Stars of Beijing 2008 – where are they now?
Bolt. Messi. Phelps. Venus and Serena. Wiggins. Many of the top performers at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 are so internationally famous that you need only one name to recognise them these days. Back then, however, many of them were just starting out on their sporting journeys. We take a look at where the big-hitters of that amazing summer in China have ended up.
Usain Bolt turned up in Beijing as the 22-year-old world record holder in the 100m, but without a major gold medal to his name. He left as a legend, winning both the 100m and 200m in new world record times, and almost everyone knows what followed: three more Olympic golds at both London 2012 and Rio 2016, making him one of the most recognisable Olympians of all time. He retired after the 2017 IAAF World Championships, and has recently been trying his luck as a footballer: after training with Norwegian side Stromsgodset, he turned out for the side in a friendly. “I would love to play football now I’ve retired, and hopefully I will play some games soon,” he said recently. Until then, Bolt has been enjoying his downtime – a social media phenomenon, he’s posted pics of himself boating in Jamaica, and at the Russia 2018 World Cup final.
Michael Phelps was well on his way to becoming the most decorated Olympian ever by Beijing 2008: he’d gained experience as a 15-year-old at Sydney 2000, before bagging five golds at Athens 2004. China was his peak, however: he grabbed eight golds, a record for a single Games edition – seven of them in world record times. Phelps added four more golds at London 2012 and five at Rio 2016, where he was the USA flagbearer. Since then, he’s done a huge amount of good work: as a swim coach for local kids in Phoenix; and as an advocate for mental health, ADHD, depression and water conservation, and via the Michael Phelps Foundation, which promotes healthier lifestyles. He also welcomed his second child in 2018. After many rumours, Phelps recently dismissed speculation that he’d return to the pool for Tokyo 2020. “I don’t have any goals to make me want to come back,” he says.
Serena and Venus Williams defended their Olympic doubles title at Beijing 2008 – and would go on to win it again at London 2012. The sisters dominated women’s tennis though the millennium’s first decade – with Serena winning a record 13 Grand Slam titles, and her big sister getting seven. Serena won Wimbledon in 2016 and the Australian Open last year – and is regarded as one of the greatest female players in history. After giving birth to her first child in September 2017, she recently returned to the sport. She is also deeply involved in activism, charity work and a number of businesses. Venus is also still a contender, making the final of the 2017 Australian Open – where she lost to her younger sibling. She’s currently also chief executive of interior design firm V Starr and has launched her own fashion label. The pair are part owners of the Miami Dolphins.
Lionel Messi was part of the Argentina side that beat Nigeria in the final to win football gold at Beijing 2008 – along with many other future world stars including Pablo Zabaleta, Juan Roman Riquelme, Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Aguero. Aged just 19 at the time, Messi was already recognised as a phenomenal young talent with Barcelona. He’s now one of the planet’s most decorated players, with nine La Liga titles, three Champions League wins and five Balon d’Or awards. Many believe him to be the best footballer of all time. Still only 31, he recently captained Argentina at the World Cup.
Among a superstar-packed USA team Kobe Bryant was the biggest name of all. Beijing 2008 was Kobe’s team, and the Chinese went wild whenever he was around. He led the side to an extraordinary gold as a key part of the ‘Redeem Team’, so-called because their ‘Dream Team’ had to settle for bronze in Athens. Later he has helped USA retain the gold at London 2012. Bryant’s success continued in the NBA as well, where he won five championships in total. He retired in 2016 after 20 years on the same team, the Los Angeles Lakers. Since then, Kobe has won an Oscar for best short animation (Dear Basketball, which he scripted and produced) – and has also launched his own venture capital firm.
Bradley Wiggins was at the forefront of British cycling’s newfound resurgence at Beijing 2008: Team GB topped the medals table with eight golds. On the track, Wiggins won the individual pursuit and team pursuit gold. Soon after, he turned his attentions to the road – becoming the first British Tour de France winner in 2012, shortly before getting another gold in the road time trial at London 2012. Wiggins was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth. Since retiring, he has set up his own Team Wiggins, which is a development side that aims to bring through young professional riders. He has also got into competitive rowing – declaring his wish to qualify for Tokyo 2020 – and has worked in the media as a commentator.
Marianne Vos, the Dutch rider who won the track points race at Beijing 2008, is now considered the greatest female cyclist of all time. A three-time World Road Race champion and seven-time Cyclocross world champion, she is also arguably the most versatile peddler ever. Still competing, Vos is an ambassador for the Dutch charity Jeugdsportfonds, and Youth United for Sri Lanka.
One of the most extraordinary athletes of all time, Oksana Chusovitina is the only female gymnast to have competed at seven Olympic Games – between 1992 and 2016 – and for three different teams (Unified Team, Uzbekistan and Germany). In Beijing, she won silver in the vault, her first medal since winning gold at Barcelona 1992, and her last. She competed at Rio 2016 aged 41, and was introduced into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame last year. She still hasn’t officially retired.
Fabian Cancellara, who won gold in the men’s cycling time trial and came second in the road race, has also become a two-wheel legend, as one of the greatest time trialists and classics riders of his generation. The Swiss, 37, retired after winning gold at Rio 2016, and has since been involved in promotional work – as well as competing in triathlons, doing media work, and riding his bike for fun.
Hope Solo is arguably America’s finest female footballer: the goalkeeper won gold with the USA at Beijing 2008 and London 2012. She competed until 2016 – winning her first women’s World Cup in 2015. She’s since become a representative of the Women’s Sports Foundation, which aims to advance girls’ lives through sport, and has worked widely in the US media.
Liu Xiang, the Athens 2004 gold medallist in the 110m hurdles, was arguably the home nation’s biggest headline-maker at Beijing 2008 – but for all the wrong reasons. Expected to claim a glorious, and rare, Chinese track gold in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, Liu didn’t even start his first round race, after an old injury flared up – leaving the home crowd in stunned silence. His tears and public apologies made front pages everywhere. Liu bounced back to win medals at World Championships and Asian Games over the following years, and has since become one of his country’s most high-profile stars. He famously donated a large sum to earthquake relief, and in 2016 got married to pole vaulter Wu Sha.
Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell retained their double sculls gold medal from Athens 2004 at Beijing 2008. The identical twin sisters from New Zealand made a huge impact on rowing in their home country – being recognised with the World Rowing Federation’s highest award, the Thomas Keller Medal, in 2016, for their role inspiring youngsters. And the two also followed similar paths after retiring post-Beijing: they both married international Kiwi rowers in 2009 (Georgina tied the knot with Sam Earl, Caroline with Carl Meyer) and started families back home.
Matthias Steiner had an extraordinary road to Beijing 2008. Born in Vienna, he competed for Austria in his early career, but married a German fan, Susann, in 2005 and switched to compete for her homeland. His wife was, however, tragically killed in a car accident in 2007. Steiner somehow overcame the grief to compete in China and, after winning gold, stood on the podium clutching a picture of her. His life has been happier since: he eventually remarried, competed at London 2012, and even took part in the German show Let’s Dance, finishing third.