Yao against U.S. has monumental appeal

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BEIJING --- Wondering why Yao Ming wasn't the one soaring over the Bird's Nest, bestowed with the honor of igniting the Olympic flame?

Maybe China wanted to make sure he was ready for today's opener against the United States.

OK, so there were other reasons, from the difficulty of getting someone his size to fly to the shrieks the mere idea would've drawn from his corporate sponsors and his NBA team.

Still, don't underestimate the importance of keeping the big guy in one piece for this game and this tournament.

Yao's first Olympic home game would've been a big deal, regardless, but having it against LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Americans ratchets everything up. The atmosphere inside the arena should be pretty amazing, as the NBA-loving locals celebrate their national team, as well as the heroes they usually only see on television.

"Everybody cares about it," Yao said. "It is a great event, and nobody can be slack."

The game tips off 10:15 p.m. in Beijing, but that's mid-morning back in the States.

In prime time today, the stars of the show will be at the pool and on the floor, vault, bars and beam.

Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and the rest of the U.S. women's gymnastics team come in as world champions, but they're stepping on the turf of their top rivals. The action this time is only qualifying, but you can be sure the Americans will be watching the Chinese and vice-versa.

The swimming headliners are the usual big names: Michael Phelps, fellow Baltimore native Katie Hoff and Natalie Coughlin.

Phelps and the gymnasts will be ratings magnets every time they're on the docket. But, combined, their events may not draw as many viewers as the Yao-U.S. basketball game.

China is a country with about 1.2 billion people, so if only 1 in every 25 watches, that's still 48 million. And the ratio is expected to be a lot stronger than 1-in-25.

While the Chinese never have finished higher than eighth, things are different now.

In addition to being at home, China is coached by Jonas Kazlauskas, who guided Lithuania to the bronze in 2000. Plus, Yao is joined by Yi Jianlian, of the New Jersey Nets, and former NBA player Wang Zhizhi.

China probably isn't deep enough to win a medal. But one great effort? Sure.

Four of the six teams in each group advance to the medal round. Because Angola is in Group B, only one other team has to fall. Expect the U.S., Spain and Greece to go on, so that leaves China and Germany battling for one spot.


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