Strangely, losing might help Sally Pearson win. Pearson's surprise loss last weekend in south London in her last competitive run before the Olympics has punctured some of the external hope and expectation but simultaneously reinforced in her what is required to win.
The hurdler whose competitors refer to as the "angry white girl" looked even angrier when she crossed the line in the unfamiliar position of behind someone else. She had tumbled and suffered a minor injury in the warm-up but declined to withdraw or use it as an excuse for the loss, only her second in two years and 34 races.
Pearson said it reinforced in her mind that she could be beaten if she performed at anything below her best. Conversely, she knows her best has been better than any one else for two years. "It just shows me that I am only human," Pearson says - "that these girls only beat me while I was not at my best, but when I am on fire they can't come near me."
A week earlier, she had won the Paris grand prix in 12.4 seconds (American Kellie Wells beat her in London in 12.57 seconds).
"Paris was amazing for me and if I can run like that at the Olympics it's going to be a great race," she said. "I just have to remain focused on the job and take each hurdle at a time."
She is the face of the Australian team and carries the hopes of the country probably more than any other athlete.
Women's 100m hurdles final, August 8, 6am, live on Nine.
FOUR years ago, Liu Xiang was China's Cathy Freeman, only perhaps slightly bigger. The Chinese 110m hurdler had won gold in Athens four years earlier and in so doing became the first Chinese male to win track and field gold. He didn't just win, he equalled the world record. Instantly, he was the pin-up of Chinese sport with a billion people waiting for him to repeat the effort in Beijing .
The Olympic gold was followed by the world title in 2007 and the world record outright. An Achilles injury sidelined him at Beijing, so a billion people are still waiting to see him become China's first dual Olympic gold medallist.
Men's 110m hurdles final,
August 9, 6.15am.
OSCAR PISTORIUS and CASTER SEMENYA
THEY call him the Blade Runner and they called her a him. The South African pair have forced reconsideration of what defines an athlete, indeed a person. Pistorius - whose legs were amputated below the knee at 11 months and runs on carbon-fibre blades - will be the first double-amputee to compete at an able-bodied Games.
Semenya is the female athlete who so surprised with her startling effort at the Berlin world championships that she was examined to ascertain whether she was a man running as a woman.
Both athletes have endured much to be where they are. They have asked the world to reflect on awkward philosophical and medical questions, but all they have ever wanted to do is run.
Men's 400m final, August 7, 6.30am. Women's 800m final, August 12, 5am.
FOUR years ago, Usain Bolt flew to London and recorded himself on his mobile phone saying, "I will win three gold medals. I will win three gold medals." Then he arrived in China and won three gold medals, setting two world records. He won the 100m after eating chicken nuggets and with a shoelace undone.
For nearly four years, he has remained untouchable as the athlete in world sport without peer. The fastest man in the world, he is also the most ubiquitous in world athletics.
He followed Olympic gold with three world championships and broke his own world records. He kept getting faster. Then there was what seemed an aberration.
In South Korea last year, at the World Championships, Bolt faltered. He was not beaten, because he did not start. Or rather, he did start just a little too quickly and he was dramatically disqualified.
Life has turned for Bolt. In the lead-up to the Jamaican trials he was involved in a minor car accident, then came the Olympic trials and injury. But the strut of the showman sprinter is unperturbed. "I'm not far off. I can get it done," he says.
Men's 100m final, August 6, 6.50am, live on Nine.
AH, THE 1500m freestyle. For 20 years it was our race and, while the rest of the world religiously tuned out, we couldn't get enough of the pool's marathon event. But now we have a new one - one that takes about 14 minutes less, is packed with action and swum in the middle of the Olympic program, where the blue riband event should be. Now, thanks to the man they call "The Missile", the man also known to his mates as "Maggie", our race, and the swimming highlight for Australians, as well as the rest of the world at the London Olympics, is the men's 100m freestyle. Ever since he stunned so many in the swimming fraternity by winning at the world championships in Shanghai last year, James Magnussen has been favourite to win the most glamorous Olympic event in the pool.
Magnussen is a 21-year-old, attending his first Olympics, an overwhelming favourite in the biggest event on the swimming program, with the weight of expectation from an entire nation on his broad shoulders.
On August 1, we will find out if there is any kryptonite for Magnussen, or if he really is our latest Olympic superhero.
Men's 100m freestyle final, August 2, 5.17am, live on Nine.
IT MIGHT be the Silent Assassin, the relentless English kid who pushed into a Hartlepool boxing gym as a 12-year-old, thought "It can't be that hard" and six years later owned the British title after only two senior fights. Or the big veteran Swede with the extraordinarily long reach.
It could be the Michigan teenager, already being spruiked as one who will remake the Sweet Science. Maybe, cross fingers, even the Australian who switched from karate.
But even before a punch is thrown, these middleweights - and boxers in the fly and lightweight divisions - have won their fight: they are taking women's boxing into the Olympics.
"It's the final piece in the puzzle," exults boxer/author Mischa Merz. "It confirms the things I've known all along, which is that women are as capable as men of boxing well at the elite level."
Watch for Ireland's Katie Taylor, a superstar in the 60kg division. But it's the middleweight field, where Australia's Naomi Fischer-Rasmussen, 28, is contending, that is richest.
Women's boxing, August 6 to finals August 10 from 1.30am.
LAUREN JACKSON was born and bred for basketball greatness. The third generation in the game, she got her height from her father, Gary, a Boomer in 1975, and her drive and competitiveness from her mum, Maree Bennie, an Opal from 1974 to 1982, sometimes known as "The Assassin".
She has been called the best woman basketballer in the world and there's no doubt she is one of Australia's greatest ever women athletes. But, at 31 and approaching retirement, there is a hole in the heart of Jackson's glittering achievements. Always the bridesmaid, in three consecutive Olympics, she and the national team have had to settle for silver behind the powerhouse Americans.
"We have come so close so many times. We want to do exceptional things," Jackson says. "Who knows what may happen on the day? The stars may align."
Gold medal game, August 12, 6am, live on Nine.
SINCE the modern summer Olympic Games began in Greece, in 1896, athletes from 137 nations have won medals. If there was a nation called Phelpsistan, a country consisting of just one athlete, a swimmer named Michael Phelps, he would sit ahead of 98 of those countries in terms of Olympic gold medals won.
The American, arguably - no, undoubtedly - the best swimmer to ever dive into water, has won a record 14 gold medals (and a pair of bronze medals just for variety) and could pass the gold medal tallies of a handful more nations before the curtain drops on his Olympic career on the final day of the swimming program in London. For Phelps, 27, this is it. His fourth Olympics will be a record for an American male swimmer. Phelps is already the greatest Olympic gold medal winner in history. With just three more medals - of any colour - he will surpass Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina as the greatest Olympic medal winner.
Men's 200m IM final, August 3, 5.16am 400m IM final, July 29, 4.30am 100m butterfly final, August 4, 4.38am 200m butterfly final, August 1, 4.47am, live on Nine.
ANNA MEARES v VICTORIA PENDLETON
Rivalries can be overplayed, but when the feeling between Anna Meares and Victoria Pendleton has been at its hottest the term nemesis has not done it justice. Their clashes - sporting and verbal - have been numerous and always compelling.
Pendleton's outpouring of emotion when she won the women's sprint at the last world championships, in Melbourne in April, said as much about her triumph as it did about who she beat. On Meares's home soil, the British speedster triumphed in the last pre-Olympics competition of note and walked away with her ninth world title.
The pair's rivalry was born in a keirin race in Bordeaux, in 2006, when Meares - in an effort she later apologised for - knocked a young woman who would become Britain's queen of cycling off her bike. Bad blood boiled after Meares had to settle for sprint silver behind Pendleton at the 2008 Olympics. In victory, Pendleton failed to meaningfully recognise the life-threatening accident the Australian had recovered from just seven months before the Games.
After Pendleton's Melbourne victory, Meares admitted the 31-year-old had gained a psychological win. But last week, on a training camp with the Australian team, Meares was back to her confident best. "I have a real shot at winning not just one, not just two, but three gold medals in London," she said, referring to the sprint, keirin and team sprint events that she will contest.
"That's what's been driving me for the last 3? years since the new event calendar was announced. The opportunity is huge and I'm hoping for some of the greatest performances of my career."
Women's sprint final, August 8, 2.26am women's keirin final, August 4, 3.38am.
She has been dubbed the Cathy Freeman of London's Games, though to Australians that's rather odd given British heptathlete Jessica Ennis is less a political symbol and more the great sporting hope of her nation.
Something Ennis does have in common with Freeman, the 400 metre runner who became greater than Sydney's Games, is that she is one of the host nation's few gold medal favourites performing in the sacred space of the Olympic track and field stadium.
The 26-year-old's desire to become Olympic champion, is magnified because she had to sit out the Beijing Olympics four years ago due to injury. Having been crowned the world's best last year she is well placed to strike.
Knowing her Olympic build-up would feel especially long - and potentially sapping - in the Games' host city, Ennis decided after her first visit to London's Olympic stadium last year that it would be her last before she competed. The idea was that her adrenaline levels would rocket when delivery day arrived.
Women's heptathlon, August 3, 7.05pm to August 5, 5.35am (final event).