This will be an Olympiad to remember.
All throughout this year the media have been comparing the events of 2008 to those of 1968. With its political and cultural drama, 1968 was an important year in American history. And in October of that year, in the high altitude of Mexico City, the Summer Olympics were held and with them came great athletic drama. In track and field competition, there are certain parallels between the Mexico City Olympics and Beijing, and if you are careful as you watch the coverage on television or the internet, you may just see something great.
On the track, Mexico City was the greatest performance by an American team up to that point. In all they took the gold in 12 of the 24 events, six with world records. US women won three of the 12 golds. Bob Beamon won the long jump with a jump that was over 21 inches longer than the previous world record.
Some believe that Beamon's long jump was aided by the thin, high altitude air in Mexico City. The athletes in Beijing this month will be dealing with other air problems. The smog and big-city pollution are such a worry to some that the US Olympic Committee has developed a filtration mask for the US team to wear when not competing. Many countries have done the same, and some countries are sending their athletes to Beijing only long enough to gather up their medals and get out of there.
The people who advise the world record holder in the marathon, Haile Gebrselassie, talked him out of racing for Olympic marathon gold. He says that the air quality is so dangerously poor that to race in it would end his career. But being the Olympics, many others feel that it would make their careers to race in Beijing, and we can look for continued resurgence in American marathoning in this team, building on the two medals from Athens.
No US men or women are entering these Games with a world record to their name this time around, but there are plenty with legitimate gold medal hopes.
Another iconic image to emerge from Mexico City 40 years ago is the picture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, heads bowed over black scarves, black-gloved fists raised in the air and their bare feet planted firmly on the gold and bronze steps of the 200m podium. They silently took a stand for the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Those that run the show in Beijing have banned any sort of political display or protest in a competition venue or in the Olympic Village. They are afraid that there will be attention given to China's history of disregard for human rights and the handling of Tibetan protests. But with the entire world watching, will someone try to take a stand?
And what sporting event would be complete without a good doping ban? Mexico City was the start of doping tests, and there they resulted in one ban. We now have become so calloused by drug drama and rumors that the moment an athlete does something that seems impossible, many people figure it is. They must be on drugs. It's unlikely that the Beijing dust will settle without this issue popping up somewhere.
The powers that be in China have worked very hard to orchestrate this enormous show. It is highly scripted and the stage is set for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad.
But this is athletics, and it is unpredictable.
How will the athletes meet the challenges of their events? How well have the Chinese met the challenges of hosting the largest sporting event ever? How will things as basic as air and as fundamental as human rights impact these contests?
And in the end, really, who will win?
Matt Manfred is the head cross country coach at Penn State Altoona and the head boys track & field coach at Bishop Guilfoyle High School.