Posted: Thursday December 29, 2011 11:47AM ; Updated: Thursday December 29, 2011 11:48AM
Nick Zaccardi
Nick Zaccardi>INSIDE OLYMPIC SPORTS

Olympics predictions for 2012

Story Highlights

The U.S. and China will battle for the overall medal lead at the London Olympics

Give Michael Phelps the slightest of edges against U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte

Usain Bolt is beatable; Jason Lezak could be an odd man out; no Ian Thorpe

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1. The United States will not lead the medal table in London. China, which didn't fully compete in the Olympics until 1984, will conquer the overall medal standings for the first time, completing its rise into sports superpower status. The Chinese led the Beijing Games with 51 golds, but the U.S. had 110 total medals to the host nation's 100 to top the table for the fourth straight Olympics.

It could be very tight. USA Today projects China to win 93 medals and the U.S. 89. Going by recent world championships, China should beat the U.S. by at least 10 medals, but Americans are known for coming up bigger on the Olympic stage. Swimming could be key. The U.S. outmedaled China 31-6 in Beijing's Water Cube, but at the 2011 world championships the gap narrowed to 26-12.

2. The Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte duel is too close to call, but if I have to pick now ... it's Phelps, barely. The world's two best swimmers should go head to head in two events -- the 200-meter freestyle and the 200 individual medley. Phelps is the defending Olympic champion in both, but Lochte won both world titles this year, becoming the alpha male of the pool in the process. I believe the races will be decided by hundredths. Projecting who will win by fingertips seven months in advance is a bit absurd, but Phelps-Lochte is the water-cooler debate going into the Games. A 2012 predictions column isn't complete without picking a side.

So here's my argument: Phelps has the intangibles and the motivation. He's been better on the Olympic stage, where he's always won those last-lunge finishes. Lochte, meanwhile, is preparing for a Phelps-like Olympic schedule he's never tried, with at least six events (he swam two in 2004 and four in 2008). We know Lochte handled the increased burden superbly at the world championships, but the Olympics take it up another notch.

Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, feed on any form of motivation they can find. You can bet Phelps is reminded daily about those two losses at worlds, where Lochte needed two personal bests to win by a combined half-second. Phelps said he wasn't in peak shape at that meet, but we also don't know if Lochte has reached his limit yet.

3. Only one out of Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and Alicia Sacramone will make the Olympic team. The U.S. is so deep in women's gymnastics that it could win gold, silver and bronze if the Olympics allowed varsity, JV and freshman teams. Martha Karolyi can pick just one team of five gymnasts (down from seven in 1996 and six in 2008).

Karolyi essentially has two pools from which to choose. First, there are the teenagers who cruised to the 2011 world title -- Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Sabrina Vega and Gabrielle Douglas. Second, the old guard (if there can be such a thing in gymnastics) in past Olympic and world championship medalists Johnson, Liukin, Sacramone, Rebecca Bross, Bridget Sloan and Chellsie Memmel. Wieber, the reigning world all-around champion, is a near lock for one spot. Maroney and Raisman are right behind. That leaves everyone else to fight for two more openings.

4. Usain Bolt will lose an Olympic race. There are more hazards in the way of the world's fastest man than in 2008 or 2009, when he went a combined 6-for-6 at the Olympics and world championships without rival. Bolt has slowed slightly, while Tyson Gay (2010) followed by Yohan Blake (2011) sped up enough to erase his invincibility. We've also seen Bolt succumb to track and field's new one-and-done false-start rule. He jumped the gun in the 100 at worlds this year, his disqualification allowing training partner Blake to break through. Blake then backed that up by running the second-fastest 200 ever, 19.26, two weeks later. Bolt's younger countryman is the biggest threat he's seen.

And then there are the relays. Jamaica has won the last three major 4x100s (2008 Olympics, 2009 worlds, 2011 worlds), but just ask the fumbling U.S. men about the dangers in negotiating speed with baton handoffs. There's also talk of Bolt's joining the 4x400 relay, where the U.S. will be favored regardless of the Jamaican lineup. Add it all up, and Bolt is beatable.

5. The 4x100 freestyle relay will make waves again. Remember the excitement of Jason Lezak's chasing down France's Alain Bernard in the final 20 meters in Beijing? Expect more drama in that relay, but this time it will start way before anybody plunges into the pool. And it may center on Lezak.

Of the four coveted spots on the U.S. 4x100 team, one will surely go to Phelps. Another will go to Nathan Adrian, assuming he's healthy and in form. Then it gets cloudy. There's Lochte, who many thought should have been on this relay at the world championships (where the U.S. settled for bronze without him). There are Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones, who were a part of the 2008 gold-medal relay. And then there's Lezak, who will be a grizzled 36. Lezak was the seventh-fastest U.S. man in the 100 meters in 2011. His 48.15 split in the relay at worlds was respectable, but he (and the team) needed to be better for the U.S. to win gold. There's no guarantee Lezak will make the Olympic team. Even if he does make it, there's no guarantee he'll be part of the relay final he made so magical in Beijing.

6. No Olympics for Ian Thorpe. If you've been keeping up with Thorpe's comeback, this isn't a bold prediction. Thorpe, 29, had not competed in nearly five years when he announced a return in February. His early results have been understandably rusty. Thorpe must shave another second off his 100 freestyle and two more seconds off his 200 freestyle to have any hope of making an Australian relay team (top six at trials). That Australia holds its trials in March (as opposed to June/July for the U.S.) doesn't help his cause.

7. Steve Redgrave will not light the Olympic cauldron. London oddsmaker William Hill installed the rower Redgrave, Britain's all-time leading gold-medal winner with five, as a 6-to-4 favorite for the greatest honor of the Games. While Redgrave would be a fine choice, I'll offer three more just as deserving: Roger Bannister, Kelly Holmes and Derek Redmond and his father.

8. Allyson Felix will win her first individual Olympic gold medal. I don't know if Felix will run the 200, the 400 or the 200 and the 400 in London, so this is somewhat a shot in the dark. But here's what I do know: Felix left her comfort zone, attempted the 200-400 double for the first time at the 2011 world championships and won a silver and a bronze (.23 away from two golds). Not too bad. Felix now refocuses on that elusive goal -- an individual Olympic gold. She's never won one. Felix and coach Bobby Kersee will pick the best out of three options to reach that objective -- a second year training for the 200 and the 400 together; switching back to her pet 200 (where she's a three-time world champion); or going all out for the 400, where she fell .03 short of a world title in her first try.

9. Social media will play an even bigger role than you think. Most major Olympic events fall between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. ET, during the workday and peak hours for Twitter and Facebook. NBC will air every event live "on one platform or another" but will keep its usual prime-time broadcast intact with delayed highlights, which leads one to believe that Phelps' swims and Bolt's sprints will first be aired online. Most notable Olympians use social media, and agents encourage them to interact with their fans. It's a recipe for two weeks' worth of memorable trending topics.

10. The British tabloids will have their say. No way 16 days go by without a scandal. But which athletes will land those headlines? That's one prediction I'm not going to make.

 
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