The Olympic year: Bolt, Phelps stood above the rest

The 2012 London Olympics produced plenty of fresh storylines, but like they did four years earlier, Jamaican track star Usain Bolt and American swimming icon Michael Phelps were again the stars of the Games.

Women's soccer team highlights Canada's Games

American swimmer legend Michael Phelps, left, and sprinting superstar Usain Bolt of Jamaica were the top stars of the 2012 London Olympics. (Getty Images)

Like the 2008 Games in Beijing, the 2012 London Olympics benefited significantly from the athletic exploits of two seminal athletes: Jamaican track star Usain Bolt and American swimming icon Michael Phelps.

Prior to London, there were doubts as to whether Phelps or Bolt could come close to matching their historic success in Beijing four years ago.

Bolt had won three Olympic gold medals in the 100-metre, 200m and the 4x100m relay — all in world-record time. Phelps had eclipsed Mark Spitz's previously unthinkable mark of seven gold medals in one Olympics, winning eight.

However, questions surrounded both athletes heading into London. Phelps, who didn't begin serious training until shortly after the 2011 world championships, was getting a stiff challenge from compatriot Ryan Lochte. In addition to injury concerns, Bolt had a rival to contend with. At the Jamaican trials, he lost to countryman and 2011 world sprint champion Yohan Blake in both the 100 and 200, giving London a marquee battle in track's two signature events.

In the end, Blake didn't come close to unseating Bolt. The magnificent Jamaican swept the 100 (in an Olympic record 9.63 seconds) and 200 (19.32) titles, and led the Jamaican 4x100 relay team to a world-record (36.84). At just 25, Bolt became the first athlete to sweep the 100 and 200 events at back-to-back Olympics. He was also the first track star to win all three sprint events in consecutive Games.

Things looked bleak for Phelps, who had lost to Lochte twice at the worlds, following his first event in London. The 27-year-old offered little resistance in the men's 400 individual medley — Phelps made an ill-advised decision to enter the race — which Lochte easily won. In fact, Phelps failed to medal in the competition. Praise immediately shifted to Lochte, with media outlets prematurely crowning the Rochester, N.Y., swimmer as the new "king of the pool."

The coronation quickly subsided, however. Phelps regained his focus and went on to win four gold medals, including one against Lochte in the 200 individual medley, plus a pair of silvers. He finished his unparalleled career as the most decorated Olympian of all time — capturing a record 18 golds and 22 overall medals in three Olympics.

Canadian heartbreak

Sheer jubilation turned to instant horror for the Canadian men's 4x100-metre relay team within minutes. Canada shocked the field by earning an apparent bronze medal before being disqualified moments later.

The disqualification came when Jared Connaughton stepped on the line of his outside lane just prior to his exchange with Justyn Warner, Canada's anchor.

A distraught Connaughton realized instantly that he had committed the stringent infraction and apologized to the rest of his teammates — lead Gavin Smellie, Oluseyi Smith, and Warner.

He later tweeted: "I'm so sorry everyone. My heart is broken. I let my team down. I'm sorry."

The Bolt-led Jamaicans, meanwhile, broke their own world record en route to a gold medal with a time of 36.84 seconds. The Americans finished second, while Trinidad and Tobago replaced Canada as the bronze medallist.

Women's soccer team highlights Canada's Olympics

The reviews were mixed for Canadian Olympians. Critics pointed out that the team won only one gold medal (along with five silver and 12 bronze). But the gold output was only two under the number won by Canada at each of the four previous Games, and the squad still matched its medal total of 18 from Beijing — the second most ever by Canada in a non-boycotted Olympics.
Canadian captain Christine Sinclair, front, scored a hat trick against the Americans during the semifinal match. Andrew (Yates/Getty Images)

The Canadian women's soccer team dominated the headlines. From the moment captain and athlete of the year Christine Sinclair touched down in England with her teammates, the spotlight was on them.

Canada first needed to erase its embarrassing showing at the 2011 World Cup in Germany. The Canadians easily accomplished that by advancing to the quarter-final round with a 1-1-1 record in the group stage. Canada had little trouble eliminating Great Britain in the quarters, setting up an historic semifinal matchup with the defending Olympic champion U.S. women.

History will point to this thrilling and controversial match as one of the most debated contests in Olympic lore. On three separate occasions in regulation time, Sinclair gave Canada a one-goal lead in picturesque fashion. The Americans would rally each time until they finally prevailed 4-3 in extra time. They went on to beat World Cup champion Japan in the gold-medal match.

But it was the controversy with Canada leading 3-2 that will always define this classic match.

Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen turned herself into one of the most infamous Olympic figures. In a sequence of calls that set off an outrage in Canada, Pedersen called goalkeeper Erin McLeod for holding the ball too long, which led to a free kick inside the Canadian box. While a six-second infraction does exist in the rulebook, the enforcement usually comes with a warning; one McLeod said she never received.

Pedersen then gave the U.S. a penalty kick when Marie-Eve Nault was charged with a handball. Abby Wambach converted that chance with less than 10 minutes remaining before Alex Morgan's header in the final minute of extra time buried Canada. FIFA eventually suspended and fined Sinclair four games after London for "displaying unsporting behaviour towards match officials."

Undeterred, Canada regained its composure in the bronze-medal match against France as Diana Matheson's dramatic goal in the 92nd minute gave the Canadians a 1-0 win, and the first medal in a traditional team sport since 1936.

MacLennan wins Canada's only gold

Canada's lone gold medal came in the sport of trampoline.
Trampoline athlete Rosie MacLennan displays Canada's only Olympic gold medal of the London Games. (J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press)

Rosie MacLennan competed in the large shadow of three-time Olympic medallist Karen Cockburn. That was until the King City, Ont., native made a name for herself after executing a brilliant routine to move into first place.

Only one woman was left to challenge MacLennan — 2008 Olympic champion He Wenna of China. To everyone's amazement, the Chinese star tumbled on her last manoeuvre, giving MacLennan the gold.

"Now everybody knows my name," acknowledged the 23-year-old.

Heymans, van Koeverden leave mark

Emilie Heymans is one of the most unassuming Olympic athletes you'll come across, until she steps on a diving platform. In London, the Quebec native left one final lasting mark that put her in the Canadian record books.

By winning a bronze medal in the women's three-metre synchronized springboard event with partner Jennifer Abel, she became the first Canadian ever to win a medal in four straight Olympics.

Adam van Koeverden didn't break any records, but his silver in the men's K-1 1,000m event gave him four career Olympic medals, making him one of the most decorated Canadian athletes of all time. The Oakville, Ont., kayaker also captured gold and bronze at the 2004 Athens Games, and added a silver in Beijing.

Another U.S. star is born

While Phelps was wrapping up his unprecedented Olympic career, fellow American swimmer Missy Franklin emerged as the county's next big thing. Franklin was the star of the U.S. women's team in London.
American phenom Missy Franklin set a world record in the women's 200-metre backstroke. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images )

Franklin, whose parents are Canadian and who has dual citizenship, became the darling of the pool after winning four gold medals and one bronze. She also set a world record in the women's 200 backstroke, and as part of the American 4x100 medley relay.

The 17-year-old accomplished all this before entering her senior year of high school. She may not reach Phelps' status, but by the time her Olympic career is done, Franklin could rank among the greatest Olympians ever.

Epic night for Brits

Like their Canadian counterparts at the Vancouver Olympics, officials from Great Britain were anticipating a lot of medals on home soil, particularly gold. The athletes did their part, reaching the top of the podium 29 times, ranking third behind the U.S. (46) and China (38).
Mo Farah capped off Britain’s third gold medal in an hour on the track after winning the men’s 10,000 metres. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

But even the Brits could not have imagined the gold rush that took place on the track at London's Olympic Stadium on the second Saturday of the Games.

In rapid succession, the host country won three gold medals in less than an hour.

First, Jessica Ennis clinched the heptathlon title by winning the closing 800-metre race. Roughly 20 minutes later, Greg Rutherford — building off Ennis's momentum — leaped to a surprise gold medal in the men's long jump. It was Rutherford's first medal at a major international competition.

Before anyone could fully grasp what was happening, Mo Farah sent the crowd into a dizzy following his win in the men's 10,000.

Canada’s Kaillie Humphries, left, and teammate Chelsea Valois are enjoying one of the greatest World Cup bobsled seasons ever on the women’s circuit. (Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Looking ahead to Sochi

With the 2014 Winter Olympics only 14 months away, we thought it'd be fun to look ahead and see what other great performances await when the world converges on Sochi, Russia.

Here is a mix of Canadian and international athletes who could be standing atop the Olympic podium:

Kaillie Humphries (Bobsleigh)  There is no athlete on a bigger tear than the 27-old Calgary native. Already an Olympic gold medallist from the 2010 Vancouver Games, Humphries has won a record seven straight World Cup events dating back to last season, and is the reigning world champion. A second-straight Olympic gold would place her among the greatest drivers of all-time.

Christine Nesbitt (Long-track speedskating)  Nesbitt's list of accomplishments are too numerous to list in this space, and the 1,000-metre Olympic champion continues to shine. In this World Cup season alone, the London, Ont., skater has won four golds, one silver and a bronze. While Nesbitt will be in multiple events in Sochi, she'll be a heavy favourite to take home gold in the 1,000.

Charles Hamelin (Short-track speedskating) — Although Hamelin won two Olympic gold medals (500 and 5,000 relay) in Vancouver, he fell short of his own lofty expectations. Now the multiple-time world champion is using Vancouver as motivation for bigger things in Sochi, where the Sainte-Julie, Que., athlete could do some serious damage in the 500, 1,000, 1,500, and 5000 relay.

Mikael Kingsbury (Freestyle moguls) — A 2009-10 FIS World Cup rookie of the year, Kingsbury won the bronze medal at the 2011 world championships. The 20-year-old then equalled a FIS World Cup record by winning six straight events at the beginning of last season. The defending World Cup champion from Deux-Montagnes, Que., opened this mogul season with a win over 2010 Olympic gold medallist and teammate Alex Bilodeau in Ruka, Finland.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (Figure skating) — From the moment this ice dance duo took to the ice, they appeared destined for greatness. Often compared to the iconic tandem of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, the Canadians will head into Sochi as defending Olympic champions. Virtue and Moir have also won two world titles, including the 2012 crown.

Lindsey Vonn (Alpine skiing) — The American is taking a break to recover from an intestinal infection, but she remains a force on the World Cup circuit. Vonn swept both downhill races and the super-G event in Lake Louise, Alta., last moth — the second straight year she's accomplished that trifecta. The 2010 Olympic downhill hill champion, who still has visions of competing against the men, has won 57 career World Cup races, behind only Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proll (62) and Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark (86).

Aksel Lund Svindal (Alpine skiing) — A super-G gold medallist in Vancouver, the Norwegian has captured three world titles (2011, 2009 and 2007). In total, Svindal has earned three Olympic medals, six world championship podium finishes, and five World Cup discipline titles (super-G, giant slalom and combined). Svindal is off to another terrific start this season, sweeping the men's downhill and super-G races in Lake Louise last month. The overall World Cup leader continued his dominance in the speed races with a super-G victory at Val Gardena on Dec. 14.

Martins Dukurs (Skeleton) — After earning a silver in Vancouver, Dukurs has gone on to capture the last two world championships, and the last three World Cup overall titles. The 28-year-old Latvian, who has won four of the last five World Cup events this year, will be one of the top athletes to watch in Sochi.

Petter Northug (Cross-country skiing) — Only 26, Northug is already viewed as a legend in his native Norway. A double gold medallist who reached the podium four times in Vancouver, Northug is regarded as the standard of his sport. He is a seven-time world champion, and has been a dominant presence on the international stage for nearly a decade.

Shani Davis (Long-track speedskating) — The powerful American will be a two-defending champion in the 1,000 when he arrives in Sochi. He became the first man ever to repeat as Olympic champion at that distance. Davis has amassed a multitude of word championship gold medals, and is second all-time with 50 World Cup wins.