The 2020 Olympics, delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, kick off in Tokyo on July 23 and run through August 8. To say they are going to be strange is an understatement. Not only are the Games being held without any spectators because of a rise in COVID cases in Japan, but these will also be the first Summer Olympics since 1996 to not feature the greatest Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps. There are adults old enough to rent cars who were not alive the last time that happened.
Phelps isn’t the only familiar face absent this year, though. Sprinter Usain Bolt and gymnast Aly Raisman have retired, while diver David Boudia, swimmers Nathan Adrian and Ryan Lochte, and beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings all fell short of making the U.S. Olympic team. But—and this is a big but—there are still a lot of exciting moments to come from Tokyo, between first-time Olympians vying for their first medals to some of the greatest athletes in the world attempting to repeat on the podium. Plus, in addition to several new sports being added to the Games, a couple others will make their return after years away.
With so much going on—and often overlapping—it can be a bit overwhelming when trying to figure out what to watch. But these are the eight events/the major storylines of the Tokyo Olympics that you don’t want to miss. (Click here for a complete schedule of events.)
At 24, Simone Biles is older than a lot of her competitors, but still considered to be the favorite in Tokyo. The greatest gymnast of all time, she has four signature skills to her name, landed a Yurchenko double pike on vault—something no other woman has done in competition—and has won every all-around competition she has entered since 2013. Now she is going to try to extend that record in Tokyo as she defends her 2016 all-around gold against some of the world’s best gymnasts. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since Vera Cáslavská of Czechoslovakia won back-to-back titles in 1964 and ‘68, but here’s a very good chance that could change in Tokyo. However, that’s not all that is at stake: Biles could potentially take home six medals by the end of the Games, and if she wins even three, she’ll surpass Shannon Miller to become the most decorated U.S. female gymnast in Olympics history. If she manages to take home five golds, she’ll tie Larisa Latynina for the most of all time.
Since bursting onto the scene in London in 2012, Katie Ledecky has accumulated five Olympic golds and one silver. She’ll look to add several more to that total when she competes in the 200m, 400m, 800m, and 1500m freestyle for Team USA in Tokyo. She’s also been named to the 4×200-meter freestyle relay, which gives her the opportunity to add another five medals to her Olympic haul. Should she medal in all races, she’ll become the most decorated female Olympic swimmer of all time. And while she is the current world record holder in the 400m, 800m, and 1500m, if there is one race to watch, it’s the 1500m. Not only is it Ledecky’s best event—she holds the 10-fastest times in history—but this year marks the first time in Olympic history women will be swimming the event.
On the men’s side of the pool, pay close attention to Caeleb Dressel, who is one of the captains of the U.S. swim team and could very well be the next global swimming superstar. Since picking up a pair of gold medals in Rio, both for relays, he has become a 13-time world champion. He’s scheduled to compete in three individual events in Tokyo—the 50m free, the 100m free, and the 100m butterfly—and is expected to medal in all of them. He could also swim in up to four relays, which could put him on track to become just the fourth swimmer in history to win seven medals in a single Olympics. If you don’t know Dressel already, you will by the time the Games conclude.
Naomi Osaka will return to the courts for the first time—and in the country she represents —since she withdrew from the French Open in May and prompted a renewed discussion of athletes’ mental health. But the real tennis story of the Olympics is Novak Djokovic’s chase for the Golden Slam, which entails winning the four Grand Slams—the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open—and taking home the gold medal at the Olympics. Four people have completed the career golden slam, but only one—Steffi Graf, in 1988—completed it in the same calendar year. That could all change if Djokovic is able to win gold in Tokyo and then win the U.S. Open in September.
The U.S. women’s soccer team is looking for a little redemption in Tokyo. The 2016 Rio Games marked the first time the U.S., which has four gold medals to its name, failed to earn a medal since the sport was added to the Summer Olympics in 1996. But the U.S. is also looking to make history and become the first country to follow a World Cup title with Olympic gold (albeit with an extra year in between). Backed by veterans with plenty of experience, like Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, Tobin Heath, and Kelley O’Hara, the team is also aided by members from the 2019 World Cup-winning team, including Rose Lavelle. It has depth at every position and is a major contender to not just medal at the Games, but reclaim the gold.
Baseball and softball, which were first officially contested at the Olympics in 1992 and 1996, respectively, are returning to the Summer Games for the first time since 2008. Unlike basketball, you’re not going to see the superstars of baseball here; Major League Baseball refuses to pause the season to allow those on 40-man rosters to be named to the Olympic team, so the U.S. contingent is largely made up of athletes from AAA and AA teams who’ve yet to make a splash at the next level. Still, the sport’s return to the highest of international stages is exciting for baseball fans. And while Japan is the favorite to take home the gold—look out for pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, formerly of the New York Yankees, who will once again be playing for his home country—the U.S. team could still medal.
Meanwhile, on the softball side, the U.S. team will be looking to return to the top of the podium after a heartbreaking loss to Japan in 2008 forced the team to settle for the silver medal after three straight golds. Cat Osterman, one of the greatest to ever play the game, was the youngest member of Team USA when the U.S. women took home the gold in 2004. She has come out of retirement at age 38 to try to avenge the loss in 2008 and lead the team to yet another gold. This is definitely one sport you don’t want to miss.
It’s unfortunate we won’t be cheering on Sha’Carri Richardson, the breakout star of the U.S. Olympic Trials, in the women’s 100 meters during the track and field events in Tokyo. But Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, the fastest woman alive (and second-fasted woman of all time after Florence Griffith-Joyner), will be competing in her fourth straight Olympics. Along with Usain Bolt, Fraser-Pryce helped to elevate Jamaican athletics on the international stage, and with six Olympic medals already to her name, she’ll be attempting to take home her third gold in the 100m dash after winning bronze in Rio. She’ll also be competing in the 200m and the 4×100m relay, which means she could walk away from Tokyo with nine Olympic medals in all.
Every four years (well, usually) the Olympics put lesser known sports on the international stage and give viewers around the world the chance to become armchair experts while athletes have the opportunity to become major stars, if only for a little while. One of the most captivating sports of every Summer Olympics has to be rowing. While it might look easy from the outside, it requires expert coordination, immense strength, and stamina. The various races are sure to be thrilling again this year, but none more so than the U.S. women’s eight boat. With just two veterans from Rio returning, the team will attempt to capture their fourth-straight gold medal. If successful, they’ll break the tie with Romania for most consecutive Olympic titles in the sport.
Skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing, and karate are all new to the Olympics this year. Skateboarding will feature two events—park and street—and even if you’ve never watched the sport before, you might want to tune in to see Nyjah Huston, one of the most decorated athletes in skateboarding history, attempt to add to his medal haul. Having already won 13 golds at the X Games, he is the heavy favorite to win the gold in street competition. Meanwhile, up-and-coming star Sky Brown of Great Britain is a potential medal contender in park at just 13 years old.
When it comes to surfing, four-time world champion and the No. 1-ranked woman in the world, Carissa Moore, is set to compete for the U.S., while John John Florence edged out his mentor and 11-time world champion Kelly Slater to qualify for the Olympics after coming back from a torn ACL. Elsewhere, sport climbing—which has grown in popularity recently—will feature a combined format that includes speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing on artificial climbing walls, and karate will feature two disciplines: kata and kumite. The former is a solo competition in which a routine of various techniques and movements will be judged by technical and athletic breakdown, while the latter involves sparring with another individual.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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