Perhaps not since Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman took the blocks in Sydney in 2000 has an Olympic athlete single-handedly carried the crushing...

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1. Liu Xiang, hurdler, China

Perhaps not since Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman took the blocks in Sydney in 2000 has an Olympic athlete single-handedly carried the crushing pressure of hometown heroism that will face Liu at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. Liu, 25, a national hero, will seek to defend his stunning 110-meter hurdle victory (the first track-and-field gold medal ever for a Chinese Olympian) in Athens against a packed, talented field, including Cuba’s Dayron Robles, who broke Liu’s Athens world record in June. The Chinese government provided him with a stable of his own doctors and every training advantage they can muster. His legs reportedly have been insured for $13.5 million. Thefinal:Aug.21

2. Yelena Isinbaeva, pole vaulter, Russia

She rocketed into stardom at the 2004 Athens Games, setting a world record on her way to a gold medal. Since then, Isinbaeva, a sex symbol in Europe, has only cemented her status as the greatest competitor in the young history of women’s pole vaulting. Undefeated in her past eight major competitions, Isinbaeva, 26, has long held the world record indoors and outdoors. She is the first woman to jump more than 5 meters (her outdoor world best is 16-6 ½). Her primary advantage: Amazing flexibility, borne of her childhood training as a gymnast, which gives Isinbaeva the ability and fearlessness to fly completely upside down over the bar. Thefinal:Aug.18.

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3. Haile Gebrselassie, distance runner, Ethiopia

Today, at 35, Gebrselassie stands as perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time. He holds the marathon world record at 2 hours, 4 minutes and 26 seconds. The mark, set last year in Germany, was his 25th world record. But he won’t marathon in Beijing. He made headlines earlier this year — and embarrassed the Chinese — by announcing that he would forego his specialty because of air pollution. Thus, for his likely Olympic adieu, Gebrselassie, aka “The Little Emperor,” will run the 10,000 meters, where he will go against much younger superstars of the sport, such as Kenenisa Bekele. A gold in the event would be his third. Thefinal:Aug.17.

4. Marta Vieira da Silva, soccer player, Brazil

Like other famed Brazilian footballers, Marta goes by only one name. But she’s so good, she’d probably be a household first name just about anywhere on the planet. Marta, 22, is widely considered the world’s greatest female player. A magician on the field as a striker, Marta leads her highly talented Brazilian squad into the Beijing tourney bent on revenge for the U.S. team’s stunning overtime victory over a younger Brazilian squad at the 2004 Games. Thefinal:Aug.21.

5. Roman Sebrle, decathlete, Czech Republic

Anyone earning the title World’s Greatest Athlete pays his dues. But none quite the way Sebrle has. During training last year, Sebrle, a silver medalist in the decathlon in Sydney and the champion from Athens, took a javelin in his shoulder. Amazingly, he recuperated in time to win the world championships, and now is seeking to cap his career with a second decathlon gold. Sebrle, 33, is the first decathlete to post more than 9,000 points, and has posted 8,000 points or more in an amazing 40 contests. Thefinal:Aug.21-22

6. Usain Bolt, sprinter, Jamaica

Just when the world was getting used to a Jamaican sprinter, Asafa Powell, as the world’s fastest man, Bolt struck from nowhere this spring, blasting by Powell’s 100-meter world record in 9.72 seconds at a meet in New York. The run by the 6-foot-5 Bolt was a shock to the track world, as he was known primarily as a 200-meter sprinter. At 21, he appears to be a pure, raw talent; Bolt set the world record while still working on his starts. Bolt was edged out by countryman Powell in a recent meet by .01 seconds and lurking in the wings is another speed merchant bent on gold — America’s Tyson Gay. Thefinal:Aug.16.

7. Libby Trickett, sprint swimmer, Australia

For weeks, American swimmer Dara Torres has been soaking up the attention that comes with winning the sprint races — the 50- and 100-meter freestyle — at the U.S. Olympic Trials at the eye-popping age of 41. In Beijing, Torres, who swam the 50 in a U.S.-record 24.25 seconds, will face Australian sprint queen and current world-record holder Libby (Lenton) Trickett, who doesn’t make a habit of asking competitors’ names as she flies past them in the pool. Trickett, a short swimmer with small feet and legs and a hulking upper body, is the world-record holder in the 50 free (23.97) and 100 free (52.88). A national star in swim-crazy Australia, Trickett is bent on redemption after her performance in Athens, where she went in as the 100-meter world-record holder but failed to make the finals. She did win gold on the Aussies’ blazing 400-meter freestyle relay team. But she’ll be looking to add many more in Beijing. Trickett, also competing in the 100-meter butterfly and two or three relays, could leave Beijing with five or six medals. The100flyfinal:Aug.11.The100final:Aug.15.The50final:Aug.17.

8. Hiroshi Hoketsu, equestrian, Japan

Granted, the horse does a lot of the work. Still, you have to tip your hat to any athlete who can return to the five rings after a long time away. In the case of Hoketsu, it’s been a really long time: 44 years. Hoketsu at age 23 finished 40th in show jumping at the Tokyo Games in 1964, when other Olympians included boxer Joe Frazier and runner Bob Hayes. This month, he’ll be back for his second shot an Olympic medal at age 67.

Hoketsu, a retired Johnson & Johnson executive who lives in Germany, will become the second-oldest Olympian ever (Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn competed in the 1920 Olympics at age 72). Hoketsu competes in dressage. Thefinal:Aug.19.

9. Guo Jingjing, springboard diver, China

Another Chinese hometown favorite with incredible performance pressures on her shoulders, Guo, 26, is a two-time Athens gold medalist in springboard and synchro springboard. She debuted in the Atlanta Games as a 14-year-old, and won silver medals in both events in Sydney in 2000. Guo gained celebrity status in China after Athens, in ways both bad and good — she reportedly was reprimanded by her national team after making a commercial for McDonald’s. China’s reigning “dive princess” recently denied rumors that she was pregnant and leaving the team, and is in questionable form (she failed to make the finals in a competition this spring). The Beijing Games will be, she vows, her swan song. Thefinal:Aug.17.

10. Veronica Campbell-Brown, sprinter, Jamaica

At 26, Campbell-Brown is the world’s top-ranked female sprinter. The two-time Athens gold medalist (200 meters; 400 relay) and four-time Olympic medalist is the reigning world champion in the 100 meters. She was expected to be a favorite in the 100 and 200 meters in Beijing. But amazingly, she finished fourth in the 100 at the Jamaican Olympic trials, and will not compete in Beijing in that event, despite her status as 2007 world champion. Her matchup in the 200 meters against America’s Allyson Felix should be a Beijing track highlight. The200final:Aug.21.The400relayfinal:Aug.22.

Ron Judd, The Seattle Times

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