Friday, August 15, 2008

2008 Olympics: Week 1 Review

The 29th Summer Olympic Games have been officially on for a week now in Beijing, China. How has the event been and how has Team USA fared? Let's find out.

This was quite the spectacle. The NBC announcers continually referred to this ceremony as the best one ever performed. I can't say I disagree but only because it is really the first one I watched in its entirety. The 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics is the first summer games I remember and I can't recall much of the opening ceremony. Same goes for Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004). The show was quite spectacular in Beijing on August 8th. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring performance was the beginning with the 2,008 drummers putting on a drum light show and counting down to the start of the games. Pretty freakin' sweet. Another creative idea was a large painting that was created throughout the ceremony. It was set up by many of the thousands of Chinese performers and was colored by the Olympic athletes themselves. As the athletes from over 200 countries entered the Bird's Nest, they eventually walked over ink pads and left footprints across this giant piece of art. Quite creative. The art piece will travel around the world after the Olympics conclude.

The Americans are rolling on the beach and putting up a fight indoors. I have watched each of the matches that the duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh has played. They are undefeated in the preliminary matches and have their eyes set on a 2nd consecutive Olympic gold medal. Misty and Kerri plowed through Japan, Cuba, and Norway (straight sets each time) before starting slowly against the Belgian team of Liesbet Van Breedam and Liesbeth Mouha. Misty and Kerri were down 20-17 and staved off 5 set points before finally winning 24-22. They went on to easily win the second set and the match. Their next match will be the first quarterfinal versus Brazil (Franca/Connelly). The other American duo, Nicole Branagh and Elaine Youngs, went 4-0 in the opening matches and faces off against the Chinese couple of Chen Zue and Zhang Xi in the quarterfinals.

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh or pummeling the competition in Beijing.

After being upset by the Latvians in the opening match, the men's duo of Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser is picking up steam. They disposed of Switzerland and Argentina in straight sets and will face the other Swiss team tonight. The second US men's team featuring Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal is currently 3-0 and is matched up versus the Spanish tonight.

On the indoor court the US women's team is 3-1, defeating Japan, Venezuela, and China but falling to the Cubans. Their next match will be Sunday against Poland. The US should emerge victorious.

Things have been quite emotional for the men's indoor volleyball team. The day before the squad was to open up play versus Venezuela, the in-laws of US Head Coach Hugh McCutcheon were attacked at Drum Tower in China. His father-in-law Todd Bachman was killed while Todd's wife, Barbara, was in critical condition. McCutcheon left the team to be with his wife, former Olympian Elisabeth Bachman, and her family. The US men's team took the court on August 10th and take down Venezuela in 5 sets. They proceeded to defeat Italy and Bulgaria. Their next match will be against China on Saturday.

Perhaps the most watched events of the games, the Americans have been performing quite well. However, controversy brews on the women's side.

The United States women's gymnastics contingent in Beijing - Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Alicia Sacramone, Chellsie Memmel, Bridget Sloan, and Samantha Peszek - got off to a rough start in the qualifying round. There were some falls and missteps that hurt the individual performer but the team qualified second to China, the source of one of the main controversy. The Chinese gymnasts look strikingly young. The Olympic games require gymnasts to be 16 to compete. He Kexin, Jiang Yuyuan, and Yang Yilin, three of China's best, may not be of required age. I personally question He Kexin the most, though all 3 very well could be under 16. The International Gymnastics Federation uses passports to determine age and the FIG has accepted all of the Chinese gymnasts ages. So has the International Olympic Committee. Making this even more interesting is China itself. Twice publications has listed He Kexin's age below 16. The government newspaper, Xinhua, reported that He Kexin's age was 13 in the November 3rd, 2007 article. The second report of He Kexin's gae was in a stroy on May 23rd published by the China Daily newspaper. In that story He Kexin was originally listed as being 14. It was later altered to say 16. What may be even more interesting is that according to He Kexin's passport she was born on January 1st, 1992. Convenient, no?

How old are these Olympic champions? According to their passports, 16. The ages of He Kexin, Jiang Yuyuan, and Yang Yilin is up for debate.

Disregarding their ages, the Chinese performed great during the team competition and ended up capturing the gold. Team USA finished in 2nd and no one was more disappointed than Alicia Sacramone, the veteran and team leader. The US team was close to China after 2 events but thinsg started to unravel on the beam and floor exercises. Alicia fell off the beam and also fell and stepped out of bounds during her floor routine, all but sealing the teams fate. Shawn and Nastia also steeped out of bounds during their floor routines. Disappointing, sure. But these young ladies have nothing to be upset about. Way to go, girls!

From left: Team USA gymnasts Bridget Sloan, Alicia Sacramone, Samantha Peszak, Chellsie Memmel, Nastia Liukin, and Shawn Johnson show their silver medals won in the team competition.

The US men came in with lower expectations than the women's team but they delivered as well. From what I watched of the team competition the men were putting on some of their best performances of their career during the team competition. Raj Bhavsar, Joe Hagerty, Jonathan Horton, Justin Spring, Kai Wen Tan, and Alexander Artemev ended up winning the bronze. They looked particularly strong on the rings and horizontal bar.

Back to the ladies. Last night was the women's individual all-around event. Team USA was represented by Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson. Shawn performed a terrific vault but fell behind Nastia on the uneven bars, where she would then remain. Nastia had her usual high score on the bars but turned in a very high score on the beam as well. Some odd scores in favor of Chinese gymnasts Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan kept them in the hunt for the medals. Shawn entered the floor exercise trailing China's Yang Yilin, but that's not where she finished. A strong effort on the floor and Shawn Johnson grabbed the silver by 0.075 points over Yang Yilin. Nastia dominated the night and finished with a 63.325, 0.600 points better than Shawn, and captured the individual all-around gold for the U.S.

United States gymnasts finished 1-2 in the women's individual all-around event. Shawn Johnson, left, took silver while her teammate, Nastia Liukin, center, will bring home the gold. China's Yang Yilin won the bronze.

Not only are the ages making headlines but some questionable scores were dolled out during the individual all-around event last night. Though I have yet to find an article that mentions the scores, the commentators were surprised by the low scores that US gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson received on their vault, uneven bar, and balance beam performances. They were absolutely amazed at what they saw when one of the Chinese gymnasts received a higher score than Shawn Johnson on the beam, one of Shawn's best events. Shawn had one slight balance check and a small step on her dismount but other than that it looked great. The Chinese gymnast made at least 4 balance checks, I counted 5, and missed a connection to her routine and she still scored higher than Shawn. Peculiar.

Unfortunately the U.S. men did not fare as well individually. Jonathan Horton and Alexander Artemev competed in the all-around and finished 9th and 12th respectively.

Regardless of the controversy, watching the gymnastics was a lot of fun. It is quite astonishing to see people perform those events. I still have no idea how they are capable of throwing their body around like that with such precision and grace. And the strength that the men possess is ridiculous and under-appreciated. I can't wait to watch the individual performances next week.

If gymnastics isn't the biggest draw at the Olympics it could be because of swimming. The biggest star is the well-known American, Michael Phelps. And he has been dominating, as everyone assumed. As it stands, he has collected 6 golds so far and has a chance to earn 2 more. Here are his races and results thus far:
  • 400m Individual Medley - Gold, 4:03.84, a new World Record
  • 4x100m Freestyle Relay - Gold, 3:08.24, a new World Record (more on this in a bit)
  • 200m Freestyle - Gold, 1:42.96, a new World Record
  • 200m Butterfly - Gold, 1:52.03, a new World Record
  • 4x200 Freestyle Relay - Gold, 6:58.56, a new World Record
  • 200m Individual Medley - Gold, 1:54.23, a new World Record
  • 100m Butterfly - TBD
  • 4x100m Medley Relay - TBD
Wow. Every event he has raced in he has set a new world record. That is domination. But he has had some help along the way. Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens, and Peter Vanderkaay were so strong during the 4x200 Freestyle Relay it was surreal. They absolutely destroyed the old world record. Another team wasn't within 10 or 15 meters when Vanderkaay finished. But as Phelps strives to break Mark Spitz's Olympic record of 7 gold medals in one year, he has another group of men to thank. Phelps would be facing a tie with Spitz if it weren't for Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, and, most importantly, Jason Lezak. The 4x100m Freestyle Relay will be referenced for many years to come.

Phelps' most difficult event to take gold would be an event that he couldn't do himself. The 4x100m Freestyle Relay was the swim that the experts believed Phelps could lose. The French team of Amaury Leveaux, Fabien Gilot, Frederick Bousquet, and Alain Bernard was favored to win. And they were for almost the entire event, except for the beginning and, more importantly, the end. Michael Phelps got things started but it would be Jason Lezak's improbable finish that had the world in awe. Lezak would catch France's Alain Bernard in the final meters to claim the gold for the U.S. Lezak swam his part of the relay in a blistering 46.06 seconds, the fastest split ever (though it won't be recorded because it wasn't an individual event or the first part of the relay). The emotion Team USA demonstrated after the remarkable comeback win was exhilarating. I screamed as soon as I saw the "1. USA" pop up when Lezak touched the wall. I couldn't believe he had caught Bernard. Unbelievable. The swim of Lezak's life allowed Phelps to try and topple Spitz's record.

Jason Lezak, left, saved Michael Phelps' quest for 8 gold medals at one Olympics.

But these swimming events aren't all about Phelps. No no. There are plenty of athletes that deserve praise. So far U.S. swimmers have won a combined 26 swimming medals at these Olympics (10 gold, 6 silver, 10 bronze). Besides his amazing performance in the 4x100m Freestyle Relay, Jason Lezak claimed the bronze medal in the 100m Freestyle. Peter Vanderkaay finished with bronze in the 200m Freestyle and Larsen Jensen grabbed the bronze in the 400m Freestyle. Aaron Peirsol snatched up 2 medals: the 100m Backstroke gold and the 200m Backstroke silver. Peirsol was defeated in the 200m Backstroke by Ryan Lochte, who also won the bronze in the 200m and 400m Individual Medleys. Finishing second to Peirsol in the 100m Backstroke was Matt Grevers.

The women have been piling up the medals, too. In the 100m Freestyle, Natalie Coughlin won the bronze. Katie Hoff grabbed the silver in the 400m Freestyle. Coughlin was back for more in 100m backstroke, where she snatched up the gold. Teammate Margaret Hoelzer finished 3rd. Rebecca Soni captured the silver in the 100m Backstroke and the fold in the 200m Backstroke. Christine Magnuson finished in 2nd during the 100m Butterfly. Coughlin won another medal in the 200m Individual medley, winning another bronze. The same thing happened for Hoff in the 400m Indivudal Medley. In the two relays, the American grabbed silver and bronze. The U.S. team of Coughlin, Lacey Nymeyer, Kara Lynn Joyce, and Dara Torres finished 2nd in the 4x100m Freestyle Relay. The 3rd place 4x200m Freestyle Relay team consisted of Allison Schmitt, Coughlin, Caroline Burckle, and Hoff.

Natalie Coughlin will have plenty of medals to take home from Beijing.

These three sports are what I watched most of over the last week. However I also caught some badminton, fencing (sabre), rowing, and cycling, and rifle shooting. Fun stuff. Hopefully week 2 of the Beijing Olympics proves as exciting as week 1!


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