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?

CNN —  

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.

Video: Olympics spirit going strong in Beijing

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.

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.”

Read more: London prepares for an Olympics to remember

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.”

Video: Olympic training sidelined by revolution

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.

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.”

Read why all the top sprinters come from Jamaica

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.