8-8-08: Get the party started

Beijing Opening Ceremony OlympicsAugust 8, 2008 -  The long wait is finally over -  the Summer Games have arrived and all eyes are on China.  The superstititious Chinese believe the No. 8 is lucky so the Games begin on 8-8-08 at 8:08 p.m.

An estimated 4 billion people — almost two-thirds of the Earth’s population — will turn their eyes to Beijing to witness the opening of the 29th Olympics. The ceremony marks the start of 16 days of competition. With over 300 events involving thousands of athletes, keeping track of what to watch for can be tough.

We all know Michael Phelps is one of the big stories of the Games but let’s show the girls some love too. If you’re a fan of women’s sports, here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know:

Women’s Basketball:
Three Sparks – Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker and DeLisah Milton -Jones – lead the U.S. women’s basketball team quest for a fourth straight gold medal. The Americans should be able to cruise through their group with the only real competition coming from host China. The medal round is when the fun really starts with potential a matchup with American turned naturalized Russian Becky Hammon. Not only would the U.S. be looking to avenge their loss to the Russians in the 2006 World Championships, but also the rivalry got a bit more exciting when South Dakota-born Hammon decided to play for Russia. Also lurking in the medal round is Australia with the world’s best player in Lauren Jackson.

Beach Volleyball:
California girls Kerry Walsh and Misty May-Treanor are the defending Olympic champions and the dominant team on the domestic and international tours, having swept their Olympic qualifying events. If Walsh’s injured shoulder holds up, they’re the team to beat, with their toughest challenge to come from Brazilians Juliana and Larissa. Americans Elaine Youngs and Nicole Branagh could also contend for medals. The gold-medal match will be prime time on Aug. 20th.

Gymnastics:
Due to a new scoring system where the 10 no longer is perfection,  gymnasts will attempt more difficult elements and push their routines to the edge to get higher scores. That’s especially true of the Chinese and American women. All-around world champion Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin headline a strong and deep U.S. women’s team, with Johnson especially good on beam and floor. China’s Cheng Fei (vault), He Kexin (bars) and Li Shanshan (beam) will provide strong challenges for the Americans.

Women’s Soccer:
In women’s soccer, Brazil, Germany and the United States arrived in China as the three favorites to win gold. Then the defending Olympic champion Americans lost 2-0 to Norway in the preliminary round Wednesday, before the games officially opened. U.S. hopes received a blow in mid-July, when leading scorer Abby Wambach broke her left leg in a warm-up match against Brazil, forcing her to miss the games. Germany won the women’s 2007 World Cup — which was also played on Chinese soil — without conceding a goal. Three-time FIFA player of the Year Birgid Prinz leads the Germans. Brazil, boasting current FIFA Player of the Year Marta, is looking to improve on its runner-up finish at the 2007 World Cup and at the 2004 Summer Games.

Softball:
2008 Olympics games may mark the end of Olympic softball competition. Watch the dominant U.S. Team led by ace pitcher Jennie Finch and a roster full of some of the greatest softball players ever.  The finale, Aug. 21, should see the U.S. win a gold medal.

Swimming:
Forty-one-year-old Dara Torres swims in her record fifth Olympics, two years after having a baby. Find out if she can continue to defy her age by winning a medal in the 500 freestyle (Aug. 15). Leisel Jones and Libby Trickett lead a powerful Australian women’s team, while the Americans counter with Natalie Coughlin and Katie Hoff. Look for world records galore as the competitors wear new high-tech suits such as Speedo’s LZR Racer. Open water swimming makes its Olympic debut with 10-kilometer events for men and women.

Tennis:
The Olympics are considered the fifth Grand Slam event. Venus Williams, the gold medal winner in 2000, is again a contender. Singles play begins Aug. 11.

Track & Field:
Loads of talent in these events, including Allyson Felix and Lo Lo Jones. In the women’s marathon, Deena Kastor gives the U.S. a medal hopeful. Always a marquee event, the women’s 100 will probably feature two Southern Californians, Torri Edwards and Muna Lee, who are expected to chase Jamaica’s Kerron Stewart to the finish line (Aug. 17). Also check out the pole vault competition with Russian world-record holder Yelena Isinbayeva favored over the United States’ Jenn Stuczynski (Aug. 18)

Water Polo:
The U.S. women are considered the favorite to win gold. The Americans won silver in 2000 — the debut of the women’s Olympic competition — and bronze in 2004, and they pretty much dominated the world circuit in 2007 behind goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong and all-around Lauren Wenger. The Americans should face tough competition from more experienced teams like Australia, Russia and Italy.

NBC is producing 3,600 hours of coverage of the Olympics spread over 19 days, seven networks and a website with the marquee opening ceremonies set to air tonight.

It looks like Beijing is ready for a party and the athletes are happy to attend.

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