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ABOUT TO GET SERIOUS

Times Staff Writer

The Beijing Olympics will begin in 100 days, on 8-8-08 -- a date picked because the number 8 is associated with prosperity in Chinese culture.

It may not be so auspicious if political leaders boycott the opening ceremony to protest China’s human-rights record, as has been discussed by members of the European Union.

Some athletes plan to voice their objections to Chinese policy in Tibet and Darfur. As a reminder that speech isn’t free everywhere, U.S. Olympic Committee officials are telling athletes, staff and journalists that the Chinese government and police can hold someone for four days without notifying anyone, including the U.S. Embassy.

“For many athletes, years of hard work, training and sacrifice will culminate during the next 100 days as they attempt to fulfill the dream of representing our country at the Beijing Games,” said Jim Scherr, the USOC’s chief executive.

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Here are 10 U.S. athletes and events to watch in the next 100 days:

1 Shawn Johnson vs. Nastia Liukin in a preview of the Olympic all-around gymnastics final.

Gymnastics trials June 19-22 in Philadelphia.

The dynamic Johnson, of West Des Moines, Iowa, won the all-around title at the 2007 U.S. and world championships. Liukin (pronounced LOO-kin), of Parker, Texas, is more elegant and is tall for a gymnast at 5 feet 2. She won the U.S. titles in 2005 and 2006 but was slowed by injuries last year. This year she has won the American Cup and Pacific Rim titles.

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2 The remaining track athletes not caught in the BALCO steroids scandal.

Track and field trials June 27-July 6 in Eugene, Ore.

OK, there’s more than a few. Start with Jeremy Wariner of Waco, Texas, who won gold at Athens in the 400 meters and the 1,600-meter relay, and duplicated that at last year’s world championships. He left longtime coach Clyde Hart a few months later for Michael Ford, an associate coach at Baylor. Will the change affect his four-year domination of the 400?

3 Allyson Felix goes for a track double.

L.A.-born Felix, the Athens silver medalist in the 200 and twice the world champion, wanted to do the 200-400 double, but the schedule won’t allow it. Instead, she’s looking at the 100 and 200 and is in the 400-meter and 1,600-meter relay pools.

“I’ve always felt that my top-end speed has always been there. I just have to improve my start,” she said.

4 Sentimental favorite Alicia Shay in the 10,000-meter run.

As Alicia Craig, she won the NCAA 10,000-meter championship twice at Stanford. She married fellow runner Ryan Shay in 2007 but became a widow four months later when he collapsed and died during the men’s Olympic marathon trials. The 10,000 is the first final in Eugene.

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5 Who will scoot in the suit?

Swim trials June 29-July 6 at Omaha.

The new Speedo LZR suit has triggered a cascade of world records this year and more could fall in Omaha. Forty-one records have been set, 19 long-course and 22 short-course.

Ryan Lochte of Gainesville, Fla., who specializes in the backstroke and individual medley, set four world short-course records. (The trials will be contested at the long-course distance, 50 meters.) Michael Phelps, who won six gold medals and two bronze medals in Athens, gets another shot at Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in one Games.

Gary Hall Jr., gold medalist in the 50-meter freestyle in 2000 and 2004, might not make the U.S. team because it’s so deep in that event with world champion Benjamin Wildman-Tobriner and silver medalist Cullen Jones. Only two will go to Beijing.

6 Who will scoot in the suit, women’s division.

Katie Hoff of Towson, Md., was the baby of the Athens team at 15. Since then she has won six world titles and was ranked No. 1 in the world last year in the 200- and 400-meter individual medley.

Southern California native Dara Torres, 41 and mother of a 2-year-old, became the first swimmer to compete in four Olympics when she won five medals at Sydney. She won the first of her nine medals in 1984, before many of her rivals were born. She ranks among the world leaders in the 50-meter freestyle and holds the American record.

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7 Mia’s gone, but there’s Pia.

The women’s soccer team, which has qualified for Beijing, next plays Australia on Saturday in Birmingham, Ala.

Talk about a lack of job security: Pia Sundhage’s contract to coach the defending Olympic champions ends after the Games. Nothing short of another gold will do after a flat third-place finish at the 2007 World Cup.

“This team is a beautiful team, and there’s so much talent on the team,” said Sundhage, who is three for three so far.

With Mia Hamm and other pioneers gone, players such as Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd have come into their own.

8 Wrestling with success.

Wrestling trials June 13-15 at Las Vegas.

The mat is often the scene of memorable Olympic moments. In 1984, cancer survivor Jeff Blatnick won a surprising Greco-Roman gold medal, and in 2000, farm boy Rulon Gardner became a hero with his Greco-Roman upset of formidable Russian Alexander Karelin.

This year’s story could be Dremiel Byers, an Army staff sergeant who was the 2002 world champion and 2007 world bronze medalist at 120 kilograms (264.5 pounds)

Freestyle wrestler Daniel Cormier (96 kilograms, 211.5 pounds) endured the death of his infant daughter in 2003 and the disappointment of a fourth-place finish at Athens. A 2007 world bronze medalist, he won the U.S. title last weekend.

Among the women, Athens bronze medalist Patricia Miranda is back at 48 kilograms (105.5 pounds). Don’t mess with her on the mat or in a debate: She earned a degree from Yale Law School a year ago.

9 Bikes. Dirt. Jumps. Whee!

BMX trials for one men’s spot June 14 at Chula Vista.

BMX (bicycle motocross) will make its Olympic debut and the U.S. is likely to be all over the Beijing medal stand. The U.S. can send three men and two women, depending on world rankings after next month’s world championships in Taiyuan, China.

Kyle Bennett of Conroe, Texas, will get one spot, one will be awarded June 14 and one will be chosen by coaches. Donny Robinson of Napa, Mike Day of Valencia and Steven Cisar of Altadena are contenders for the last two spots.

Jill Kintner of Seattle won the U.S. women’s title last month and is expected to get an Olympic berth. Also in the mix is Arielle Martin of Pleasant Grove, Utah, a four-time national amateur champion.

10 Bikes. Roads. Mountains.

The road cyclists are at mid-season, mainly in Europe. Many Olympic hopefuls will compete in the Tour de France, July 5-27.

The U.S. has five Beijing berths for men and three for women. Levi Leipheimer of Butte, Mont., a two-time winner of the Tour de California road race, was third at the Tour de France last year and could contend this year.

The world mountain bike championships will be June 18-22 in Val di Sol, Italy, and will help determine Olympic berths. The U.S. can send two men and two women to Beijing.

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helene.elliott@latimes.com


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