It’s that time. The Summer Olympics are back with the sports that you only care about every four years. These Olympics have a bit of intrigue to them beyond the normal; Olympic allure. They are the first Games held in South America and the signs of “flair vs. failure” couldn’t be any more apparent. So far, dozens to hundreds of athletes have pulled out of the Rio Olympics, primarily citing the Zika virus, security concerns and other health issues related to water quality, sanitation and more. Every week leading up to the Olympics, there seems to be another Outside the Lines or other investigative piece that exposes yet another failure of the Brazilian Olympic preparations. The prevailing thought among many is that the 2016 Summer Olympic Games will be one massive catastrophe after another. The thought, this close to the Olympics is far from optimistic; it’s much more apprehensive.
Despite all of that, I think once the Games get underway, most of the background noise will fade out and the spotlight will be on the competition. The Olympic Games always provides great storylines and drama on the field. Here’s a look at the [competition] stories you should and will be following as the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro get underway.
Phelps Last Hurrah
The greatest swimmer and most decorated Olympian of all-time defied the improbable by qualifying for his fifth Olympic team. After a competitive career that few in any athletic arena will be able to match, he will close the curtain on the show by competing in three individual events (200 IM, 100 and 200 butterfly) and at least one relay. At the age of 31, engaged and a newly christened father, this is likely his last competitive venture. Who can forget his 200m freestyle duel in 2004 with Ian Thorpe and Peter van de Hoogenband or his edging out Ian Crocker in the 100 fly by .01 seconds for gold? Or him going 8 for 8 in ’08? Or his return for four more golds in 2012?
Nostalgia aside, the road to the podium in Rio won’t be a cakewalk. He could be challenged in the 100 and 200 fly by Hungary’s Lazslo Cseh, who if not for Phelps would be a multiple Olympic champion and Chad le Clos of South Africa, who edged out Phelps at the wall in 200 Fly in London. Le Clos has been consistently one of the fastest fly swimmers in the world since his Olympic triumph four years ago. Cseh made a switch a couple of years ago to the fly and has had a bit of career resurgence. Gold is far from a certainty.
U.S. vs. Australia–Rivalry Renewed?
It always comes down to the Americans and the Aussies.
For the last 30 years, the Americans and Australians have waged epic war in the pool on the world stage. The Americans dominated with the Olympics on home soil in 1996. The Aussies returned the favor in 2000 on their home turf. This rivalry has given us greats such as Phelps, Thorpe, Dolan, Hackett, Magnussen, Coughlin, Soni, Adrian, Rice, Seebohm and more. While the Americans are expected to do well as always, Australia enters these Olympics with its deepest and most talented Olympic team since 2000. Drama is always high when these two countries are on top of their game in the pool.
Katie Ledecky–The Ascent is Almost Final
Four years ago, Katie Ledecky was the youngest member of Team USA (not just the swimming team, but the entire U.S. delegation) in London. Very few people knew who she was. That changed when she destroyed the field in the 800m free, defeating defending gold medalist Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain in the process. All she’s done in the years afterwards is establish herself as arguably the world’s most dominant swimmer-male or female.
Since her win in London, every World Championships or Pan Pacific championships medal she has won has been gold, breaking world records on 11 different occasions. At last year’s world championships in Kazan, she won five gold medals (200m free, 400 free, 800m free, 1500m free, and the 4 x 200 free relay). She’s recognized as the one of best swimmers in history already and if her potential for performance meets expectation in Rio, she could be walking away with a 4-for-4 performance in winning gold.
Athletics (Track & Field)
Third Strike-Is He Ready?
Eight years ago, it literally seemed overnight that Usain Bolt broke the world record just weeks before the Beijing Olympics in the 100 meters and burst onto the consciousness of the average track & field observer. When he won three gold medals in world record time in Beijing 2008, he became a worldwide superstar. A repeat, and probably more spectacular, performance in the following year’s world championships in Berlin solidified his greatness. Four years ago in London, he stared down adversity in the form of new challengers (countryman Yohan Blake and a returning Justin Gatlin) and whispers about his decline (he lost to Blake in the 2012 Jamaican trials in the 100 and 200) with a repeat 3-for-3 gold medal performance.
Now, at age 29, he returns to what will more than likely be his last Olympics with more doubt than ever. He missed the Jamaican trials with a hamstring injury, but received a medical exemption to qualify for the Olympic team. His primary rival, American Justin Gatlin, ran exceptional 100 and 200 times at the U.S. Olympic trials and seems in top form heading into Rio. History, however, has taught us to never count out the greatest sprinter of all time. In his return prior to Rio, he ran 19.89 in the 200 in London in his last Olympic tune-up. On the biggest stages, he always answers the call when the gun goes off.
Men’s 400 meters-44 Is Not Enough.
When Grenada’s Kirani James won the gold medal in the 400 in London in 43.97 seconds, he became the only non-American man in history to run the quarter-mile in under 44 seconds. Four years later, the club has expanded to five. As we head towards an open and deep men’s 400 field in 2016, it’s plausible that one fact remains clear: A time of 44 seconds will leave you off of the podium.
Here’s the progression of what has happened since American Lashawn Merritt won gold in Beijing in 2008: Merritt dominated competition in the race until the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. A then 18-year old James edged out Merritt for his country’s first World Championship medal. In 2012, Merritt pulled up lame in the men’s 400 prelims with an aggravated hamstring. That opened the door for James, who won the 400 with relative ease. Merritt exacted revenge at the world championships in Moscow the following year by winning the title as James finished a disappointing seventh. Then, last year, a newcomer entered the rivalry between the two as South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk won the gold medal with Merritt and James winning silver and bronze, respectively. Niekerk ran the fourth fastest time in history (the fastest not named current world record holder Michael Johnson, former record holder Butch Reynolds and 2004 gold medalist Jeremy Wariner) in winning his gold medal.
These three are considered favorites in the 400 and none can afford to run slower than 44 seconds if they want to make the podium.
Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce-One More?
Shelly Ann, Fraser-Pryce won her first gold medal in women’s 100 in Beijing at the age of 21. She repeated in London. With a record three world championships already in her trophy case, the diminutive Fraser-Pryce could be become the first woman to ever win three Olympic titles in the race that determines the “world’s fastest woman.” Much like her countryman and counterpart male Bolt, she can stake the claim as “greatest sprinter ever with another gold in Rio.”
A couple of months ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced that they had retested 454 doping samples from the 2008 Olympics and over 250 from the 2012 Olympics. The retesting found that 31 athletes from 2008 were guilty of doping and even more from 2012. The biggest offender of them all were Russian athletes, who had a number of track & field athletes test positive from 2008 and 2012, many of them having medals now in jeopardy. The discovery lead to a story that showed that doping within the Russian Federation was far more pervasive than initially thought.
The egregious violations and seemingly evasiveness of the Russian government on the issue led to the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) to ban the Russian Track & Field team from competing in Rio. The decision led to some outrage from some Russian athletes and a deeper look into how athletic regulations in the country and worldwide have lagged behind effective testing. How will this affect the field? Surely, it will change some numbers of the medal distribution and Russia’s absence from track & field will be noticeable. The further fallout from this will go long past the torch being extinguished in Rio.
Caster Semenya-Confident, but Controversial
As an 18 year old phenom, South Africa’s Caster Semenya exploded onto the athletic’s scene with a dominating performance in the women’s 800 in the 2009 World’s championships in Berlin. She won the event by seconds over her competitors. But not long after the medal ceremony, whispers started around the track & field world about whether or not she was performing with the help of drugs. After all, no one had seen such a dominant performance on the world stage like her-especially at 18 tears old. But then the whispers were much more sinister and centered around a controversy around her gender. After multiple testings, it was found that Semenya suffered from medical condition called hyperandrogenism, in which a person displays large levels of androgenic hormones. In her case, the hormone was testosterone. Some detractors said that her condition provided an unfair advantage.
After a number of hearings and worldwide scrutiny that proved to be both frustrating and embarrassing, the IAAF declared the Semenya could compete with women on the international stage. She was the flag bearer for South Africa’s Olympic delegation in London and won a silver in the 800. Heading into Rio, she is the clear favorite in the 800 and considered a contender in the 400 as well. The gold and bronze medal winners from 2012, Russians Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova, respectively, will not be present due the Russian ban. She is as likely a gold medal winner as anyone in Rio, but it will not come with controversy for sure.
The New “Five”-America Comes Full Circle
Let’s look to see how the last 25 years have changed the sport of gymnastics, shall we? Since winning team bronze in Barcelona in 1992, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team has medaled in six straight Olympics. Since their first team gold in Atlanta in 1996 (can you believe it’s been 20 years?), the popularity of the sport has exploded in the United States and created a movement. The aftermath? Gone are the days of the Russians and Romanians dominating the podium. The U.S. is now the standard when it comes to women’s gymnastics. They entered 2012 as the prohibitive favorites and lived up to expectations. Now in 2016, they enter as an even bigger favorite and the intrigue for the team competition will be for who wins silver and bronze.
The transformation of the United States as the dominant power of world gymnastics under the tutelage of Marta Karolyi has been astounding. Tim Daggett and Nastia Liukin, both Olympic gold medalists in their own right and commentating for NBC during the Olympics, have both said that they expect a 4 point or greater victory in the team competition and that the U.S. could bring a second team of five different athletes and that team could compete for silver. This team of Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas Laurie Hernandez, Aly Raisman and Madison Kocian will have to do.
Simone –Not One, Not Two, Not Three…
Simone Biles is the best gymnast in the world. FACT (see above). Some say that she may be the best ever. But to be considered the best, you have to win Olympic gold and not just the team final. To be considered for all-time greatness, you have to win the big crown: Olympic All-Around. Luckily for Simone, she is considered head and shoulders (even at 4’9”) better than anyone else in the world that may challenge her. She’s already a three-time world all-around champion and is coming off an master class five medal (four gold) performance at last year’s world championships in Glasgow.
Her potential at this Olympics could not only be great, but historic. She enters Rio as a favorite to win at least four gold medals (team, all-around, floor exercise, balance beam) and a strong contender in the vault. Go 5-for-5 in Rio and the conversation for GOAT is over.
Men’s Competition-Jockeying for Position.
The men’s side of gymnastics definitely takes a backseat in popularity to their female counterparts, but the competition and drama will be much more prevalent at the men’s meet. In the team competition, rivals China and Japan enter having won the last three team gold medals. The battle for bronze between the U.S., Great Britain and Germany will be something to keep an eye on. The American men, led by Sam Mikulak, have one their stronger teams in years. That team took a setback when John Orozco suffered a ACL injury earlier this month and was replaced by 2012 all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva, who was named as alternate this time around and will replace Orozco.
Meanwhile, Japan’s Kohei Uchimura seeks to become the fourth man in history to repeat as Olympic men’s all-around champion.
New Sports-Rugby Sevens and Golf
Since its inclusion to the Olympics seven years ago, Rugby Sevens has grown in popularity among the casual observations. The Sevens, the faster, more open version of traditional 15-a-side sport will be as close to football as we get in the Summer Olympics. The competition for Rugby Sevens is more wide open than you think. Traditional rugby power New Zealand will contend in sevens, but look out for Australia and South Africa.
Golf returns to the Olympics for the first time since 1904. What was expected to be a triumphant return has been marred by a number of withdrawals by some of the world’s top golfers due to scares about mainly about the Zika virus and security concerns and an apathetic approach. Furthermore, there are only individual competitions on the men’s and women’s side and no team final. It won’t be the most compelling sport at the Olympics, but it is back.
USA Basketball-Business As Usual??
If anything has been a sure shot for the Olympics is that the USA will dominate and provide some highlights in men’s and women’s basketball. The women’s team led by mainstays Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Tamika Catchings, Brittney Griner and Angel McCoughtry is expected to win its sixth straight gold medal.
The men’s side will provide a bit of a story. After grueling NBA season, a number of players that were expected to be on the squad such as Lebron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade stepped aside. Others such as Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin and John Wall could not be considered because of injury. Nonetheless, the men’s team returns international veteran Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant and some newcomers such as Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Demarcus Cousins and Kyle Lowry. Paul George will make a triumphant return after his horrific broken leg injury in a Team USA FIBA World Cup warm up in August 2014.
There will be tough challenges in old reliable Spain (with Pau Gasol and Ricky Rubio) and an interesting France squad who will trot out four NBA players (Nicolas Batum, Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Rudy Gobert) in their starting lineup. The U.S. and France play each other in the last game of of group play on August 14.
Brazil Soccer-One Last Trophy
The Brazilians men’s national team has won every major trophy on the world stage, but there is one glaring omission from its case: An Olympic gold medal. They lost to Mexico in the gold medal final four years ago in London. Then, a confusing, frustrating and utterly devastating cycle began. After trouncing then-world champion Spain in the 2013 Confederations Cup final, things looked up for Brazil to be a favorite hosting the 2014 World Cup final. Brazil made it through to the quarterfinals, escaping near defeat to advance against Chile on penalties. Then, Thiago Silva was suspended for the next match with a yellow card and Neymar was injured and declared out of the tournament. Undermanned and outgunned, they were outclassed, boat raced and embarrassed by eventual world champs Germany 7-1 in arguably the most devastating loss in their storied history. That was followed by 3-0 beating by the Dutch in the third place game.
Manager Lius Felipe Scolari was out and former Brazilian Captain and 1994 World Cup winner Dunga was brought back on as manager to instill pride and toughness back the Selecao. Things seemed to move well until the traveled to North American for the 2016 Copa America Centenario. After an improbable loss to Peru, Brazil was out after the group stage and Dunga was canned. Now, the man with the ineviable task of leading Brazil soccer to task of winning its first ever Olympic gold medal is Tite-the former manager of Brazillian soccer power Corinthians. A major tournament, at home with the pressure of a nation on your shoulders. No pressure, though.