World-class pin-ups: Meet the Olympic contenders for the gold medal in glamour

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In Beijing, it's speed, strength and stamina that matter. But in the age of the sports star, glamour counts, too. Esther Walker eyes up the contenders

Alexandra Orlando, 21, CAN

Describing herself as "a rhythmic gymnast, a university student, a loving and helpful daughter, a normal 21-year-old, a dancer, a dreamer and a Starbucks junkie", Orlando has suspended her degree in commerce at the University of Toronto for the Olympics. She is a star in her homeland and appears on the front cover of the August issue of Chatelaine magazine (the Canadian equivalent of Elle). "Just because a sport is dominated by women doesn't make it weak," she has said.

Christine Arron, 35, FRA

The striking and outspoken Arron, who was born in Guadaloupe but grew up in France, is the third-fastest legal runner of all time. For years she had a rivalry with the American runner Marion Jones. Arron's fastest time for the 100m is 10.73; Jones ran it in 10.65, but later fell foul of drug investigators. "She has lied for years," said Arron about Jones in a typically candid outburst. "She treated everyone as idiots. I'm not choked she is going to jail. We started running together in 1997. She has stolen my best years. Everything could have been different for me."

Shanaze Reade, 20, GBR

Described as "precocious and powerful", the half-Jamaican, half-Irish Reade is representing Great Britain in bicycle motocross (BMX), which debuts as an Olympic sport this year. Speedy Readey started riding bikes at the age of 11; she was the world under-18 champion by 15 and has frequently competed against boys, and won. She hasn't lost a BMX race since she took up the sport. "Too many girls get blinded by the easy life," says Reade. "They have kids at 16 and you think, 'phew, where have their lives gone?'. My goals won't be complete until I become the Olympic champion."

Margherita Granbassi, 28, ITA

This foil-fencing champion from Trieste, given the nickname "The Bull" by her trainer because of her habit of lunging at her opponent without thinking, won the 2006 World Fencing Championships. She is one of four children, all of whom fence, but none to the standard of lovely Margherita. As well as fencing, Granbassi also swims, plays tennis and rides horses. "Sport at my level requires discipline, and as a result you have to make a lot of sacrifices," Granbassi has said. "The most difficult thing for me is having to resist big plates of pasta."

Allyson Felix, 23, USA

Felix, already an Olympic silver medal-holding sprinter, lives in Los Angeles and is a committed Christian. Her father is an ordained minister and is professor of New Testament Greek; her mother is a primary school teacher. "My running is an amazing gift from God," says Felix on her personal website. She is also a member of Project Believe, which means taking voluntary out-of-competition drugs tests to prove she is clean. "I see it as a responsibility," Felix says. She lives with her brother, Wes (also a sprinter), and their Yorkshire terrier.

Dara Torres, 41, USA

Swimmer Torres proves that age is no barrier. Despite having shoulder surgery in November 2007, Torres not only qualified for Beijing but beat her 25 year-old competitor Natalie Coughlin in the 100m freestyle qualifying race. She will be the first Olympic swimmer to compete in five Games: 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008. She grew up in California and is a sports commentator for NBC, ESPN and the Fox Channel. She modelled for the Sport Illustrated swimsuit issue in 1994 and has been married twice, first to sports producerJeff Gowan, then to Israeli surgeon Iza Shasha. She now has a daughter with her partner, David Hoffman.

Victoria Pendleton, 27, GBR

Pendleton started cycling competitively at 13, but chose to take a degree in sport and exercise science at the University of Northumbria before pursuing her cycling career. When not burning her way around velodromes, she likes shoe shopping and baking cakes. Last winter she posed, apparently nude on her bike, on the cover of a British sport magazine. "Usually, to be successful, you have to become androgynous or beefy and slightly aggressive," she has said. "It doesn't have to be that way; it's almost like it's not considered very feminine to be competitive."

Yelena Isinbayeva, 26, RUS

Even among pole-vaulters this Russian is a high-flyer. In 2005 she became the first woman to clear a 5m jump; she holds 20 world records. Isinbayeva comes from Volgograd, where her father is a plumber and her mother is a shop assistant. She is the face of Toshiba in Russia and has a contract with Adidas. She has compared herself to Maria Sharapova, another Russian Olympian. "And," she has said, "like [Sharapova], the idea of being glamorous is important to me. I don't agree that you are either a sportswoman or a girl. It's important that there are women who bring glamour to sport."

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