Why 2011 is so important for London 2012
You can't etch your name into Olympic history if you haven't earned the right to compete and 2011 is the year where qualification hots up, which makes it an electrifying year in which to be watching the action.
In sports where the British have recently excelled, like cycling, rowing, swimming and athletics, the field is so packed with potential that only the best performances in the world will stand out.
There is, however, a lot of Olympic sport heading our way. Where to begin, then? Where might the biggest drama come, and which are the events that matter most?
Chris Hoy looks ahead to 2011 (UK users only)
There are two major hurdles which define the challenge facing athletes in any Olympic sport this year.
First, your nation must earn its place at the Games. Most sports work this out by nominating specific tournaments as qualifying events, then assigning places based on performances at that event. Places are usually awarded to countries, not individual athletes, so each nation can then decide which of its athletes deserves to go to the Olympics. (And it may well not be the same person who earned it.)
Consequently, the second challenge is getting picked by your country to fill those Olympic berths. Britain is already guaranteed a number of places in most sports by virtue of being the host nation, but the better British competitors perform this year, the more places they will unlock. And the better the individual performance, the more likely that person is to get the nod come July 2012.
This means the best events to watch may well be the ones where incredibly strong British squads begin the internal scrap for supremacy in front of their Olympic selectors.
No country can enter more than two swimmers into each Olympic event, so expect fireworks over the women's freestyle distances, where even Rebecca Adlington can't be sure of her Olympic place, despite the two Beijing 2008 gold medals to her name.
Adlington will have to fend off a host of British rivals, including Jo Jackson, Jaz Carlin and Caitlin McClatchey, to demonstrate she is the leading light and cement her place in the British team.
The same is true in track cycling, where established stars are under threat not only from younger guns rising up the British ranks, but also a returning Olympic champion in the shape of 40-year-old Jason Queally, who won his last gold at Sydney 2000.
At the other end of the spectrum, BMX world champion Shanaze Reade is aiming to represent GB in both the BMX and track's team sprint in 2012 - but 2011 is the year in which she has to prove she can do it.
With that in mind, keep a close eye on next year's BMX test event on the new Olympic course. The world's top riders are likely to want to get as much time as possible on the 2012 BMX track, which would mean a strong field for another event besides the World Championships in Copenhagen in July.
Many other Olympic venues will host their first major competitions this year, giving sports a dry run before the main events in 2012. Look out for the beach volleyball and basketball test events this summer, which should see top-class opponents invited to London, as well as a huge month of sailing in Weymouth with a test event off the back of the annual Sail for Gold regatta.
Below are my remaining picks for the next 12 months, but how about yours? I've had to miss some pearls out so if you've got some more Olympic sporting dates circled in your calendar, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.
World Olympic Dreams catches up with triathlon's Alistair Brownlee
Five World Championships to watch
World Gymnastics, Tokyo
Britain's gymnasts have taken the idea of coming on leaps and bounds to new literal heights - with five European and three world medals in 2010 - but it won't mean a thing if they don't finish the job and qualify both men's and women's teams for London 2012 - something never previously achieved or, if we're honest, thought possible. The World Championships, in October, present their first opportunity to make this a reality. If both teams finish in the top eight, they're through.
World Rowing, Slovenia
British rowing is in such a strong position - as their medal-table-topping finish at the most recent World Championships, in New Zealand, proved - that you need hardly chew your fingernails off worrying if any Brits will reach 2012. The attraction here is in seeing who those Brits will be, and how they measure up against the rest of the world in the last big pre-Olympic showdown. My favourite contest remains the eternal quest of British duo Andy Hodge and Pete Reed to overhaul New Zealand nemeses Hamish Bond and Eric Murray in the men's pair. Hodge and Reed have now suffered 13 consecutive defeats. Can they turn it around before 2012? Will coach Jurgen Grobler even let them, or will he make belated changes?
Triathlon's World Championship Series
Not so much one World Championship as seven spread across the summer, this gives you the chance to see the world's best triathletes compete in a variety of splendid, hopefully sun-drenched venues. Things kick off in Sydney in April and conclude five months later in Beijing, with the London leg likely to show off the Olympic course in Hyde Park in July. Britain's Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee brothers are ones to watch, although elder brother Alistair, the 2009 world champion, says he's not focusing on the world title this year, in favour of preparing for 2012 by channelling all his energy into the Hyde Park race.
World Athletics, Daegu (South Korea)
Very few events beat the World Athletics for sustained drama and, since the outdoor version only comes around every two years, we're made to wait for it. New contenders have emerged since the last Worlds in 2009 and competitors in South Korea - among them British stars like heptathlete Jessica Ennis - will have a totally different approach this time around, focusing on the build-up to a Games rather than the post-Beijing comedown. Expect it to be intense and packed with household names. Elsewhere, the 2011 athletics calendar remains packed, led by the Diamond League series, which visits both Birmingham and London in July and August respectively.
World Aquatics, Shanghai
Another sport where the absence of a fully fledged world event (over the 50m Olympic pool length) in 2010 makes the 2011 Worlds all the more tantalising, since we've had so little opportunity to compare British swimmers side-by-side with their American rivals - the ones most likely to halt any gold-medal ambitions in 2012. And if this event doesn't prove enough, we're expecting another Duel in the Pool event involving the two nations to take place towards the end of 2011, though this time it may take place in the United States.
Five events in Britain to go and see
Fencing European Championships, Sheffield
Britain's fencers didn't enjoy the most successful of years in 2010, but they have the perfect setting in which to start putting things right in 2011. No fencers currently in the GB team have experience of a home stage like the one they'll get in July, inside the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, and it offers both fencers and organisers invaluable experience ahead of 2012. Fencing is also a far livelier sport to watch, once you've invested half an hour in getting to know the basics, than you might imagine.
Modern Pentathlon European Championships, Medway
This will be the second year in succession that Medway, in Kent, has staged a major modern pentathlon event, having hosted a round of the sport's World Cup in 2010. If you turn up to this you're guaranteed five sports in one day-long sitting - starting with fencing, then swimming, showjumping, running and shooting. Britain has a proud tradition in pentathlon and an exciting crop of young pentathletes in the women's event. Ones to watch include Freyja Prentice and Samantha Murray alongside Beijing 2008 silver medallist Heather Fell.
Mountain Bike World Cups in Fort William and Dalby Forest
BMX isn't the only lively cycling discipline getting a good outing in Britain this coming year. Mountain biking tends to be the poor cousin of its track, road and BMX siblings, since the British team hasn't had quite the same world-beating record here in recent years, but the sport itself presents a grand day out in some of the UK's finest settings. Catch the World Cup in Dalby Forest, Yorkshire, in May and just outside Fort William in June. There is likely to be a test event at the Hadleigh Farm 2012 course, in Essex, at some point too.
Badminton World Championships, London
If you go to most of the events I've detailed in this blog, chances are you'll be watching a strong British team in action, giving off plenty of positive vibes for London. Badminton, however, was the one summer Olympic sport whose British team saw its funding cut during UK Sport's recent annual review. The team haven't hit their targets and 2011 is a big year in which they must try to turn things around with less cash, and more pressure. Wembley Arena, the 2012 Olympic venue, hosts the world's finest in August as GB look to get back on track on home soil.
Trampoline World Championships, Birmingham
If you love your gymnastics but trips to Tokyo are off the agenda, this may be slightly more accessible. For five days in December, Birmingham's National Indoor Arena will host a festival of tumbling and trampolining. Since their events usually take place away from major artistic gymnastics championships, trampolinists don't often get the same level of attention - but keep an eye out for British star Bryony Page, who was fourth at this year's Worlds in France.
The women's handball World Championships take place in Brazil in December. (Photo: Getty Images)
... and five personal recommendations
EuroHockey Nations Championship, Germany
British hockey had a 2010 to remember and, while the 2011 hockey calendar isn't quite as packed, this promises to be a memorable week in late August. England's men and women will both be on show (and English players will make up the backbone of the GB teams in 2012). Last time out, in 2009, England's men won the European title by stunning opponents Germany in the final. Can they now repeat the feat in the Germans' backyard by winning in Moenchengladbach? At some point there will also be a test at the new arena in London's Olympic Park.
World Amateur Boxing Championships, South Korea
Lucky South Korea - not one, but two major world championships in the space of a month. Just over a week after the World Athletics comes to a close, the southern city of Busan welcomes the boxers for the men's amateur World Championships. A lot of fuss was made when Frankie Gavin won amateur gold for England in Chicago three years ago, but 2009 proved a lean year, with not a single medal for Britain's boxers. The squad being put in place for London 2012 looks supremely talented, but this will be our best chance to see what progress has been made ahead of the Games.
Sprint Canoe World Championships, Hungary
This event arrives amid a glut of Olympic action in the height of summer - late August - so you'll have to tear yourself away from basketball, BMX, dressage and hockey to watch. But it'll almost certainly be worth it, since Britain's sprint canoeing team is fast developing into a medal machine. Tim Brabants returned to the sport with a world silver medal this year, having gone back to work as a doctor after winning gold in Beijing, while team-mate Ed McKeever will defend his world title over the 200m distance, and Rachel Cawthorn is a good bet for a medal in the women's events.
Handball World Championships, Sweden and Brazil
By contrast, you can afford to settle down to the men's World Handball in January safe in the knowledge that there's not a lot else on. You should get to know handball - it has very little profile in Britain, given it's not a traditional sport here, but is fast-paced, skilful and surprisingly physical. Britain's men aren't involved in the Worlds but are becoming a rags-to-reasonable story ahead of 2012, where you're likely to be able to get hold of tickets more easily than for many other sports. Handball events bookend the year, with the women's Worlds in Brazil in December.
Weightlifting World Championships, Paris
You may have heard about teenage weightlifter Zoe Smith, star of the British team for 2012, who had her funding temporarily suspended for disciplinary reasons a week or two ago. She has an interesting year ahead and some tough decisions to take, and there will be no better way to judge her year than at this event in November.