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Tokyo Olympics: 21 storylines with one year out to the Games

One year from today, the world's greatest athletes will begin competition in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Editor’s Note: In July 2019, OlympicTalk previewed the Tokyo Games with 20 storylines one year out from the Opening Ceremony. Here, we update those storylines (21 storylines this time) one year out to the Tokyo Olympics, which have been postponed to July 2021 ...

Baseball/Softball: Return after 13 years away
Baseball and softball return to the Olympic program for the first time since 2008 (but will not be on the 2024 program and must reapply beyond that). Major leaguers will likely not suit up (they never did in baseball’s previous appearances), but two past U.S. Olympic softball players were named to the 15-player roster -- pitchers Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman. A softball game will be the first event of the Tokyo Games, held two days before the Opening Ceremony in Fukushima, site of the 2011 nuclear plant meltdowns caused by an earthquake and tsunami 155 miles north of Tokyo. That softball game will occur on the 25th anniversary of the first Olympic softball game.

Basketball: Gold medals no longer a given
The recent golden run of U.S. basketball -- men’s and women’s sweeps in 2008, 2012 and 2016 -- could be interrupted. The U.S. women remain dominant, cruising to a third straight world title in 2018 under new coach Dawn Staley. They’ll likely have Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi back for a fifth and perhaps final Olympics. But the U.S. men, under new coach Gregg Popovich, finished a program-worst seventh at last year’s worlds with NBA players, but not superstars. The NBA’s schedule in 2021 might dictate which players are available for the Olympics. The U.S. men are reigning world champions in the new Olympic event of 3x3 (no NBA players), but the U.S. women lost in the quarterfinals of their list 3x3 worlds appearance in 2018. The WNBA’s best are expected to make up the traditional event roster, though Sabrina Ionescu is open to playing either event (but won’t play both).

Beach Volleyball: U.S. medal favorites chased by Kerri Walsh Jennings
April Ross and Alix Klineman are the world’s second-ranked team and comfortably lead the U.S. Olympic qualifying race for two spots. Kerri Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion who earned bronze with Ross in Rio before they split, has a new partner in Rio Olympian Brooke Sweat. Walsh Jennings, who could become the oldest Olympic beach player in history at age 42, and Sweat are second in qualifying with a smaller lead over Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil.

Cycling: U.S. women seeing gold
The U.S. has female gold-medal contenders in all four Olympic cycling disciplines -- BMX (Hannah Roberts, Alise Willoughby), mountain (Kate Courtney), road (Chloe Dygert) and track (Dygert, plus the team pursuit). It could be a historic haul. The U.S. has never won an Olympic women’s title in BMX, mountain or track. Dygert is a reigning world champion on both the track and the road, coached by three-time Olympic road time trial champion Kristin Armstrong.

MORE: Tokyo Olympics schedule | Team USA roster

Demonstrations and Protests
It’s possible that some athlete demonstrations on the field of play previously banned from the Olympics could be allowed in Tokyo. The IOC Athletes’ Commission is talking with athletes around the world about Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which currently outlaws “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling,” bringing to mind Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raised fists in 1968. “Let the athletes discuss among themselves and then come up with the relevant proposals,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June. “We must make a difference between such support for the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter and, potentially, divisive demonstrations.”

Golf: Can Tiger Woods qualify?
If Woods played for most other countries, he would likely qualify. But for the deep U.S., he must be ranked in the top 15 in the world, and among the top four Americans, after the 2021 U.S. Open. He’s currently the No. 10 American and may need another major title, at age 44 or 45, to return to the Olympic discussion.

Gymnastics: Simone Biles’ encore/farewell
Biles, who earned four golds in Rio in arguably the most dominating performance in the sport’s history, solidified her place on the throne despite taking nearly two years off from competition. She earned medals in every event at the 2018 Worlds while competing with a kidney stone as the only member of the team born before the 2000s. In 2019, she broke the world championships record for all-around margin of victory and for career medals. She is expected to lead a four-woman U.S. team heavily favored for gold in what should be the last competition of her career.

Health and Safety
It remains to be seen how much of an impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on the Tokyo Games. The IOC and Tokyo Olympic organizers have prepared different scenarios, trying to be ready for the state of the world a year from now. “We have to consider already now whether there will be measures necessary for access to Japan, for instance,” Bach told NBC Olympic primetime host Mike Tirico in May. “Do we maybe need quarantine for athletes from different countries or for all the athletes from all the countries? How can this be managed? Do we need special measures for access to the venues? How many people can access the venues? This is part of this mammoth task.”

New Sports
Karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing make their Olympic debuts in Tokyo. Kelly Slater, the 48-year-old, 11-time world surfing champion, failed to qualify by one spot. Shaun White, the three-time Olympic snowboard champion, ended his bid to qualify in skateboarding. Meanwhile, the U.S. has the world’s top two female surfers -- Carissa Moore and Caroline Marks -- and male world champions in both skateboarding disciplines (Nyjah Huston and Heimana Reynolds). Skateboarding could produce some of the youngest Olympians in history with pre-teens in the qualifying mix and no age minimum.

Russia: Will doping punishments extend to Tokyo Games?
The longtime Olympic power had a limited team in Rio due to punishments related to its poor anti-doping record, including just one track and field athlete competing under a neutral flag. In PyeongChang, no Russians could compete under their flag. Instead, it was the “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Russia could be facing a similar situation in Tokyo unless it successfully appeals a four-year ban from major sports competition. Again, individual Russian athletes can be cleared to compete, but as neutrals at the Games. World Athletics announced in March that no more than 10 Russians can compete in track and field in Tokyo as neutrals.

Soccer: U.S. women eye first World Cup-Olympic double
Since women’s soccer debuted at the Olympics in 1996, the U.S. women won either the World Cup or the Olympics in each cycle, but never both titles back-to-back. So the Americans will look to repeat their success from last summer in France and not their failure in the Rio Olympic quarterfinals -- the famous “cowards” defeat to Sweden. The Olympic roster is five fewer players than the World Cup, which could put veterans like Carli Lloyd on the bubble.

Swimming: More golds for Katie Ledecky or Simone Manuel ?
No American woman has won five gold medals at a single Olympics in any sport. In addition to Biles, Ledecky and Manuel can achieve this feat in Tokyo. Ledecky, who earned four golds in Rio, adds an event, the Olympic debut of the women’s 1500m freestyle. She is 18 seconds faster than any other woman in history in that race. Manuel won five events at the 2017 Worlds and a female record seven medals at the 2019 Worlds. She could sweep the 50m and 100m freestyles and be on four medal-contending relays in Tokyo.

Swimming: Caeleb Dressel’s monster slate
Dressel, who earned two relay golds in Rio, established himself as the world’s best swimmer since Michael Phelps’ retirement. In 2017, the tattooed Floridian earned a Phelps-record-tying seven golds at a single worlds. In 2019, he earned another six world titles. His potential Olympic schedule is a copy of Manuel’s six events, plus the 100m butterfly, where he broke Phelps’ world record last year. Only Phelps and Mark Spitz won seven or more golds at a single Olympics.

Team USA: Continuing Olympic medal standings reign
The U.S. topped the total medal standings at the last six Olympics. It appeared after China earned the most golds at the 2008 Beijing Games that it could supplant the U.S., but the Americans earned 51 more medals than their new rivals in Rio. Gracenote’s medal projections have the U.S. comfortably taking the most medals and most golds with Japan receiving the typical host-nation boost, into the top five.

Tennis: Last Olympics for Serena, Venus, Federer?
A maximum four tennis players per gender per nation can qualify individually for the Olympics, making the U.S. women’s team perhaps the most difficult to make. Serena Williams, a four-time gold medalist, is in great position with her 2019 Wimbledon and 2019 U.S. Open runners-up points counting in Olympic qualifying. Older sister Venus Williams, also with four golds, has ground to make up for a singles spot. As a safety net, she would also be an appealing doubles-only option. On the men’s side, Roger Federer committed to playing in Tokyo after missing Rio following knee surgery. Federer’s resume lacks an Olympic singles title. They could become the three oldest Olympic singles players since the sport returned to the Olympic medal program in 1988.

Track and Field: Which U.S. sprint phenom will shine brightest?
It might be three Americans who fill the void left by the retired Usain Bolt. In 2019, the U.S. boasted the world’s fastest man in the 100m (Christian Coleman), 200m (Noah Lyles) and 400m (Michael Norman). However, Coleman, 24, is currently provisionally suspended for missing drug tests and could be banned through the Tokyo Games. Lyles, 23, has lost just one outdoor 200m race in this Olympic cycle. He could also become the 100m favorite if Coleman is out. Norman, 22, bowed out of the 2019 Worlds semifinals with an injury, but recently became the second sprinter to ever combine a sub-10 100m with a sub-20 200m and sub-44 400m for a career.

Track and Field: Allyson Felix tries to make fifth Olympics, but first as a mom
The queen of track and field faces her most difficult quest yet to make an Olympics. Felix, the most decorated female athlete in her sport with nine Olympic medals and six golds, returned last summer after emergency C-section childbirth at 32 weeks in November 2018. She qualified for 2019 Worlds in relays and earned two golds, breaking her tie with Bolt for the most career world titles. Felix, at 35, would become the oldest U.S. Olympic 400m sprinter in history, surpassing Michael Johnson, if she can hold off a batch of 20-somethings for a top-three finish at next year’s trials.

Track and Field: Caster Semenya’s switch
Semenya, the two-time Olympic 800m champion, is pursuing the Tokyo Games in the 200m. That’s because of a new rule capping testosterone levels in women’s races between the 400m and the mile for athletes with differences in sexual development. Semenya said she will not take testosterone-suppressing medication, choosing instead to drop down in distance. Her personal best is well shy of the Olympic qualifying standard, but she has another year to adapt to her new event.

U.S. Women: Still outpacing the men
The U.S. Olympic team boasted more women than men in 2012 and 2016 (and more women’s medals than men’s medals). The women are again leading the way. U.S. women were projected to earn 19 more medals than U.S. men if the Olympics had been held this summer, according to Gracenote, A Nielsen Company.

Weightlifting: First transgender Olympic athlete?
No openly transgender athlete has competed at an Olympics, but New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard has been making headlines in weightlifting. Hubbard, who formerly competed in men’s competition, began transitioning seven years ago. She earned a 2017 World silver medal but said in 2018 that she thought her career was over when she ruptured an elbow ligament. But Hubbard came back in 2019 and is in the running for an Olympic qualifying spot. “I think even 10 years ago, the world perhaps wasn’t ready for an athlete like myself, and perhaps it’s not ready now. But I got the sense at least that people were willing to consider me,” she said in 2017.

Wrestling: Challenges for U.S. Olympic champions
It’s possible that none of the U.S.’ active Olympic wrestling gold medalists make it to Tokyo. Jordan Burroughs, 2012 Olympic 74kg freestyle champion, is likely to face reigning world champion Kyle Dake at next year’s trials. Burroughs turns 33 before Tokyo. The oldest wrestler on the 2016 Olympic team was 30. In Rio, Kyle Snyder became the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion at age 20. He lost at the last two world championships. J’den Cox, who gave up zero points en route to world titles the last two years, is moving up from 92kg to Snyder’s 97kg division. Helen Maroulis, who in Rio became the first female U.S. Olympic wrestling champion, missed more than a year of competition after a concussion and another brain injury in 2018 and 2019. She returned in February and won a Pan American qualifier to earn a U.S. Olympic quota spot, but still must win trials to defend her Olympic title.

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