Moments that defined Beijing 2008

From the record-breaking Michael Phelps and the trend-setting Usain Bolt to the heart-warming stories of China’s brave shooting star Du Li and Afghanistan’s remarkable Rohullah Nikpai, the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 had it all. 

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Usain Bolt (JAM): 100m

At just 21 years old, Usain Bolt found time to turn and smile at the camera as he crossed the line in the final of the men’s 100m in a scarcely comprehensible 9.69 seconds. Bolt, shoelaces undone, had showboated his way to a huge world record, smashing the previous mark by three-hundredths of a second. The watching world had a new hero. At 1.95m, Bolt was an unlikely sprint champion. But while the Jamaican had the second-slowest reaction time out the blocks, his long limbs carried him to the finishing line in a mere 41 strides.

His closest rival took 44. By the time the 200m final came around, the public were smitten with the man who was seemingly unable to stop smiling. The young sprinter flew to a second gold in the 200m, beating Michael Johnson’s 12-year-old world record mark in the process. Lightning had indeed struck twice.

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Michael Phelps (USA): entire swimming programme

The incomparable Michael Phelps swam 17 races over nine days in Beijing, winning eight gold medals and setting seven world records. He competed in all four strokes and covered distances from 100m to 400m. To say he dominated does not do justice to his display. Only twice did it look like the man from Baltimore might not pass compatriot Mark Spitz’s iconic haul of seven gold medals, won at the Munich 1972 Games.

The first scare came in the 4x100m relay final, but team-mate Jason Lezak proved himself the perfect wingman by chasing down France’s Alain Bernard to snatch gold for the USA on the final stroke. And then, with six gold medals safely stowed, the dream looked all but over. Seventh at the turn in the 100m butterfly final, a clearly exhausted Phelps seemed shot. But somehow the man with a wingspan of 2.01m powered his way through the field and snatched gold on the wall, finishing 0.01 seconds ahead of Serbia’s Milorad Cavic.

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Du Li (CHN): 50m rifle three positions

Not all the heroes of Beijing 2008 were as dominant as Bolt and Phelps. Du Li, the Athens 2004 women’s 10m air rifle champion, had the unenviable honour of being the home nation’s first nailed-on certainty for gold. The pressure of carrying the expectations of 1.3 billion plus people proved too much for the shooter. Overcome by nerves on the first day of the Games, Du finished fifth in her favoured event and subsequently broke down on national TV. There was, however, to be a very happy ending to this story. Buoyed by a huge outpouring of support from viewers across China, Du bounced back to win gold in the 50m rifle three positions. Her triumph was one of a remarkable 51 gold medals won by China.

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Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings (USA): beach volleyball

Fans at Chaoyang Park were treated to quite the spectacle as beach volleyball’s greatest pairing of all time lit up the arena with a succession of truly dominant displays. The USA’s Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings headed to Beijing in the midst of a 112-match winning sequence, and at no time during the Games did that remarkable record ever look in the remotest danger. For the second consecutive Olympic Games, the pair did not lose a single set, restricting their opponents to an average of just 15.1 points per set. Even the rain and a partisan home crowd couldn’t stop May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings from racing to gold in the final as they triumphed 21-18, 21-18 against Chinese duo Jia Tan and Jie Wang. The pair would go on to win a third gold together at London 2012 and, incredibly, Walsh Jennings will be going for a fourth gold in Tokyo in 2020, by which time she will be a mere 42 years old.

Nastia Liukin (USA): artistic gymnastics

The women’s artistic gymnastics all-around had one of the most intriguing sub-plots of any competition at Beijing 2008. The two favourites for gold, Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, were not only compatriots and friends but also room-mates in the Olympic Village. Johnson, the 2007 all-around world champion, was the clear favourite, having beaten Liukin, her elder by two years, at both the USA national championships and Olympic trials. The Russian-born Liukin, however, grabbed control of the competition with a series of elegant, fluid and almost flawless displays and finished more than half a point ahead of her roomie.

Liukin followed it up with bronze on the floor and silver on both the uneven bars and the balance beam – with Johnson finishing ahead of her – to go with a silver in the team competition.

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Matthew Mitcham (AUS): 10m platform diving

In the Water Cube, Australia’s Matthew Mitcham was one man who stood defiantly against the seemingly inevitable domination by Chinese divers. In the seven diving finals before the men’s 10m platform, the home nation had secured seven gold medals. With one dive left in the blue riband event, China’s Zhou Luxin looked certain to complete the clean sweep. Even after a slight mistake on entry on his last effort, Luxin stood 107.3 points ahead of Mitcham. The Australian needed an almost perfect dive to claim gold. He got it. The 20-year-old’s back two-and-a-half somersault with two and a half twists received four 10.0 scores in a record Olympic total of 112.10. It was enough to see Mitcham, who had come out as gay on the eve of the Games, take gold by just 4.8 points.

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Rohullah Nikpai (AFG): taekwondo 58kg

The name Rohullah Nikpai might not carry the same weight as Bolt, Phelps or even Mitcham, but the taekwondo fighter deserves his place in Olympic lore. 

On 19 August, Nikpai, one of just four Afghanistan team members competing at Beijing 2008, won his country’s first ever Olympic medal. Remarkably, the then 21-year-old did it by beating world champion Juan Antonio Ramos of Spain in the bout for bronze.

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Chris Hoy (GBR): track cycling

Great Britain’s Chris Hoy produced a genuinely flawless performance. Over the course of five days in the velodrome, Hoy won 18 consecutive races, remaining unbeaten throughout the Games as he claimed three gold medals. Hoy became the first British athlete in 100 years to triumph three times in one Games edition, and his hat-trick in the team sprint, keirin and men’s sprint formed the backbone of Great Britain’s magical haul of seven track cycling gold medals.

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Rafa Nadal (ESP): tennis

Despite all of the above, and plenty more truly heroic sporting action, one man stood out as the sportsperson other Olympians held in most awe at Beijing 2008. It was a feeling that modest tennis superstar Rafa Nadal shot right back at his fans.

The Spaniard did not disappoint his legion of Olympic admirers. In beating Novak Djokovic in the semi-final and Athens 2004 men’s doubles gold medallist Fernando Gonzalez in the final, Nadal extended his remarkable winning streak to 38 victories in 39 matches. It was a sequence that included the French Open and Wimbledon crowns and confirmed him as a remarkable champion among champions.

Chinese team: overall success

Most host nations expect to leap up the medals table but not many have, or ever will, match China’s rampant display at Beijing 2008. Chinese athletes won an extraordinary 19 additional gold medals at home compared to the nation’s tally four years earlier in Athens. The divers and the table tennis and badminton players did, unsurprisingly, lead the way but they were not alone, with China winning golds in sports from boxing to sailing.