The 2004 United States Olympic basketball team featured such high-priced NBA pros as Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson — but barely limped to a bronze medal by beating Lithuania. The vaunted ’08 squad, meanwhile — featuring Kobe Bryant (who couldn’t play in ’04 thanks to his since-dismissed rape trial) and LeBron James — looks like it might be poised to suffer a similar indignity: they recently only eked a win against an Australian team that had its best guy resting on the bench.
Then there’s the Jamaican bobsled team, who, in the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, didn't even finish a run to officially qualify — the only team out of 26 nations to DQ. They became the darlings of the Games, and their story was made into a Disney flick starring John Candy. (Er, you win some, you lose some.)
Point being, sometimes we’d rather root for the unknowns, the underdogs, and the uniques than the professional jerks who are only competing to sweeten their endorsement deals. Here, then, in honor of China’s love for the auspicious number eight (the Beijing games are to kick off this Friday, August 8, 2008, at 8:08:08 pm), are eight athletes from around the world you may or may not have heard of.
MA LIN, CHINA, TABLE TENNIS
“Boring, dry, and extremely effective,” Ma’s official bio describes his style of play. Uh, whatever happened to “Swifter, Higher, Stronger?” No matter. Ma, who joined the Chinese national team 14 years ago (at age 14), is a ruthless competitor. He “isn’t trying to please a crowd,” he’s just gunning for a win. We still think we could beat him at beer pong after a few keg cups of Milwaukee’s Best.
LUMINIŢA DINU, ROMANIA, HANDBALL
Dinu, whose name means “little light,” is a blindingly popular figure in Romanian handball. Indeed, she’s considered the greatest goalkeeper in that country’s history. But don’t take our word for it — consider the following news account: “Două dintre componentele de bază ale echipei naţionale de handbal feminin a României, portarul Luminiţa Huţupan Dinu şi pivotul Ionela Gâlcă Stanca, nu au fost convocate în lotul tricolorelor pentru returul cu Islanda, din barajul de calificare la Campionatul European 2008.” (We’re assuming you speak Romanian.)
RICHARD “STUBBY” CLAPP, CANADA, BASEBALL
This is probably Olympic baseball’s last stand. The International Olympic Committee has voted to remove the sport from the 2012 London games. Still, the Washington Post reports, “players and USA Baseball officials are optimistic that a clean, competitive tournament in Beijing will help to convince the IOC that the sport holds valuable global interest and deserves to be included in future Olympics.” Rather than the Americans, though, it may actually be the Canadians who change people’s minds. Make that one Canadian — if a 35-year-old veteran of the Edmonton Cracker-Cats with a name like Stubby Clapp can’t save Olympic baseball, no one can.
DANIELE MOLMENTI, ITALY, CANOE/KAYAK
We were first struck by a photo of Molmenti on the Olympic Web site. His tan, bearded, saucer-eyed face, serene but in intense concentration, reminded us of a holy Byzantine icon. But this 24 year old is entirely of the 21st century. And, as Italian kayakers go, he seems like a pretty cool cat. He beat out two better-known teammates to score Italy’s K1 spot. He rides a Ducati Monster motorcycle in his spare time. And he’s got a bitchin’ multimedia official site, plus a Facebook page in case you’d like to be his friend.
SARA KHOSHJAMAL, IRAN, TAEKWONDO
Weightlifter Hossein Rezazadeh, a 345-pound man-mountain nicknamed the “Iranian Hercules,” is the first athlete from his country to have won two gold medals, and a massive celebrity in his homeland. He was forced to drop out of the Games this past month due to injury, so his countrymen will have to content themselves rooting for, among others, Khoshjamal, Iran’s first female taekwondo qualifier. “In keeping with Iran’s conservative religious rules,” Time reports, she “trains and competes wearing a headscarf,” also noting that huge posters of her adorn the walls of Tehran and 120,000 girls there are emulating her strikes and kicks.
BUTCH JOHNSON, US, ARCHERY
Butch Johnson was a wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys. But not this Butch Johnson. This Butch Johnson was raised in Webster, Massachusetts, and is the greatest archer to come out of Worcester County since, well, ever. He’s been around for a while. Johnson, 52, has been loosing volleys of arrows at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour for nearly 40 years. Beijing will mark his fifth consecutive Olympics, one of only three athletes on the US team making trip number five.
ANASTASIA DAVYDOVA, RUSSIA, SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMING
This was a toughie. Who to pick? Anastasia Davydova, or her long-time syncro partner Anastasia Ermakova? We went alphabetically, but either would’ve been worthy. What are the odds that two synchronized swimmers would have names that similar? Does their coach have trouble telling them apart? Think they’ve seen that old Harry Shearer/Martin Short SNL clip from the ’80s? (“I know you! I know you!”) Either way, I’m sure they’re thinking gold. “I mean,” as Christopher Guest once said, “who would wanna wear bronze, anyway?”
USAIN BOLT, JAMAICA, TRACK AND FIELD
Bolt, a 21 year old from Kingston, is not an underdog. This spring he ran 100 meters in 9.72 seconds, obliterating the world record, and establishing himself — for now, at least — as the world’s fastest man. He merits inclusion on this list simply on the merits of his utterly and uncannily apropos surname.