Between the start of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing—or, if you're feeling particularly pretentious, the Games of the XXIX Olympiad—and the closing ceremonies on Aug. 24, more than 5,000 hours of live competition will be broadcast in this country by NBC and its affiliated platforms (cable and online). That is more than the amount of live American TV coverage of every previous Olympics combined.
If American broadcasting tendencies stay true to form, a whopping 30 to 45 minutes of that time will be devoted to athletes from outside the United States. In case you come across any of those events, at work or in the wee hours—since it is unlikely they'll be broadcast in prime time—it helps to know what and who you're watching.
That's no easy task, because some 10,000 athletes in 38 sports representing more than 200 countries will be competing. But here's a little tipsheet on Olympian athletes of African descent to get you going. It may even help you impress friends who are at a loss naming an Olympian other than Michael Phelps or LeBron James.
Don't feel bad at all if you had no clue how far our people's influence has spread—much of it surprised me, and I do this for a living.
Jamaica, track and field
SAMUEL KUBANI / AFP/Getty Images
Shame on you if you don't know that Bolt—who is 21 years old, 6-foot-4 and actually not nicknamed Lightning—is the World's Fastest Man (that is, the world-record holder in the 100-meter dash). OK, don't feel ashamed. Track and field is still recovering from numerous self-inflicted wounds because of high-profile doping scandals (thanks, Marion Jones); that is largely the reason Bolt's record run of 9.72 seconds, on May 31 in New York, wasn't aired live here despite its happening in a major Olympic-year meet. Worth noting: The 100 might not even be his best event (he's considered a prodigy in the 200), and his first sporting love was cricket.
Vladimir Rys / Bongarts/Getty Images
Too conventional? Sure, swimming is the marquee event of the Olympics, but Jones, born in the Bronx, is the only African American on the team and only its second black male ever (after Anthony Ervin, in the 2000 Games). He'll swim the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, and whether he medals or not, he'll be thankful to be there. The 24-year-old told NBC's "Today" show in June that he decided to learn how to swim when he was a child and nearly drowned in a neighborhood pool. Now he's dedicated to teaching black children to swim.
FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP/Getty Images
Yes, another mainstream sport, but not a mainstream team. One of the defining moments of the Dream Team's run to basketball gold in 1992 was Charles Barkley elbowing an overmatched Angolan player during a typical rout. Sixteen years later, Angola is no pushover: It has won five straight African national championships and just missed making the medal round in Athens in 2004. And it's the second U.S. opponent in this competition. Its best up-and-coming player is 6-foot-3 shooting guard Morais, 22, who played high school ball in the United States (at a tiny Christian school in northwest Georgia), can knock down three-pointers with ease and was MVP of a pre-Olympics tournament last month, where he scored 20 points against China with Yao Ming.
OMAR TORRES / AFP/Getty Images
This is perennially one of Cuba's strongest sports, and Acosta, 23, a heavyweight (like the legendary Teofilo Stevenson), is the latest in the line. His potential fight with Italy's Clemente Russo, the defending world champ whom he defeated in May—is one of the anticipated highlights of the competition. One reason? Acosta didn't fight in last year's world championships after Cuba pulled out in the wake of defections at the tournament. One of his likely opponents in Beijing is Tuscaloosa's Deontay Wilder.
Great Britain, BMX cycling
Gary M. Prior / Getty Images
She turns 20 a month after the Games end, but she's already a legend in the extreme sport making its Olympic debut and is considered a lock for gold. She is one of 10 British athletes the BBC is following closely throughout the Olympics. For years, Reade has raced against men, and beaten them, in national and international competition, on dirt and track surfaces. Check out her background, meanwhile, and notice how similar it is to so many on this side of the Atlantic who overcame obstacles early in life.
Any readers out there fluent in French? This video preview ("The Road to Beijing 2008''—I figured that much out) of one of the favorites in the women's 154-pound competition is fascinating enough without translation. So is this one, in which the 26-year-old native of Cameroon defeats American Ronda Rousey in last year's world championships.
Mali, tae kwon do
PETER PARKS / AFP/Getty Images
Yes, you read that right: Mali, tae kwon do. The rest of the world was just as stunned when the now-27-year-old won the world championship in the heaviest weight class last year in Beijing. The entire team traveled there on a $2,000 grant from the International Olympic Committee, clearly money well spent. The sport was introduced to Africa—the Ivory Coast where, coincidentally, Modibo was born—in the early 1960s. Now tae kwon do is wildly popular in Mali and elsewhere in West Africa, and it now may produce the first Olympic medal in the nation's history.
MAXIM MARMUR / AFP/Getty Images
One of the more historically fascinating stories of the Games is the emergence of black fencers, led in recent years by New Yorker Peter Westbrook. But diversity in the sport is old news in France, where these brothers are longtime national team members. Jerome, the older of the brothers originally from Martinique, is among the favorites in the individual epee, and the French team on which they star won gold in 2004 and won the European championship last month (as the victory photo attests, the Jeannets are not alone in the sport).
USA, track and field
Matthew Stockman / Getty Images
Lagat already was a known quantity in international distance running—he had won two previous Olympic medals for his native Kenya. After attending college, living and starting a family in America,he attained U.S. citizenship in 2004 and this year is competing for his new homeland for the first time in the Olympics, in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters. Yet his isn't even the most riveting tale of an African native on the U.S. team. The 23-year-old Lomong, his 1,500-meter race teammate, runs away with that honor. One of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," separated from his family as they escaped the infamous Janjaweed militia, instigators of the current Darfur genocide, he eventually made it to the United States, attended college, became a star runner and qualified for the Olympics. Lomong was named the U.S. flag-bearer in the opening ceremonies in a vote by the U.S. athlete contingent.
Ronald Martinez / Getty Images
The men's team is a world soccer legend after winning the 1996 Olympic gold medal in Atlanta. The women—known as the Super Falcons—have been a growing power for years; this is their third straight Olympics, and they are regulars in the Women's World Cup. But they have never reached the medal round in either tournament. Odds are that they won't this year, either, but the 22-year-old Uwak, an emerging star and explosive scorer, is expected to earn lots of attention.
USA, track and field
Andy Lyons / Getty Images
It comes back to one of the Olympics' anchor sports and back to an American. Clark, 30, is one of the team's veterans, competing in the 800 meters for the third straight Games. Her husband proposed to her immediately after she ran in Athens. She is part of an accomplished track family: sister Joetta and sister-in-law Jearl also have run in the Olympics, and brother J.J., Jearl's husband, coaches the women's team at Tennessee. Oh, and her father is fairly well-known, too, to those who have seen the 1989 film Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman as … Joe Clark, aka "Crazy Joe,'' the bat-wielding principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J.
David Steele is a sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun.