In 100 days, the Olympic Games will make its highly anticipated return on the revered and timeless stage of London. With an estimated four billion people watching around the world, the Games promise to be not just bigger, but better — more inclusive, more inventive and even greener than before.
Carefully planned and positioned to capitalize on today's connected world, the Games' organizers hope to construct a thoroughly 21st century version of the event.
But even with all the focus on state-of-the-art venues, social media firsts and perfect pageantry, this Olympics at its heart will be defined by the same thing as the past 29 modern games: An impassioned human effort to compete and be the best.
Here's what and whom to look for at London 2012:
More women: For the first time, women will be able to participate in any sport open to men at the Summer Games. Boxing was the final hurdle, removed after the International Olympic Committee voted to add a women's section to the Olympic docket, delighting athletes and fans of the growing sport. "I'm so happy for the chance to represent my country," said Mary Kom, India's superstar flyweight who's expected to dominate her division. And though the Games' overall ratio of male to female athletes is still expected to tip in the men's favor, (the final numbers won't be solidified until trials wrap up), women are making groundbreaking strides: Two countries, Qatar and Brunei, are expected to send female athletes to the Games for the first time ever.
More records: Though trials have not yet wrapped up, the Olympic roster is already shaping up to be record-breaking and historic. At Beijing 2008 five world records and 17 Olympic records were set in track and field. London should be very speedy, too, with a number of record-holders and former medalists, such as American sprinter Allyson Felix, returning to the Games. "To get second [in 2008] was really devastating for me," Felix told NBC Olympics. "It's really what has driven me the past four years to continue and to strive to get that gold that I want so bad."
Swimmer Michael Phelps won six gold medals at Athens 2004 and eight at Beijing 2008 — more than any other athlete in a single year. Can he top that? Or will teammate Ryan Lochte pull ahead in the medal count? "I want to go down in history as one of the best swimmers to ever live," Lochte told NBC Olympics. "Me and Michael have been racing for years. We're good friends and I think we've developed that great rivalry but at the same time, when it's all said and done, when we get on those blocks it's ever man for themselves."
Familiar faces: In addition to Phelps returning to the Games, American favorites Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor will be back, hoping to take the gold in beach volleyball for a third time. May-Treanor will be returning from an Achilles injury, while Walsh-Jennings will be returning to the Games a new mother of two. "The decision was a non-decision," Walsh-Jennings told NBC Olympics. "My heart was telling me, you're not done."
Nastia Liukin, 2008 All-Around Women's Gymnastics champion, hopes to make the team for 2012. And be prepared to look quickly again, as Jamaican Usain Bolt, who took three gold medals and claimed two world record times at Beijing, plans to sprint again.
Newcomers: It's anyone guess who'll become the darling of the season. But keep your eye on charming Bronx gymnast John Orozco who dreams of putting his singing and acting skills to the test after the Games. Backstroke powerhouse Missy Franklin, a world-champion and high school student, is expected to make a strong showing on the women's swim team. "Right now I'm just training as hard as I can," she told NBC Olympics. "I am the happiest girl alive and I think it's just because I love everything that I'm doing and ... I have so much fun with it and I think that's the most important part."
More people watching. Thanks to a partnership between NBC (parent station of this site) and YouTube, more than 3,000 hours of sports footage will be available online via livestream. Between livestream, broadcast and social-media, more viewers will have the opportunity to watch more events. And no surprise, expect Twitter, Facebook and other social networks to amplify the reach exponentially.
The greening of the Games. London is making sustainability one of the pillars of its Games. Environmentalism "has never been made such a virtue as it is now," Philip Barker, an Olympic historian said. "Something as rudimentary as the Olympic flame they're trying to make as environmentally friendly as possible." New venues also have been fit with green features and post-games plans. Olympic Stadium has been touted as the most environmentally sustainable sporting venue ever built, made with low-carbon concrete and reused materials. The stadium, like many other new London venues, has temporary portions (like excess seating) that will be removed and reused elsewhere after the Games.
A nod to history. London will be the first city to host the modern Olympic Games three times. The city hosted the Games in 1908 and again in 1948, welcoming the Olympics back from a 12-year wartime hiatus. Despite being bomb-battered and broke, the city rallied and found creative ways to host the event on a shoe-string budget: Athletes were housed in army barracks, no new venues were constructed and host countries provided food for their teams. For 2012, the city has invested resources into an impoverished section of East London, where most of the sporting events will be held. As in 1948, the Games are expected to boost not only the economy, but the morale of the city and the rest of the world, which will be watching.