The widely-believed story behind the Olympic rings is actually a myth. Many of us grew up thinking each of the five rings represents a different continent: Blue for Europe, yellow for Asia, black for Africa, green for Australia and red for the Americas. But it isn’t so. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympics, never had the continents in mind at all. He saw the rings as a way of showing the connection between the various parts of the world.

But just for fun, we decided to name the Olympian to watch from each continent in the London 2012 Games, which begin one year from now.

Before we begin, please keep in mind that nobody has qualified yet and some of these athletes may not even be in London. Remember that Michael Phelps sustained a severe wrist injury in the months leading up to the Beijing Games and worried he’d have to drop out. So anything can happen. We've also narrowed the field down to athletes who have already won at least one gold medal.

With the fine print out of the way, here is each continent's top Olympian to watch in the coming year:

Olympic Slideshow: Greatest Athlete By Continent Slideshow


North America: Michael Phelps

The moment of the 2012 Games is sure to be Usain Bolt's assault on the unfathomable 9.5-second mark in the 100-meter dash, but the top Olympian from our continent is arguably the top Olympian of all time. That would be Phelps.
Only seven years ago, the Baltimore native laid out a goal for the Athens Games: One gold medal. Now he has 14 and he’s got a good shot at 20. He’s a virtual lock to win three medals in London, which would make him the most decorated Olympian ever -- passing Soviet gymnast Laris Latynina, who won 18 medals in her career. Some say Phelps is on the downside of his athletic life, but he’ll only be 27 next year, and sources close to him say his competitive drive is stronger than ever. Don't bet against Phelps in 2012, or for that matter, in 2016.


South America: Marta

It could be an incredible decade for the Messi of women's soccer. Marta has already hit the world stage with a standout performance in the Women's World Cup this summer. She nearly willed Brazil past the U.S. and within a game of the final. But there are bigger prizes ahead. She will be in the prime of her career next year at the London Games, and she has the Rio Olympics of 2016 in her sights. The women's game will never be as big in Brazil as the men’s version, but with two silver medals (2004 and 2008) and five FIFA player of the year awards already, Marta's trophy case might end up as the biggest in her proud country.


Asia: Liu Xiang

As important as Yao Ming is in Chinese history, Liu might end up being just as significant. The hurdler is the first to win an Olympic gold medal in track, which he did in 2004, and he is the first Chinese citizen to own an Olympic gold, a world title and a world record. He's got a great comeback story too, as injuries forced him out of his trademark race –- the 110-meter hurdles -- in the Beijing Games. Many in his home nation were reduced to tears, including Liu’s coach, but the hurdler vowed to be back for 2012. So far so good, as Liu has started using his left leg to launch instead of his right.


Europe: Yelena Isinbayeva

She is, quite simply, the greatest woman pole vaulter ever. Forget for a moment the gold medals in Athens and Beijing. Forget the five world championships. Isinbayeva has set the pole vault record a bewildering 27 times. The five-meter mark was a dream when her career started and now it's a yawn. The native of the former Stalingrad is arguably the first woman ever to have vaulting form as good as or better than the men. Not bad for the daughter of a plumber and a shop assistant.


Africa: Kirsty Coventry

Sorry, but Cam Newton is not the greatest sports alum from Auburn. That distinction better befits Coventry, the swimmer from Zimbabwe who won three national titles as part of the Tigers' swimming dynasty and 14 SEC titles. Coventry is a national hero in her home country, and rightfully so, as she won three medals in 2004 and four in 2008. She would have set the world record for the brutal 400-meter IM in Beijing, but she was touched out by Aussie upstart (and tabloid darling) Stephanie Rice. That rivalry, if renewed in London, will be one of the stories of the 2012 Games.


Australia: Ian Thorpe

No, this is not a mistake. And it's not a cut and paste from 2000. The Thorpedo is not only back from four years of retirement; he's also still the best on his continent -– at least according to those in the know. He's only 28, and he's not going to return to the 400-meter distances where he once dominated. But he announced in February he would try for the 2012 Games and attempt to add to his national record five gold medals. "Thorpey" will likely focus on shorter distances like the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle events, which would set him up for a possible showdown with Phelps. It's hard to know who the rest of the world would cheer for in that matchup, but any swimming fan would love to see it happen.

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