2021 Tokyo Olympics: 15 Stories to Follow During the Games

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olympics-what-to-watch - Credit: Amy Sanderson/ZUMA Wire/Cal Sport Media/AP; Olivier Morin/Pool/AP; Maja Hitij/Getty Images
olympics-what-to-watch - Credit: Amy Sanderson/ZUMA Wire/Cal Sport Media/AP; Olivier Morin/Pool/AP; Maja Hitij/Getty Images

The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, are officially underway (in 2021, of course) with the lighting of the cauldron at National Stadium. Now, the best athletes in the world will vie for medals across 339 sporting events over the next 16 days. With so many stories swirling around, it can be hard to decide what to watch and who to follow so that you’re the Olympics expert in the room when watching.

The names to follow are easy enough to look for, but each athlete has its own angle. Simone Biles is going for record gold medals. Allyson Felix is championing moms in sports. Naomi Osaka is poised to be a host-country hero. On top of the athletes themselves, several nations are making headlines as teams. Russia’s doping scandal continues. Cuba is marred in protests at home — will that affect its players?

The world of sports itself is also poised to make the news, with four new sports (surfing, sport climbing, karate, and skateboarding) in addition to new disciplines like 3×3 basketball and the return of baseball and softball. Behind the scenes, the rules for protesting on the podium are being contested in a year when there’s a lot of global issues to shine a light on.

Below are 15 storylines to follow so that you’re ahead of the curve when it comes to knowing what’s going on at the games.

Check out How to Watch the 2021 Tokyo Olympics: Stream the Games Free Online

Simone Biles Goes for Record-Tying Gold Medal

After vying for back-to-back victories in the Team (July 27th) and Individual (July 29th) All-Around competitions, Biles will likely compete in the Floor, Balance Beam, and Vault apparatuses. If Biles wins gold in all five events, the G.O.A.T. would tie gymnast Larisa Latynina for the most individual gold medals won by a woman in Olympic history with nine. If she gets eight, she’ll tie for the most gold medals won by an American, a record currently held by swimmer Jenny Thompson. Other records she could break or tie include the most individual gold medals (six) for a gymnast and most Olympic gold medals (five) for a U.S. gymnast. Things look promising based on her Yurchenko double pike (2 1/2 flips in the air) attempts in practice at the Ariake Gymnastics Center. In addition, if she wins the individual all-around, she’ll be the first gymnast to do so since Věra Cáslavská of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (Mexico City) and 1972 (Munich).

Will Surfing Make a Splash in Its Debut?

The contest is set to make its Olympic debut July 25th with finals on July 28th — but the scheduling is dependent on the size of the waves, so keep an eye out on the flexible schedule. A developing tropical disturbance may bring the kind of swells these 40 Olympians are looking for, however. In order to win, they’ll need to display a variety of techniques and moves that will rack up points, awarded by a panel of judges (watch this one-minute video to learn more about how the sport works). Possible gold-medal contenders on the women’s side include USA’s Carissa Moore and Caroline Marks, Australia’s Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons, and Brazil’s Tatiana Weston-Webb and Silvana Lima. Past world champions John John Florence and Kelly Slater of the U.S. make for an interesting match-up against current world Number One and Two Gabriel Medina and Italo Ferreira of Brazil. The venue, Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, is located about 50 miles outside of Tokyo in Ichinomiya of Chiba prefecture.

3×3 Basketball Moves From the Street to the Olympics

Inspired by local pickup games in the neighborhood, the half-court contest makes its debut as a new discipline of the beloved Olympic sport. The first team to score 21 points — or whichever has the most points in 10 minutes — wins. Unlike five-on-five full-court basketball, there are no breaks for fouls and the shot clock is only 12 seconds, which guarantees plenty of charged excitement even without spectators. Surprisingly, Team USA is not a top contender here — the men didn’t even qualify to compete against four-time world champions Serbia. On the women’s side, China is the most recent world champion, but no country has won the title more than once. Stefanie Dolson, Allisha Gray, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young play for the women’s USA team. Play begins July 24th, with the U.S. playing France first.

U.S. Women’s Soccer Attempts to Win Back Gold

After failing to reach the podium in 2016, the U.S. women’s national soccer team attempts to take back the crown. You might already know Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, and Alex Morgan, but don’t forget about Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, Christen Press, and Crystal Dunn. Prospects looked good coming off of a World Cup victory in 2019, but they’re already off to a rocky start after losing to Sweden, the longtime rivals who kicked USWNT out of the quarter finals in Rio. Group stages began July 21st — there are now so many sports that several begin matches before the Opening Ceremony. They next play New Zealand on July 24th, followed by a match against Australia on July 27th. Those two countries should be easier to beat, sending USWNT on to the quarter-finals, which begin July 30th.

Katie Ledecky reacts after the women’s 800 freestyle during Wave 2 of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials on June 19th, in Omaha, Nebraska. - Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP
Katie Ledecky reacts after the women’s 800 freestyle during Wave 2 of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials on June 19th, in Omaha, Nebraska. - Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Charlie Neibergall/AP

Simone Manuel and Katie Ledecky Lead Team USA in Swimming

Team captain Simone Manuel will look to win the 50-meter freestyle after spending the past few months recovering from overtraining syndrome. The first black athlete to win an individual gold medal in swimming will be a name to watch, not just for her actions in the pool but her advocacy for athlete’s rights and diversifying the sport. (Exemplifying the lack of representation is FINA’s controversial ban on a swimming cap built specifically for Black hair, which is now under review after athletes and fans cried foul.) Katie Ledecky, who trained with Manuel during the Covid-19 shutdown, will swim the 200, 400, 800, and 1500 meter freestyles, but Australian Ariarne Titmus is a serious threat to the American’s attempt at a sweep.

Noah Lyles Races to the Finish

The current world champion in the 200 meter dash missed the cut in 2016, but after a long wait — and a significant battle with clinical depression — he’s finally ready to make his debut on the Olympic stage. Usain Bolt’s 19.19-second world record has stood for more than a decade, so could it finally be time for someone new to take up the mantle? It’s unlikely, as Lyles’ personal best is 19.5, but he is still the favorite to take home gold. In order to do so, he’ll have to keep at bay Nigerian sprinter Divine Oduduru and American teammate Kenny Bednarek, who have the second (19.73) and third (19.78) fastest times, respectively. While you won’t see Lyles in the 100 meter sprint (he came in seventh at U.S. Olympic Trials in June), he’ll likely end up on the 4×100 meter relay, offering a second chance for gold.

Transgender Athletes Step into the Spotlight

At least two openly transgender athletes will compete in Tokyo. Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand will compete August 7th in weightlifting women’s 87 kg+ category. For context, Hubbard was assigned male at birth, competing in men’s weightlifting until she was 23, when she retired early. After transitioning in her mid-30s, she returned to the sport and eventually made the podium at the 2017 Commonwealth Games. Another name to watch for is Quinn, a member of the Canadian women’s soccer team. Assigned female at birth and now using they/them pronouns, Quinn is officially the first transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics.

Naomi Osaka Aims for Host-Nation Glory

It’s been a roller-coaster year for the tennis superstar. After winning the Australian Open in February, Osaka was fined for refusing to speak to the media at the French Open, citing mental-health reasons. The fallout sparked a global discussion about expectations and the relationship between athletes and the press. Osaka dropped out of the competition in the second round, saying the noise became too much of a distraction from other athletes in the tournament. A month later, she sat out Wimbledon to focus on healing. Now, everyone is looking for her to win a gold medal for host nation Japan. That’s a lot of pressure for any athlete, never mind one who has been dealing with headlines for all the wrong reasons. Match play begins July 24th, with Osaka facing Saisai Zheng of China in the first round. Barring any upsets, the final will see a thrilling match up between the hometown hero and world Number One Ashleigh Barty of Australia.

Athletes Want to Take a Stand on the Podium

Every Olympic Games, protests have the potential for a historic moment (Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ Black power salutes in Mexico City 1968 come to mind). This year, with a take-your-pick number of controversies surrounding and involving the Olympics, it’s a question of when, not if, an athlete protests. A few U.S. Olympians offered a glimpse during trials, like hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who turned away from the American flag during the medal ceremony to call attention to the still-rampant racism in the U.S. Earlier this year, the International Olympic Committee lifted the all-encompassing ban on protests, but will only allow political or personal statements to be made on the field before play begins. That means athletes risk sanctions or fines for protesting on the podium. On July 22nd, Berry, Smith, Carlos, and more than 150 other athletes signed a letter asking the organizing committee to review their policies.

Political Unrest at Home Won’t Stop Cubans

Two reigning gold-medal champions from the island nation hope to maintain their standing on top of the podium in Tokyo: boxer Julio Cesar La Cruz and Greco-Roman wrestler Mijain Lopez. If Lopez wins, he’ll be the first to win four consecutive gold medals in the sport. Also a contender is Judoka Idalys Ortiz, who won gold in London 2012 and silver in Rio 2016. The trio are a bright spot for the nation plagued by protests over the government’s handling of the coronavirus, rising prices, and more. The U.S. recently slapped sanctions in response to Cuba’s crackdown on the people’s movement.

Doping Scandals Continue to Haunt Russia

Team Russia is not competing in the Olympics this year — but more than 300 Russian athletes are, under the name Russian Olympic Committee. The white, blue, and red flag will not be flown, and the national anthem will not be played if any of those competitors end up on the podium. Instead, they’ll hear Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” After decades of doping and cheating scandals, the IOC finally kicked out the controversial nation — at least until Paris 2024. No top contenders have emerged for the Russian Olympic Committee, but look for athletes to score medals in sports like artistic and rhythmic gymnastics, judo, track and field, fencing, and synchronized swimming.

Jessica Springsteen riding Don Juan van de Donkhoeve competes in the Rolex Grand Prix at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, Windsor. - Credit: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/AP
Jessica Springsteen riding Don Juan van de Donkhoeve competes in the Rolex Grand Prix at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, Windsor. - Credit: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/AP

Steve Parsons/PA Wire/AP

Jessica Springsteen Makes a “Leap of Faith”

The daughter of rock star Bruce Springsteen makes her Olympic debut in equestrian jumping. The budding champion, who was an alternate for London 2012 and missed the cut in 2016, has been riding for most of her life, inspired partly by mom Patti Scialfa’s love for horses. Springsteen will compete with her horse, Don Juan van de Donkhoeve, both individually and as part of Team USA August 3rd–7th. Don’t expect to see the Boss in the stands, though, as even celebrity family members are not exempt from the ban on spectators. Here’s hoping we’ll get an impromptu concert celebration on social media should things go well.

Brazil and Germany Go Head-to-Head Again

After Germany beat Brazil in the World Cup 2014 semifinals and Brazil beat Germany in the Rio 2016 finals, who will win at Tokyo 2020? They’ve already played once in the group stages, with Brazil winning 4-2. In order to meet again, they’ll both have to move into the knockout rounds beginning July 30th. While notable names like Neymar Jr. aren’t on the roster for Brazil this year, upstarts like Richarlison, Paulinho, and Mattheus Cunha are more than happy to enjoy the spotlight. For Germany, Max Kruse, Benjamin Henrichs, and Arne Maier look to pull Deutschland out of a disappointing start.

Tom Daley of Team Great Britain during aquatics training at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games - Credit: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Tom Daley of Team Great Britain during aquatics training at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games - Credit: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Tom Daley Goes for Gold Instead of Bronze

More than 160 out LGBTQ+ athletes will compete at the games this year. One of the best known is diver Tom Daley, who is hoping to finally win a gold medal after winning the bronze in London 2012 and Rio 2016. The Team Great Britain star is poised to potentially take home two gold medals, thanks to a new synchro partner in Matty Lee. The pair topped the podium at the 2021 FINA Diving World Cup for the 10 meter platform event, where Daley also won the individual event.

Allyson Felix Champions Moms Everywhere

The five-time Olympian is looking for a seventh gold medal in Japan, returning to the games for the first time as a new mom. On the track, the story will be about her cementing her status as one of the best runners from the U.S., ever. Elsewhere, Felix will look to shine a spotlight on the issues facing athletes who are also mothers. Even before arriving in Tokyo, the track star announced a $200,000 initiative with her sponsor, Athleta, to provide $10,000 grants to moms who need to provide child care while competing at the Olympics.

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