Michael Phelps

The quick reflexes, strategic thinking and endurance of an Olympic athlete will also serve fans well as NBCUniversal offers an astounding 5,535 hours of coverage of the 2012 London Games. Every minute of all 302 events in 32 sports will be shown live in the United States for the first time. "We think it's important to have that instant gratification and immediacy for those avid fans," says Mark Lazarus, the NBC Sports Group chairman who made the call to provide live streaming online of even the most popular events.

Following the action can mean jumping between up to 40 concurrent live streams on nbcolympics.com. Viewers can also wait for the prime-time network broadcast, where NBC will wrap its signature storytelling around the tape-delayed events. Or you can tune in twice. "We think people will say, 'Wow, you should see that!' and then we will build the wonderful story lines," Lazarus says.

NBCUniversal, which paid $1.18 billion for the telecast rights, put in safeguards to protect the value of its investment in prime time, part of the 272 hours of flagship NBC network coverage. If you miss Jamaican triple-gold medalist Usain Bolt in the men's 100-meter final at 4:50pm ET on Sunday, August 5, the race won't be available online again until after the prime-time show airs. But Lazarus is well aware that with the proliferation of social media, "There's no hiding the results."

London, the first city to host the Olympics three times, is a familiar setting for U.S. viewers, unlike Beijing four years ago. And with iconic venues like Wimbledon for tennis and Horse Guards Parade (the site of Trooping the Colour to celebrate the queen's birthday) for beach volleyball, interest intensifies. "We've long since realized that while the Olympics are the most important global athletic competition, they're not just about the competition," says Bob Costas, the prime-time host for his ninth Olympics. "They're a travelogue; they're a snippet of time and place, so if the beach volleyball takes place with a backdrop that strikes a chord with people, then so much the better."

The queen could be out and about, especially since her granddaughter Zara Phillips will compete in the equestrian competition. The U.S. has its own queen — Queen Underwood in women's boxing, which is making its Olympic debut. "There's going to be a lot of eyes on us, and there's going to be a lot of 'wows' and 'oohs' and 'aahs,'" Underwood says. "A lot of people out there are going to see our ability and our skill level. We're just going to shock the world."

Cable network CNBC will be dedicated to boxing, while Bravo will be devoted to tennis, which has welcomed mixed doubles back to the fold for the first time since 1924.

With 204 countries competing, the U.S. will try to fend off the Chinese in the medal count. China had more golds, 51 to 36, in Beijing, but Team USA had a higher overall total, 110 to 100. The U.S. will again rely on swimmer Michael Phelps for help with the medal haul. He already has 14 gold and two bronze medals and needs three of any kind to become the most decorated Olympian of all time, surpassing former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won 18 medals from 1956—64.

Phelps is competing in seven events, while teammate and main rival Ryan Lochte could swim six. If Lochte beats Phelps in the 200- or 400-meter individual medleys, "it gives those achievements more luster, because people know who Michael Phelps is," Costas says.

Missy Franklin, an effervescent 17-year-old swimmer, will be just as busy as Phelps, with seven events. "She can be laughing in the ready room and even smiling when she goes on the blocks," says NBC's Rowdy Gaines, "and then all of a sudden she flips a switch and turns into Jack the Ripper."

On the track, Sanya Richards-Ross in the 400 and Allyson Felix in the 200 will be trying to win their first individual medals. "I've failed a couple of times," Richards-Ross says. "I think I've been failing forward and getting better every time."

With plenty of American idols emerging from the games, some may be interviewed by special contributor Ryan Seacrest. He'll also join Bruce Jenner on E! network. "I told Ryan, 'This pop-culture thing, you've got it down pat,' says Jenner, the 1976 decathlon champion. "'These are the real people. Stick with me, Ryan, I'll get you through it.'"

Viewers may be bleary-eyed once the Olympics are over, but imagine if they could watch every bit of coverage end-to-end. That would consume seven and a half months, taking them almost halfway to the 2014 Winter Games. Now that's what we call an Olympic marathon.

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