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Stu Forster, Getty Images
Liu Xiang of China clears a hurdle on his way to winning the men's 110-meter hurdles during day three of the Good Luck Beijing 2008 China Athletics Open at the National Stadium.

let's face it, for some of us the Olympic Games are still a track meet with a lot of sideshows and interlopers cutting in on the act. This year's Olympic track competition, which will feature one of the strongest American teams in years, has more storylines than a Larry McMurtry novel.

Here are some stories to follow:

ONE BILLION CHINESE DO CARE — Every Olympics has one — an athlete from the host country who produces an inspired, victorious performance for the delirious home crowd. In 1992 at Barcelona, it was Fermin Cacho delivering a surprise in the 1,500. In 1996 at Atlanta, it was Michael Johnson in the long sprints. In 2000 at Sydney, it was Cathy Freeman in the 400. In 2004 at Athens, it was Fani Halkia in the 400 hurdles.

In Beijing, it will be hurdler Liu Xiang, the defending Olympic champion and hope of a nation. Win or lose, with Liu, one billion Chinese do care. They have rarely had anyone to cheer on the Olympic track until Liu. When he set the world record two years ago, it warranted a 20-minute report on the news. He is an icon, China's Michael Jordan. As fate would have it, though, he's not at the top of his game for the Beijing Games. An injured hamstring has hampered his progress this season. Meanwhile, Cuba's Dayron Robles broke Liu's world record, running 12.87, and has been untouchable this season. Americans David Oliver and Terrance Trammel also have run under 13.0 this season. Meanwhile, Liu withdrew from one race and false-started out of another race — so much for his pre-Olympic races. His best time this year is 13.18 in a time trial.

WILL LIGHTNING BOLT STRIKE TWICE? — It's not fair. Six-foot-five men are not supposed to run this fast. Jamaica's monster sprinter, Usain Bolt, set a world record of 9.72 in the 100 meters this year and also blazed 200 meters in 19.67, making him the fifth-fastest ever. He's only 21 years old. His development is no surprise to those who follow the sport. In 2004, at the age of 16, he covered 200 meters in 19.93 — a world junior (19-and-under) record. Suddenly, Asafa Powell, who previously owned the 100 world record of 9.74, isn't even the fastest Jamaican. Bolt wasn't even considered a 100-meter sprinter until this spring, when he improved his personal record from 10.03 to 9.76 and then 9.72. Go figure. Bolt has to rate a heavy favorite in the 200, but he's not quite such a sure thing in the 100, where his start is problematic, as it is for any tall sprinter. For his part, Powell is superb against the clock — he has run under 9.80 a record four times — but he tends to wilt in the big races against top competition. In 2004, he broke 10 seconds a record-equaling nine times in a season, but placed only fifth in the Olympic final. He was no better than third in last year's World Championships. A few weeks later, he set the world record. Besides Powell, Bolt faces one other big challenger ...

TYSON GAY'S HAMMY — Gay, America's latest sprint sensation and the defending world 100- and 200-meter champion, cramped in the latter race at the Olympic trials, which not only eliminated him from the Olympic 200 race but has hindered his preparation for the Olympics. Which is a shame, because he was in fine form before the injury, clocking the fastest 100-meter time under any conditions, a wind-aided 9.68, at the Olympic Trials. He says he will be ready for the Olympic 100, but he withdrew from his London showdown with Powell and will enter the Games without having raced since the trials.

JEREMY WARINER'S BOLD (STUPID?) COACHING CHANGE — Jeremy Wariner — a.k.a. The White Guy — has been the world's top 400-meter sprinter since winning that race at the 2004 Olympics as a Baylor sophomore. Wariner caught people's attention as much for his skin color as for his remarkable running, which has made him the third-fastest ever at that distance (43.45) behind another Baylor alum and mentor, Michael Johnson, and Butch Reynolds. Wariner has dominated the race since then, which is why he raised a lot of eyebrows this year when he dumped his legendary coach, Clyde Hart. Why mess with a good thing, especially in an Olympic year?

The split has been interpreted largely as a greedy, ungrateful move by many. Wariner, who earns about $1 million a year, was upset about paying Hart 10 percent of his earnings, per their agreement. He asked Hart to take a cut in pay. Hart declined, explaining that Wariner had won world championships and Olympic titles under his tutelage and therefore why would he deserve a pay cut Wariner also says he wanted to add some new wrinkles to his training that Hart resisted, but those changes make little sense given Wariner's annual improvement and steady No. 1 world ranking. Anyway, Wariner hired a new coach in Baylor assistant Michael Ford. Meanwhile, he continues to pay his agent, Johnson, 20 percent of his earnings.

Read into this what you will: Wariner hasn't been the force this season that he has been under Hart the past four seasons. He has lost twice to countryman LaShawn Merritt, including the Olympic Trials. Wariner has the world's fastest time, 43.86, but he looks more vulnerable than ever before. Meanwhile, one of Hart's other athletes, Sanya Richards, the defending world champion, is a favorite to win the women's 400. Regardless, look for Americans to collect more medals in the men's 400, where they have won 11 of the last 13 Olympics.

AMERICAN DISTANCE DROUGHT — America might be home to the Running Boom and Nike, but none of that has transferred into medals in the distance races. Since 1976, American men have won one medal total in the 1,500, 5,000, 10,000, marathon and steeplechase — a bronze in the '84 steeplechase during the Soviet boycott (this discounts a silver medal won in the 2004 marathon by Meb Keflezighi, who became a naturalized citizen four years earlier). They haven't won a medal in the 5,000 or 10,000 since 1964. Meanwhile, American women have claimed three medals total in the 1,500, 5,000, 10,000 and marathon.

The men's poor showing has come to this: At the recent U.S. Olympic Trials, "foreign" athletes who have become naturalized American citizens claimed all three Olympic berths in the 1,500 and one berth in both the 5,000 and 10,000. That means five of nine berths in those three races went to relatively new naturalized citizens. The athletes are Bernard Lagat, a Kenyan who became an American citizen in 2004; Lopez Lomong, a refugee from Sudan (one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan) who saw his first Olympics in a refugee camp; Leonel Manzano, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was four; and Abdi Abdirahman, who emigrated from Somalia and became a U.S. citizen in 2000. Lagat, the defending world champ at 1,500 meters and the silver medalist in that race in the 2004 Olympics, will run both the 1,500 and 5,000 in Beijing. Meanwhile, American record holder Alan Webb didn't make the team.

A QUARTET OF FAST WOMEN — OK, let's see if we can get this right this time. In 2000, Marion Jones was the face of the Games, and now she's in jail. We won't go there again. This time the American stars could be a quartet of fast women, all of whom will make serious bids for gold medals in the speed events. The 5-foot-3 Lauryn Williams is remarkably quiet between major competitions and seldom wins, but she always manages to deliver in the 100 when it matters most — second in the 2004 Olympic 100, first in the 2005 World Championships, second in the 2007 World Championships. Sanya Richards has thrived since she hired Hart as her coach and is the world's best 400 sprinter. Lolo Jones delivered the second-fastest 100-meter hurdle race under all conditions in the Olympic Trials. Then there is Allyson Felix, who has the lithe body of a ballet dancer or a distance runner but somehow possesses the speed to claim silver in the 200-meter dash at the 2004 Olympics at the age of 18 and last year's 200 world championship. Her long, graceful stride is so beautiful it could make coaches cry. She could challenge Richards for the 400 title as well, but the Beijing schedule does not accommodate the double.

SHE LOVES TO GET HIGH — Russia pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva will be one of the more heavily favored athletes at the Olympics, and one of the most impressive. She has broken the women's world record 22 times, the latest being an effort of 16 feet, 6 inches earlier this year — a mark that would have won every men's Olympic competition up until 1964.


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