The London Olympics promise theater as riveting as anything on stage in the West End, and some of the athletes in leading roles are familiar names.
Usain Bolt, the aptly-named Jamaican sprinter, is back for an encore after his show-stopping performance in Beijing four years ago – gold medals and world records in the 100 meters, 200 meters and sprint relay. In his way is a slight injury that is keeping him out of a July race in Monaco. He also faces countryman and world champion Yohan Blake, Americans Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin, and Frenchman Christophe LeMaitre, who shrugs off questions of race but is best known for being the first white man to break the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters.
Tennis triumvirate Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, fresh off Wimbledon, will ditch their whites and return to the hallowed grass of the All England Club in their national colors to battle for Olympic gold.
And soccer player Neymar (no last name necessary) will try to lead Brazil to the only major title it has yet to win. In three seasons, the 20-year-old has scored nearly 100 goals for Santos (Pele’s former club), and Pele considers him better than Argentine star Lionel Messi.
More than 10,000 athletes from 200 countries will compete in 36 Olympic sports. Most competitors are not famous, but every one of them has a story. Here are 10 to keep an eye on.
Jessica Ennis, track and field, Great Britain
British tennis star Andy Murray is known around the world. But he will be sharing the spotlight this summer with heptathlete Jessica Ennis, the golden girl of Great Britain’s Olympic team.
The Games have yet to begin, and already the photogenic Ennis, 26, has endorsements with Jaguar, Aviva, Olay, Adidas, Powerade, Omega and BP. She is pulling in more than $1.5 million a year, making her the highest-paid female athlete in England.
Ennis’ father was born in Jamaica, and her mother was born in England. He is a painter and decorator. She is a social worker. Neither excelled at sport, but they signed their 11-year-old daughter up at a track club in their hometown of Sheffield, and she proved to be talented at most disciplines. Ennis won the world heptathlon titles in 2009 and 2010, and was poised to medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. A stress fracture in her right foot kept her home.
In the past year, she settled for a silver medal at the 2011 world championships behind Russian Tatyana Chernova and silver at the 2012 indoor world championships behind Nataliya Dobrynska of Ukraine. She wants the gold that has eluded her. Badly.
Oscar Pistorius, track and field, South Africa
Usain Bolt may be the most phenomenal track athlete at these Olympics, but the most inspirational is Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee from South Africa who hopes to make history by becoming the first amputee runner to compete in the able-bodied Olympics.
Pistorius runs on carbon-fiber blades, and thus is known as “The Blade Runner.’’ Although he didn’t meet the South African track federation’s requirement that athletes competing in the 400-meter race have two finishes of 45.3 seconds or faster (with at least one of those finishes occurring at an international event), he was chosen to run in both the 400 meters and the 1,600-meter relay at the London Games. He also plans to compete in the Paralympics.
Born without fibulas in either leg, Pistorius had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. His disability didn’t keep him from competing in rugby, water polo and tennis in school. As he got older, he focused on running.
Pistorius’ remarkable success in able-bodied races has not come without controversy. Some competitors feel the artificial limbs give him an unfair advantage, and the international track federation ruled as such before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Pistorius challenged the ruling, and it was overturned later that year by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Although he was eligible for the 2008 Olympics, he fell short of the qualifying standard. He won gold medals in the 100, 200, and 400 meters at the Paralympics that summer. Four years later, he is determined to make history.
Hiroshi Hoketsu, equestrian, Japan
Septuagenarians across the globe can rally around Japanese equestrian rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, who, at the age of 71 (yes, 71!), will be the oldest competitor in London.
Hoketsu qualified for the individual dressage, riding a 15-year-old horse named Whisper. He first competed in the 1964 Games when he was 23. He was 67 when he finished ninth in the team event and 35th as an individual at the Beijing Olympics four years ago.
Back home in Japan, they call him “The Hope of Old Men.’’ He has an endorsement deal with a health food chain and continues to train twice a day.
Believe it or not, Hoketsu is not the oldest Olympian in history. But he is the oldest in 92 years. Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn was 72 when he won a silver medal at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.
Aliya Mustafina, gymnastics, Russia
Larisa Iordache, gymnastics, Romania
Every Olympics needs its gymnastics pixies. This time, two teens to watch are Russian Aliya Mustafina and Romanian Larisa Iordache.
Mustafina won the 2010 all-around world championship at age 15, and was favored to win the 2010 European championship. But she tore her left ACL on the landing of a difficult vault and was carried off the podium, reminiscent of the Kerri Strug vault injury at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
She had surgery and did not compete for eight months. She started training again in December 2011, and though she has struggled in her first few meets, she is considered one of the favorites. Also watch for 15-year-old Iordache, who has drawn comparisons to Nadia Comaneci, the tiny Romanian who won the 1976 gold. Iordache won the gold in floor exercise and silver in beam at the recent world championships.
Chris Hoy, track cycling, Great Britain
They call Chris Hoy “The Real McHoy,’’ and who can argue?
The Scottish track cyclist won three gold medals in Beijing and was knighted Sir Chris by Queen Elizabeth II in 2009. He is on pace to become Great Britain’s most successful Olympian, as he has collected four golds and a silver. Rowing legend Steve Redgrave holds the national record with five golds and a bronze.
Hoy is the first Briton to win three gold medals in a single Olympics since freestyle swimmer Henry Taylor in 1908.
Caster Semenya, track and field, South Africa
Doubts about her gender made life miserable for South African runner Caster Semenya three years ago, but she says she has put it behind her and that if she wins a medal, she will dedicate it to Nelson Mandela, who helped her during her tough times.
When then-19-year-old Semenya won the 800-meter world title in 2009, skeptics insisted she was not a woman, and she was forced to undergo testing. It turned out she had excessive male genes due to a medical condition, but the international track federation cleared her to compete as a woman. She won the silver medal at the 2011 World Championships and is now coached by Mozambique legend Maria Mutola.
“Life wasn’t easy, but I kept dealing with the situation with help from my family, friends and management,” Semenya said. “It (the gender question) is not in my mind anymore. For me it’s in the past. I have to focus on the future, and that’s what I’m doing right now.”
Kohei Uchimura, gymnastics, Japan
His parents ran a gym out of their home, and he grew up doodling gymnastics routines in his schoolbooks. It’s no wonder, then, that the mop-topped Uchimura wound up winning three consecutive world all-around gold medals, in 2009, 2010 and 2011. No other man has ever won three titles in a row.
Uchimura won the silver at the 2008 Games, and now that China’s Yang Wei has retired, the door is open for the Japanese gymnast to win it all.
Ranomi Kromowidjojo, swimming, Netherlands
Her name will likely be the longest on the aquatic center scoreboard, and it could be on the top line in the 50-meter and 100-meter sprints. Ranomi Kromowidjojo, a 21-year-old Dutch swimmer of Indonesian descent, is one of the favorites in both events.
Her name may be new to casual fans, but swimming enthusiasts have known about her for years. She has been competing at the elite level since age 15, swam in her first world championship at 17 and at 18 won an Olympic gold medal in Beijing with the Dutch 4x100 relay team.
A bout of meningitis interrupted her training last year, but she is fully healthy now, and the natatorium announcer ought to start practicing her name.
Lin Dan, badminton, China
China’s “Super Dan’’ is back. Spiky-haired Lin Dan is considered the best badminton player of all time, and his fiery personality (read: hot temper) makes him a crowd favorite, a la John McEnroe. He can smash the shuttlecock 200 mph, and has also been known to abuse rackets and argue with referees. Lin is a four-time world champion, defending Olympic champion, and five-time All England champion.
He is one of the most recognizable athletes in China and a paparazzi favorite, especially because he is married to Xie Xingfang, China’s No. 1 women’s badminton player. The Olympic badminton competition will be held at Wembley Arena, and Lin is favored to win gold again. Let the Lin-sanity references begin.