The 10 storylines to watch heading into the Summer Olympics

Usain Bolt's quest to shatter more track records will be as must-watch as the Games get. (AP)

The Olympics are seven weeks out, but why drop in on the Games the night of the Opening Ceremony? Storylines that will dominate London, some of them are unpredictable. Others, they’ve been slow-boiling over the course of the past four years. Last week, we gave you the top 10 U.S. athletes who should/will keep our rooting interest piqued at the Games. Now, let’s look deeper into the arcs that bring drama and narratives to the XXX Olympiad.

1. Usain Bolt's chase to being an all-time Olympic icon. If you watched the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, then you know how thrilling it was to see the most aptly named track star in history. Bolt completely dictated certain nights of your life four years ago. I know I'll never forget being on vacation and watching in awe at what he was doing. His runs looked like a varsity sprinter training with the JV during the fall.

Bolt was something we'd never seen before. A runner so big, tall, with such long strides. He won with ease and with braggadocio that got him into trouble. (Personally, I loved it, even understanding the showboating was, overall, a bad look.) Bolt's blazes were as rapid as they were watchable; turn to grab something from the kitchen and you could very well miss history. Bolt's 9.69 in the 100 meters at the '08 Games was a world record -- one he smashed in 2009, running the distance in a stupid-quick 9.58.

(If you'd like to see a great graphic of all the times the 100-meter dash has been broken, click here.)

Bolt is one of the faces of these Games, and if he has a repeat performance of dominance as what we saw in Beijing, he'll become the iconic figure of London. Yes, even more than Michael Phelps. Bolt took home gold in the 100 and 200 meters, and in the 4x100-meter relay. He'll run those again and look to become one of only a handful of athletes to repeat as gold-medal winner in each of those events. If he does, the name Usain Bolt will be recognized 100 years from now. He's promised to set an unthinkable, un-blinkable 100-meter record of 9.4.

Teammates, competitors, and the passing of a metaphorical baton: Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. (AP)
2. Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte. Phelps' 2008 showing was the stuff of Olympic legend: a record-setting eight gold medals. What could be better? Lochte striving for nine, naturally. Phelps and Lochte won't share the same waters in most events (only going head-to-head in the 200-meter freestyle and the 200-meter medley), but the two American swimmers are set up to take whatever is left of the mainstream spotlight not owned by Bolt.

Phelps -- who is now being publicly rooted on by famous Australian swimmer and 2012 Olympian Ian Thorpe -- is good friends with Lochte. But we've got a nice competitive rivalry that's developed in the pool here. Ironically, although Phelps has definitively said this will be his last Olympics, is Lochte who has one year on Phelps; he's 27. The key thing to remember with that: Lochte is no out-of-nowhere competitor. He laid the work for this fraternal rivalry in 2008, and the fact these two are good friends makes the competition more fun. Phelps' performance at this year's Games, his chances at more golds, is very much in question. That wasn't the case in '08.

Lochte has beaten Phelps in the past two years in the pool, but this has come at a time when Phelps has made his way back, slowly but surely, from a post-Beijing malaise that nearly saw the end of his swimming career come to be by means of laziness and a general fatigue from the sport. For his country, his family, his longtime coach and himself, Phelps is giving it one more go. And Lochte will be there, perhaps eclipsing him in the process.

When Jones' story went mainstream after an HBO interview, she became a household name for casual fans of the Olympics. (AP)
3. LoLo Jones' sexuality. It's an odd thing to focus on, right? In fact, it calls to mind a simple-but-loaded media question. Should the fact LoLo Jones chooses to be a virgin be much of a story? No matter your answer, the fact is, she is one. A beautiful American track star in the prime of her life is publicly -- and self-deprecatingly -- unafraid to talk about her decision to be celibate.

The hurdler now will have that fact, and the amateur jokes that go along with it, tied to her success or failures in this year's Games. Is it fair? That's another media question to be addressed. Regardless, it's by her own doing, and it seems she's as suited to handle questions from all angles as well as anyone.

Jones' choice is tied into her performance because she's said that choosing to live her life like this, avoiding temptation and maintaining Olympic-caliber ability has been trying and challenging. It's admirable that she does this, isn't afraid to address the issue. The question is, can she medal? Jones is good, but no guarantee to win hardware. 

4. USA Basketball's final Olympic iteration with pros? It's not yet clear whether this year's Olympics will be the final time the United States men's basketball team assembles itself with the best of the best. Ever since the Dream Team formed in 1992 and created a tradition that's been emulated -- but never duplicated like the power and domination of that '92 cavalcade -- the U.S. has been dominant. But is a change coming?

There is talk that USA Basketball will mimic the U.S. Soccer model and opt to go with team members who are 23 and under going forward, beginning with the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. This is the want of NBA owners who don't desire any more mileage on their superstars' legs than needed. David Stern kick-started this discussion a few weeks ago. We've a ways to go before we know if USA Basketball will revert to what it once was, back in the '70s and '80s, but if so, this year's Games will give us the last thing resembling a Dream Team for, perhaps, decades to come.

5. The other reason women's beach volleyball will capture our attention. Beach volleyball is cool again, and Kerri Walsh Jennings + Misty May-Treanor will go for their third straight gold, which would be a record in their sport, considering the back-to-back golds from Athens and Beijing were unprecedented. The duo is considered the greatest pairing of volleyball players ever, and that legacy will be cemented in the sand if they can stand on the tallest podium block in August.

Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor provide us with constant entertainment, the obvious television draw and a genuine intrigue and excitement over a sport we seldom get to see on television. The Olympics is about star power and unpredictable storylines and outcomes, sure, but it's also about the charm of latching onto a sport for two weeks, one you'll move on from once the Games end. Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor have not only lifted beach volleyball, they've become household names.

6. U.S. Swimming's next big star. Swimming needs a star, and fortunately, because America's been so good in the pool for so long, it naturally begets them every four years. Phelps is fazing out of his place as the face of U.S. Swimming. Who will take it over? How about Missy Franklin. Now you've heard the name, so don't forget it. Franklin stands to be this country's biggest swimming draw for the next 12 years, perhaps more. She's just 17 and already holds the American record in the 200-meter backstroke. Franklin captured three golds at the World Championships in Shanghai last year. The backstroke and freestyle are her fortes. She's affable, and once you get to know her better, you'll see why she's an easy choice to be The Next Big American Olympic Star. What makes her particularly dangerous in the pool: Franklin's closing in on being 6 feet, 2 inches. And remember, she's only 17. Could there be a little more growing coming for an already dangerously good swimmer?

7. Can the U.S. win the medal count again? It's something the United States takes a lot of pride in. This particular storyline is simple: Can the Red, White and Blue take home the most inventory? We've had close calls over the past few games, but since 1988, the United States has indeed walked away from each Olympics with the most combined golds, silvers and bronzes. After owning a 50-medal advantage in 2004, the U.S. beat China by just 10 in 2008. It beat Russia by just four in 2000. Those were the closest calls. The other objective for the U.S. as a contingent: win back the total gold tally, which has been an inconsistent achievement for America.

8. Caster Semenya's Olympic debut. Semenya, 21, is the female runner who has had doubters -- some of them her own competitors -- all the while that she was truly, completely female. The reason? Her face, her dominant muscles and lower voice. It's a touchy subject, one we haven't seen from the Olympics before. In 2009, Semenya won a gold in the 800 meters at the World Championships. The South African has battled to get to the Olympics, where her future was once in doubt, as she was banned from certain events in 2010 while gender tests were taken and results awaited in the wake of her 2009 accomplishments. But she's in the clear now -- as far as competition is concerned. Semenya will run in the 800 and 1,500 meters in London. 

Paul McCartney recently confirmed he'll be part of the Opening Ceremony on July 27 . (AP)

9. The music. In terms of dynamic pop and rock music, no country has given us as many great artists as the Brits. I'd love to say America stacks up, but c'mon: The Beatles, The Stones, Zep, The Who, Queen, The Clash, Black Sabbath, Radiohead, Cream, Blur, Oasis, Genesis before they sucked, The Smiths, The Police. The U.S. has put out some incredible, genre-shifting bands and artists, but the UK has us beat, and the music invoked at the opening and closing ceremonies will remind us of that. Some of the details of artists getting involved remains to be released, but we know that Paul McCartney will be part of the festivities, and Keith Moon will not. In general, every Opening Ceremony ceremony keeps the majority of its spectacle shrouded. I love how McCartney basically told the organizers to bugger off by flatly stating that he'd be involved. My request? Get Paul and Ringo on the same bloody stage. It's the fookin' Olympics!

10. The culture. Naturally, the host city becomes a story for every Olympics. How the city adapts, how it thrives or stifles upon hosting the biggest international party, is news that effects reputations, local economies and big-time decisions that will be made for sites of future Olympiads. Beijing had the smog and political landscape. Greece had the storied history and the impending economic problems. Atlanta had the bombing. In the '70s, we had terrorism inflicted upon what was no longer just a peaceful gathering of the world's athletic elite. We don't know yet what London's claim to the Games will be, but we do know it's already going to be mighty expensive to get one's self drunk, so few will likely be able to forget the best and worst of goings on in the Big Smoke.
CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories