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The biggest questions in Olympic sports for 2023

Simone Biles, Suni Lee

Aug 3, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Simone Biles (USA) and Sunisa Lee (USA) after competing on the balance beam during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Burning questions in Olympic sports for 2023, when athletes start qualifying for the 2024 Paris Games ...

How many Olympic all-around gold medalists will return?
Suni Lee
competed strictly in NCAA gymnastics since winning the Tokyo Olympic all-around, but she announced last month that this sophomore season will be her last for the Auburn Tigers. Lee plans to return to elite, Olympic-level gymnastics after this winter. She hasn’t announced her comeback meet, but she has plenty of time ahead of the most significant domestic competitions in August.

Meanwhile, Simone Biles said in September that she plans to be at the Paris Olympics. She just has to decide whether that will be as an athlete or a spectator. Biles hasn’t provided further updates since but, as of the third quarter of this year, was still getting drug tested. That’s significant because if Biles does not withdraw her name from the testing pool, she is excused from the six-month waiting period to return to competition for athletes who leave and then re-enter the testing pool.

Then there’s 2012 Olympic all-around champ Gabby Douglas. She last competed at the 2016 Rio Games, but reports -- and a photo -- from this fall indicated she has been training at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Texas, which produced Olympic all-around champions Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin and reigning U.S. all-around champion Konnor McClain. Douglas hasn’t commented publicly, and her representative said Wednesday there is nothing new to report.

What will Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone race?
For the first time, McLaughlin-Levrone has a bye into the world championships as a reigning gold medalist. That means she can race the 400m hurdles at August’s worlds in Budapest without entering the event at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in July. Athletes with byes sometimes compete in other events at nationals. Mix that with her comments from this fall that she wants to add the flat 400m to her program -- but not give up the hurdles, yet at least -- and we have our burning question.

When McLaughlin-Levrone made those fall comments, no concrete decision had been made about a possible 400m/400m hurdles double bid in 2023 (or 2024). At worlds, the women’s 400m hurdles first round heats start 2 hours and 20 minutes before the women’s 400m semifinals. Top-level pros rarely race multiple times in one session in a distance longer than 200 meters at any meet.

The Olympic schedule is accommodating as ever for a possible women’s 400m/400m hurdles double in 2024 (no woman has ever earned a medal in both races at one Olympics or worlds). For the first time in Olympic history, none of the rounds of those races take place on the same day at the Games. But doing both through the finals would still be a challenge: racing six consecutive days at the Olympics (and a seventh day at the end if adding the 4x400m relay).

ON HER TURF: Top women’s sports storylines to follow in 2023

Will Caeleb Dressel compete in 2023, and if so, when?
Dressel, who won five golds at the Tokyo Games, withdrew on unspecified medical grounds during June’s world championships after winning his first two finals. He hasn’t competed since and last provided an update on Sept. 4, saying he was happy, had not swum since worlds and missed swimming. He ended the social media post with the line, “I’ll be back.”

The next major meet is the U.S. Championships from June 27-July 1, the qualifying meet for the world championships in Japan later in July. In Dressel’s absence, Olympic 200m fly champion Kristof Milak became the new world champion in the 100m fly, where Dressel holds the world record. In the 100m freestyle, where Dressel had been the world’s fastest man outside of the super-suit era, 18-year-old Romanian David Popovici won the world title and then broke the world record.

Is Katie Ledecky headed for a Race of the Century?
Swimming worlds may also produce the most anticipated head-to-head-to-head race in 18 years. The women’s 400m freestyle could pit Ledecky (reigning world champion) against Australian Ariarne Titmus (reigning Olympic champion) and 16-year-old Canadian phenom Summer McIntosh. This year, Titmus broke Ledecky’s world record but skipped a showdown with Ledecky at the world championships in prioritizing the Commonwealth Games. McIntosh took silver to Ledecky at worlds, becoming the fourth-fastest woman in history.

The hype has been compared to the “Race of the Century,” when Michael Phelps, Aussie Ian Thorpe and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband met in the 200m free at the 2004 Athens Games (won by Thorpe).

Will Mikaela Shiffrin break one of Alpine skiing’s historic records?
Shiffrin heads into 2023 in arguably her best form since her incredible 2018-19 season, winning her last four races across three different disciplines to reach 80 World Cup wins. She is two victories shy of Lindsey Vonn‘s female record and six away from Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record that has stood since he retired in 1989. Shiffrin getting to 87 would be the most significant accomplishment in American ski racing -- outside of the Olympics -- since her breakout world title at age 17 in 2013.

Shiffrin is 27 years old and expects to compete at least through the 2026 Winter Games. If she gets to 87 World Cup wins in 2023, having averaged about eight victories per season, you have to start wondering whether 100 is possible.

What happens with Russian athletes?
Russians and Belarusians in most Olympic sports have been banned from international competition since the invasion of Ukraine 10 months ago. Olympic sports leaders have discussed since at least September how athletes who do not endorse the war could return in the future. The International Olympic Committee is not yet recommending the lifting of the bans, but did say it planned to explore the possibility of Russian athletes taking part in Olympic qualifying competitions in Asia rather than Europe.

A key sport is gymnastics. Russian gymnasts won men’s and women’s team gold at the Tokyo Games. As rules currently stand, Russians must compete at their continental championships this year (April for Europe, May or June for Asia) to remain eligible to qualify full teams for the Paris Games.

Will any U.S. beach volleyball gold medalist return?
The Olympic beach volleyball qualifying window runs from January 2023 into June 2024. It looks likely to start with no public word from reigning gold medalists Alix Klineman and April Ross on whether either will bid for the Paris Games. Klineman, 33, hasn’t competed since shoulder surgery last January. Ross, 40, last competed in March, then withdrew before June’s world championships, where she was entered with Emily Day, with an unspecified injury.

“I’m weighing a lot of factors, a lot of life factors, a lot of, you know, opportunity factors,” Ross said earlier this month. “There’s a lot of things that are appealing to me at the moment, and I just have to decide which direction I want to go. But yeah, I still feel like I have a lot of good years of volleyball left in me.”

Kerri Walsh Jennings, the most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player with four medals (three gold), has been working out on Hermosa Beach with 2000 Olympic indoor teammate Logan Tom, according to videos posted by Buzzle this month. Walsh Jennings, 44, last played a tournament in June 2021, when she and then-partner Brooke Sweat were eclipsed for the second and last U.S. spot for the Tokyo Games. Walsh Jennings said last spring that she wanted Tom to be her new partner, then said in October that she should have an answer on her 2024 Olympic bid plans after the start of the new year.

The gold medalists have some time to deliberate, but probably need to return at some point in 2023 or risk falling significantly behind in qualifying for two Olympic spots. The U.S. has two strong, younger pairs in Sara Hughes and Kelly Cheng, who won the most recent top-level international event earlier this month, and Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss, who won five times between the domestic AVP and international FIVB tours in 2022.

Stephen Curry, Steve Kerr

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 02: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors talks to head coach Steve Kerr during their game against the Chicago Bulls at Chase Center on December 02, 2022 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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Which NBA superstars will suit up for USA Basketball?
The U.S. men’s basketball team may face a gigantic threat at the Paris Games (more on that in the next burning question), but first comes the quadrennial FIBA World Cup in August and September. Recall four years ago that the Americans, with just two reigning NBA All-Stars on the team and one player with Olympic experience, lost twice at the World Cup en route to their worst major tournament result ever -- seventh place.

After Gregg Popovich coached the team to a bounce-back gold in Tokyo, Steve Kerr succeeded him as head coach. Grant Hill followed Jerry Colangelo as national team managing director. Will America’s best players sign up to travel around the globe -- the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia co-host worlds -- a month before NBA preseason training camps?

Which country will Joel Embiid play for?
The Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center, who was born in Cameroon, gained French nationality and U.S. citizenship this year, potentially making him eligible to represent any of those nations in international basketball. Embiid has not yet announced his choice, if he decides to play at all, but France’s GM expressed confidence last month.

If Embiid joins France, it could give the Olympic host country triplet towers with fellow 7-footers Rudy Gobert and Victor Wembanyama, an 18-year-old whom LeBron James described as a one-of-a-kind talent. That could pose problems for the U.S. Anthony Davis, who skipped the Tokyo Olympics, is the lone U.S. center to make an All-NBA first, second or third team in the last five seasons.

Can Kelly Slater qualify for Olympic surfing at age 51?
Many thought surfing’s debut in Tokyo was Slater’s only shot at the Olympics. He missed the team by one spot when it came down to the last event of yearlong qualifying. Then Slater came back in February to win the most prestigious contest in the sport -- the Pipeline Masters -- 30 years after he won it for the first time. Slater didn’t make the quarterfinals again until the season’s penultimate event -- placing third at the 2024 Olympic venue in Tahiti -- and finished ranked third among American men in world standings.

The top two American men in next year’s standings likely qualify for the Olympics. In a change from Tokyo, the U.S. has the chance to earn a third Olympic men’s spot if it wins the 2024 World Surfing Games. That spot can be filled via discretionary pick.

Will the 2030 Winter Olympic and Paralympic host be decided?
The IOC announced earlier this month that the 2030 host is no longer expected to be decided before next fall, citing wider discussions into the future of the Winter Games, including the effects of climate change and the possibility of rotating the Games within a pool of hosts.

Previously, Salt Lake City, Sapporo, Japan, and Vancouver were confirmed as bids. Then in October, the British Columbia government said it would not support a Vancouver bid, a major setback, though organizers did not say that decision ended the bid. Then last week, Japanese officials announced a pause in the active promotion of the Sapporo bid that may include a national survey asking the public whether it wants to host the Games.

U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials have said Salt Lake City is a likelier candidate for 2034 than 2030 -- with Los Angeles already hosting the 2028 Summer Games -- but could step in for 2030 if asked.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Kelly Slater was fifth among Americans in 2022 and made one quarterfinal. He was third with two quarterfinals.

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