May 19, 2022

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Olympics 2021: Top storylines to follow heading into the Tokyo Games

12 min read

The Olympics are the biggest stage in global sports and attract the most media of any organized competition on the planet. The Games of the XXXII Olympiad return this week and will be held in Tokyo. After the 2020 Games were delayed a year due the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, it was determined that the Olympics would be pushed back no further. 

The Games are scheduled to feature 339 events in 33 sports. As is the case with every Olympics, the storylines are plentiful. We’re here to give you an advance guide of what to know before the opening ceremony happens Friday.

Here are 10 plot points to follow for what will be a highly publicized, and inevitably debatable, Games. 

1. COVID-19 hovers over everything

As if any story could be bigger than the biggest situation to afflict the entire planet in decades. In Japan, COVID-19 cases are higher than they’ve been in six months, and athletes have been affected. On the American end, tennis player Coco Gauff announced Sunday she tested positive and would not be able to compete. In women’s gymnastics, an alternate on the team has tested positive and another has been put into contact-tracing protocols. A worker in the Olympic Village has also tested positive. 

This situation may get worse, and there’s no telling who could have their eligibility compromised. There are huge public health questions, scrutiny over vaccinations, potential forfeitures of competition by athletes. We already know of one high-profile athlete — American swimmer Michael Andrew — who is not vaccinated and is therefore increasing his risk of disqualification. The same goes for American track athlete Cole Hocker.

With no fans in attendance, the 2021 Games are being put on purely as a TV show (which is mostly what the Olympics has evolved into over the past 20 years). The coronavirus pandemic will hover over every element, every day, and nearly every moment of the Games due to the state-of-emergency circumstances in Japan. You won’t see fans in the stands, and it’s all too easy, unfortunately, to envision a scenario in which athletes wind up being disqualified due to positive tests. Even the medal ceremonies will be different this time around: instead of the tradition of a medalist bending down to be wreathed with their prize, the gold, silver and bronze winners will be grabbing their medals themselves and putting them on. 

While American sports have successfully pulled off major events — the NBA Finals in a bubble, the Super Bowl in the thick of winter, and multi-week men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments in controlled environments — the Olympics dwarfs all of those events. Considering Japan’s vaccination rate, and its state-of-emergency declaration, the number of people working and competing in the Games and the contagiousness of the Delta variant, these Olympic Games represent the biggest sporting event the planet has taken on amid COVID-19. 

A majority of Japanese citizens do not even want the Games to go on, but with billions of dollars at stake, Olympics officials have decided the show will go on. 

2. The Simon Biles show

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In terms of American Olympians in 2021, Biles is the biggest deal, the most famous athlete, the most dominant competitor and, at the age of 24, already one of the greatest athletes in the world. She’s one of the most impressive athletes in Olympic/American history and owns four gold medals and took a bronze in 2016. 

She will be must-see TV in every event she competes in. Those events are likely to be:

  • Team competition
  • Individual all-around
  • Vault
  • Floor exercise
  • Balance beam

If Biles medals in four more events, she’s the most decorated gymnast in Olympic history. Biles is generational not only in accomplishments and greatness, but her ability to transcend her sport and the Olympics and symbolize American exceptionalism. 

She has no peer.

Biles has basically altered the interpretation of physics in her sport. She has “GOAT” on her leotard, and with good reason. Biles is the rare athlete who, in the prime of their career, is already regarded as an all-time great — maybe the greatest. These Olympics can solidify that. It speaks to an athlete’s greatness when you consider that, should they not wind up winning any event they compete in, that would be the biggest surprise of all. This is Biles’ reality.

3. Katie Ledecky’s inevitable dominance

For as captivating as Biles is, Katie Ledecky could be the more dominant athlete in her sport due to how much she’s capable of literally distancing herself from the competition. Over the next two weeks, Ledecky will certifiably replace Michael Phelps as the face of American swimming.

Like Biles, Ledecky is 24. She’s competing in her third Games and is expected to win gold in the:

  • 200 meter freestyle
  • 400 meter freestyle
  • 800 meter freestyle
  • 1,500 meter freestyle

Her best event, the 1,500 meter freestyle, is new to the Games this year. She’ll also swim in the 4 × 200 freestyle relay and, potentially, the 4 x 100 freestyle relay. 

The question isn’t whether she’ll win, it’s whether she’ll beat all her competitors by at least a pool-length. Swimming can so often be a sport of inches and half-seconds, but Ledecky has turned the tide entirely. She’s made swimming a spectacle of gawk due to her dominance.

There’s never been a female swimmer as fast as her, on the whole, in the events she’s competing in. These Games are effectively the moment where Ledecky can cement her status as an all-time Olympic legend.

4. Will Team USA men’s hoops team falter?

Pretty much the only thing that could gin up additional interest in the United States men’s team in advance of the Olympics happened. Team USA lost back-to-back games against Nigeria and Australia earlier in July. No matter that those two countries have NBA players dotted throughout the roster. It’s basketball. It’s Team USA.

Losses aren’t supposed to happen.

In fact, the United States took two losses — total — in international play from 1992 until June of 2021. Then it lost two games in less than a week. 

Obviously, Team USA — led by Kevin Durant — are heavy favorites to win the gold in Tokyo. Yet there’s been stumbles along the way. Bradley Beal and Kevin Love were cycled off the roster and replaced by … uh … says here … JaVale McGee and Keldon Johnson? No, Zion Williamson isn’t on the roster. Aside from Durant, the biggest names are Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Draymond Green, Devin Booker and Khris Middleton.

Either way, getting knocked off twice in the lead-up to the Olympics will provide drama and a reason to watch. The women’s national team should once again trounce to a gold. That will be enjoyable. But on the men’s side, no, the world has not caught up on the hardwood with our best in basketball. But it’s no longer a walkover; far from it.

The question used to be not whether or not the men would win, but by how many points. Now it’s an intriguing question: How much danger is the United States men’s team in to not win gold?

5. USA Swimming is stacked … again

Swimming had always been a draw at the Summer Olympics, but Michael Phelps helped turn it into must-see television for Americans. The U.S. should perform well in Tokyo, and is expected to win more golds and the total medal count, which has been the case in every Summer Olympics since 1992. Phelps is the greatest swimmer in history and his teammate Ryan Lochte would easily rank in the top 10.

But their time is over. Here are the names to know (besides the aforementioned Ledecky):

  • Simone Manuel: Won two golds and two silvers in 2016, and made history as the first Black woman to win a 100 meter gold medal. However, she failed to qualify for that event this time, so instead she’ll swim in the sprint — the 50 meter freestyle — and look to add to her haul.
  • Lily King: We need more trash-talking, unabashed swimmers. King is that. She’ll try to repeat a gold medal-winning performance from 2016 in the 100 meter breaststroke. King will also swim in the 200 meter breaststroke and is likely to be on a relay team
  • Regan Smith: Stanford’s next great swimmer is competing in her first Olympics and is a clear threat to medal in both the 100 meter backstroke and the 200 butterfly
  • Caeleb Dressel: Dressel is likely going to be the star of the men’s squad. He is a freestyle monster, and he’ll compete in three individual events (100 free, 100 fly, 50 free). He’ll also be on the 4 x 100 free relay, potentially swimming anchor, and have two more medal opportunities in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay and the mixed 4 x 100 medley relay
  • Michael Andrew: Ten years ago he was expected to be the next-best thing to Phelps by the time he made the Olympics. That didn’t come to be, but Andrew has found his form and has a great shot to medal in the 100 breast, 200 IM and 50 free
  • Chase Kalisz: Won silver in the 400 meter IM in 2016 and could do it again. He’ll go in both the 200 meter IM and the 400. At 27, this is his moment to capitalize
  • Kieran Smith: The talented swimmer out of the the University of Florida is the dark horse to emerge as a star in these Games. These won’t be his last Olympics. He’ll paddle in the 200 free, the 400 free and the 4 x 200 free relay

The youngest swimmer on the team is 15-year-old Katie Grimes. In total, ten teenagers are a part of the men’s and women’s teams. The rising star of this group is 18-year-old Torri Huske.

6. USWNT loses for first time in 44 soccer matches, seeks redemption

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The United States women’s national team is the most dominant female soccer enterprise in history, but in the event you forgot: The U.S. is not the reigning gold medal winner.


In 2016, a quarterfinal upset at the hands (feet?) of Sweden led to the U.S. failing to medal in women’s soccer for the first time.

The big names who are back:

  • Megan Rapinoe
  • Carli Lloyd
  • Alex Morgan
  • Julie Ertz

Every Olympian has their own special kind of motivation, but just about every game this team plays will be a national reason for rally. And yet, the early signs are not encouraging! The U.S. was sideswiped immediately, the victim of a 3-0 opening group stage loss against none other than — drum roll — Sweden. This is more than a wakeup call; it’s a disturbing flashback to the stunning defeat in the 2016 Games. Two days before the opening ceremony begins, the pressure is already on.

7. The 17-year-old who could shine in men’s track

Thirteen medalists in American track and field from the Rio Olympiad will compete in Tokyo. The most compelling person on the whole team was 12 the last time we had an Olympics. His name is Erriyon Knighton.

The second (or less) you break a record held by Usain Bolt, you become a story the world should know. And when you break two of Bolt’s marks, then the hype finds a rocket. Knighton’s done just that. His 20.11-second run in early June in the 200 meters bested Bolt’s under-18 record from 18 years ago. At the Olympic trials, Knighton improved on his time with a 19.88 run … that he eased up on at the very end. That sprint was better than Bolt’s record as an under-20-year-old from 2004. In the final, Knighton crossed in 19.84. Two world junior records.

Can he go even lower in Tokyo? 

Knighton won’t turn 18 until January and, maybe, could be the face of men’s track and field for the next decade. His events are the two most glamorous in the sport: the 100- and 200-meter dash. He took third in the men’s 200 meters at the Olympic trials in June. According to USA Track and Field, Knighton is the youngest American male to compete in an Olympiad’s track and field competition since 1964. Knighton’s story is all the more incredible considering he did not compete in a major track competition until 2019, when he was 15

The subplot to this is Knighton is coming on as the fresh young face, while it’s Noah Lyles who has been in this position the past few years in the lead-up to his first Olympics. Lyles ran the fastest time (19.74) at June’s trials, with Kenny Bednarek taking second, Knighton third. The 200 is Lyles’ to lose, but Knighton’s emergence makes for great theater during the second half of the Olympics’ schedule. The last time an American male won a gold medal in the 200 meters? The 2004 Games. 

8. Sha’Carri Richardson’s ban looms over women’s track

Patrick Smith, Getty

It’s not even fair to say that, years from now, we’ll look back on Richardson’s ban on competing in the 2021 Olympics as an outdated, unfair decision. Millions believe that already. Richardson, who would’ve been a favorite to win gold in the 100, was kept off the US roster due to a positive marijuana test that violated the rules. The story got so big, even President Biden commented on its unmerited nature.

Richardson deserved better, and hopefully the 2024 Games in Paris will be her glorious revenge tour. 

As for who is competing this year for the United States on the women’s side, the ageless Allyson Felix is back for her fifth Olympics — an unthinkable achievement for anyone who makes their living sprinting for a living. Felix, 35, will run in the 400 meters, making her the oldest American sprinter to compete in the event.

Another big-time performer is Sydney McLaughlin, who set a world record in the 400 meter hurdles at trials in June. She’s the best at her event … unless Dalilah Muhammad beats her. That duo is a lock for gold and silver, it seems.

When McLaughlin did this in June, she became the first woman in history to run the 400 hurdles in under 52 seconds.

We’ve got more, including a neurobiology major from Harvard who is mastering in epidemiology. That’s Gabby Thomas, who might as well represent what these Olympics are about more than any other American athlete competing. Her speciality is the 200 meters, and she’ll have a great shot at taking gold there.

Another familiar name in women’s track and field is Brittney Reese, who is competing in her fourth Olympics and specializes in long jump. She’s taken gold and silver before. 

9. The next Jim Thorpe is competing in Tokyo

And that is JuVaughn Harrison. This is a relatively small story, but boy is it a special one. Harrison did something unique in modern athletics: he won the high jump AND the long jump in the U.S. trials. That hasn’t happened since Jim Thorpe — a man considered one of the five-or-so greatest American athletes of the 20th century — did it in 1912. So that’s a wow. Harrison will compete in both in Tokyo. 

Across men’s and women’s track and field there are 13 medal winners from the 2016 Games who are back, and six athletes who won 2019 word championship medals. The United States has a stacked roster on both sides and expects to win the gold and overall medal count, just as it has at every Olympiad since 1984.

10. New sports debuting in these Olympics

You’re probably most comfortable and eager to watch the reliables: swimming, gymnastics, track and field and basketball. But for plenty, the appeal of the Olympics are the niche sports, the counterculture of the much lesser-heralded competitions that make the Olympics charming.

So, after a 13-year hiatus, baseball and softball are returning. Obviously, Major League Baseball season is ongoing, so the biggest stars in the sport will not be competing in the Olympics. 

As for the new sports, here are the ones making their Olympiad debuts:

  • Karate!
  • Skateboarding! 
  • Sport climbing!
  • Surfing!

Surfing seems somewhat random; after all, you’re dependent on the waves, brah. Karate is straight up awesome, and sport climbing means Olympians will compete in three disciplines and be judged on the aggregate of all speed climbing, lead climbing and bouldering. Should be fascinating.

The weirder the sports, the better the Olympics, I say. Can we bring back croquet, people? It was last seen in the Olympics in 1900. But four new sports is a welcomed addition to what will be the most intriguing, and controversial, Olympics — perhaps ever.

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