favored for up to five gold medals), as well as the women's weightlifting team and maybe even a marathon runner in the form of London Marathon women's champ Zhou Chunxiu.