The London Olympics: 4 billion people; 4 billion reasons to watch

Story highlights

  • Survivors of the Arab Spring will represent their countries for the first time free from the tyranny
  • Every country will have at least one female athlete -- a first
  • For many it's not the politics or personalities, it's the rivalries that draw them in
  • The question on many minds: How will London top Beijing?

Olympic officials will tell you that four billion people around the world will watch some part or another of the London Olympics during its 17-day span.

Each will have a reason of their own.

The hoops fan who wants to settle the debate -- once and for all -- about which Dream Team is better. The Arab-American who's praying she doesn't see a repeat of the Munich massacre 40 years later. The Indian expat who's pretty sure London can't top the Beijing opening ceremony.

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Come Friday, they will plant themselves in front of their TV sets or their computer monitors. Or follow along on Twitter. Or debate with friends on Facebook.

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Unless they're like David Leung in Hong Kong who'll sleep through the opening ceremony at its 4 a.m. local start time, fans will stay up in the middle of the night and, bleary-eyed, call in sick from work the next day. Others will stream the broadcasts in their office cubicle, in between work e-mails and slideshow preparations.

"We probably will have it on the office TVs," said Betsy Schneider, a senior digital marketing analyst in New York City. "(It's) all the best parts of nationalism without the whole 'taking over the world' part."

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For the first time, every country will have at least one female athlete after Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei -- the last bastions of male-only teams -- reversed course. This important precedent for women's rights will spur Susan Rachdan and many like her to tune in.

"There are so many Arab women competing, this is very uplifting to me," said Rachdan, who lives in Michigan but was raised in Saudi Arabia. "Growing up in Saudi, you feel sometimes like women are limited and not pushed to achieve much. To see women from Saudi, Qatar, the UAE, this will encourage a lot of us."

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Others, like Molly Elian, will be drawn by the unusual story of a single athlete.

Elian of St. Paul, Minnesota, is a Winter Olympics fan who said she'd pass on the Games were it not for Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi.

"There is a particular athlete from Malaysia, I believe, who is competing in target shooting and she will be close to 9 months pregnant," Elian said. "I really want to see her compete."

Where politics and athletes intersect

Even though the Olympic charter forbids political or religious propaganda, the modern games has never truly escaped the turmoil outside.

This year, athletes who survived the fury of the Arab Spring will represent their countries for the first time, free from the tyranny of dictatorship.

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Athletes like Ali Khousrof, who was shot in the abdomen while protesting against the rule of then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Or Amr Seoud, the fastest man in Africa who will go against Usain Bolt in the 100-meters sprint, a year after taking part in protests that brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Or South Sudan native Guor Marial who basks with pride as the first athlete from the world's youngest nation in the global arena.

Watching such Olympians is what excites Gord Oxley, an actor from Toronto.

"It gives me hope that perhaps as a species, humans can someday grow past the petty squabbles which currently mire, diminish, and divide us," Oxley said.

"I know that's a lot of mileage to get out of somebody shot putting, for example, and maybe I'm idealizing things too much."

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Syria, in the midst of a 16-month bloody uprising against the regime, is sending 10 athletes. College student Noor Nachawati hopes their presence will help amplify the condemnation about the ongoing massacre. It's not business as usual in the country, despite the government of Bashar al-Assad portraying it so.

"I'm hoping for worldwide awareness," said Nachawati, a Syrian-American in Grand Prairie, Texas. "Enough awareness and help to where the current president is no longer president."

Another Arab-American, Sawsan Taleb-Agha, is hoping the Games will be spared a Munich-style terror attack, where 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by Palestinian militants in 1972.

"I definitely hope there is not an attack, and I personally don't think anything will happen because there is so much security," said Taleb-Agha of Moraga, California. "If there is, I hope people don't assume that Islam is involved."

Where rivalries rule

For most Olympic viewers, however, it's not about politics or the personalities. It's the rivalries.

Read more: The 10 strangest Olympic sports

Tyler Lewis was not even born when the 1992 U.S. basketball team, known as the Dream Team, trounced the competition at the Barcelona Games by an average of more than 40 points. Analysts called it the greatest sports team ever assembled.

But Lewis acknowledges that this year's crop may give it a run for its money.

"LeBron (James) is the best player in basketball at this time. I think he has a chance to be the best player ever," said Lewis from North Carolina. "I think the new team is very good and has a lot of great talent. I can't say they are better than the Dream Team but they have potential to be better. I am definitely going to watch every game the U.S.A. plays in."

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Brittany Johnson is excited about a different rivalry: Can Michael Phelps replicate his success in the last Olympics, when he took home a record-breaking eight golds. Or will the phenom Ryan Lochte overshadow him?

"I am most excited to watch swimming - how Phelps is going to end his career, as well as how Lochte will perform against Phelps as he is the new face of USA swimming," said the health care professional from Ponte Vedra, Florida.

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Across the world in Japan, many are excited to see a repeat of its women's soccer team against the U.S.A.

During the 2011 Women's World Cup. the Nadehiko team broke American hearts, rallying from behind, tying the game and beating the United States in penalty kicks.

"The female football is the one I'm looking forward to watch the most and hope the team gets a gold medal," said Sawako Watanabe, an architect in Tokyo. "I might have to stay up late to watch the game, and hope it won't affect my work the next day."

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In the history of the Games, the United States has brought home about 1,200 more medals than its nearest competitor: 2,302 versus 1,122 for the now defunct Soviet Union. Emerging powerhouse China's count stands at 385.

The numbers don't bother Zhaojian, a driver in Beijing, who didn't want to give his last name.

"I think it's impossible for China to win as much as the U.S.," he said. "China has pretty good individual athletes and they do well in the smaller events. But as for team efforts or bigger, more popular sports, China doesn't shine much."

Where the opening ceremony matters

There is little doubt among many minds, however, where China truly excelled: the opening ceremony at the Beijing Games. Some wonder how London can outdo the spectacle at the Bird's Nest stadium four years ago.

"I think the approach will have to be different - over-the-top really doesn't seem 'London-y,'" said Leah Sutton, who works for an alternative energy company in Bangalore, India.

"With apologies to my friends in London, I expect pomp and circumstance but not a lot of flash. Maybe a few quivering stiff upper lip," she joked.

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Jon Offredo, a reporter in Sandwich, Massachusetts, thinks London might still surprise us. He's holding out hope that Danny Boyle, the "Slumdog Millionaire" director who is putting together the show, pulls out an unexpected stunt.

"Whatever the cost," he said, "I can totally get behind the idea of a bunch of Mary Poppins battling a 40-foot Voldemort."

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