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Stars shine at Beijing Games

Every four years the world unites to compete in the Summer Olympic Games. The spectacle is never boring, occasionally controversial and always anticipated. The Beijing Games will go down as having redefined each of these characteristics.

With riveting finishes in events as varied as the countries participating, no one could complain that the Games were boring. With everything involving the host country shrouded in suspicion and protest, no one could deny that the Games were controversial. And with such great storylines as Michael Phelps’ quest for eight gold medals and the resurgence of U.S. basketball, no one could argue that the Games were anticipated.

Kick-started by Phelps’ 17-race tour de force, it seemed like records were being set or broken every single day. The U.S. swimmer single-handedly made the Olympics must-see-TV. Every night, the world would watch as the 23-year-old continued to exceed even the highest of expectations.

On his way to eight golds, he overcame some smack-talking Frenchmen, water in his goggles and a second-place finish that he willed into a first. Oh yeah, and he did most of it faster than anyone else ever did it. Aside from the 100-meter butterfly, all of his victories (four individual and three relays) were in world record time. That 100 fly, by the way, was merely an Olympic record.

The accomplishment has thrust Phelps into a world of international superstardom along the level of Tiger Woods or David Beckham. The more remarkable thing is that it took him only about a week to earn a spot among the most recognizable athletes in the world.

As incredible as Phelps was, other athletes were also able to climb out of his shadow and distinguish themselves in Beijing.

Female American gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson were able to overcome not only Phelps’ dominance, but also the dark cloud over their sport due to allegations regarding their Chinese counterparts. After winning silver in the team competition, Liukin and Johnson won five and four medals respectively, each including one gold.

Other notable Olympians include swimmer Natalie Coughlin, who won six medals, including gold in the 100-meter backstroke. The dynamic beach volleyball duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, perhaps the most recognizable female athletes for the U.S. repeated as gold medalists, extending their winning streak to an obscene 108 victories.

Despite all of this, and China’s best efforts, the second-biggest star in Beijing was the young Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. He celebrated his 22nd birthday by winning three gold medals and setting three world records. Considering what Phelps and other swimmers did at the Olympics provides some perspective. Several times at the Water Cube, world records were set in the semifinals and then broken again in the finals. Swimming records have been broken nearly every meet since the LZR Speedo Racer was introduced earlier this year, but track records simply do not get broken. That is, until Bolt steps onto the track. Case-in-point: Bolt set the 200-meter mark at 19.30, breaking Michael Johnson’s 12-year-old record. Swimming records don’t last 12 days.

Prior to his dominance in the 200, Bolt broke the world record in the 100-meter dash despite letting up to start his celebration in the last few steps. He completed his stop in Beijing by catapulting the Jamaican 4x200-meter relay team to another world record. Three races, three gold medals and three world records – Phelps on land.

While individuals stole the show at the Beijing Games, the athletes are ultimately competing on behalf of their countries. The team events were where the U.S. really took over the Games. The U.S. women were especially dominant, winning gold in basketball, soccer and volleyball, while taking silver in softball. The most anticipated team event, though, was men’s basketball.

After winning the gold in the 2000 Sydney Games, the squad has failed to win an international tournament. Many believed that the me-first attitude of the NBA game could no longer translate to the team-oriented style of international basketball. The U.S. team of NBA All-Stars put that theory to rest early at Beijing. The U.S. cruised to the gold medal game, rarely playing within 20 points of their opponent.

The finals against Spain proved to be quite a different story.

The U.S. had routed the Spaniards in an earlier game 119-82, but the gold medal contest was much closer. Dwyane Wade paced the Yanks with 27 points as they held on for a 118-107 victory. The win put the “Redeem Team” back on top of the basketball world for the first time in eight years.

The basketball gold solidified the American effort in Beijing, which led all countries with 110 medals, 36 of which were gold. China led the way with 51 golds and was second in total medals with 100. Russia was the only other country within 50 medals of the top two, registering 72 total.

Going into the Games, there was a lot of doubt over what kind of lasting impression would be left. While the Olympics were certainly not without incident, it’s safe to say that the Beijing Games will be remembered more for the competition than the controversy.

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