Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross

Two years to Rio Olympics: More sports storylines

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The U.S.’ ability to win the medal count at the 2012 Olympics, surpassing rival China by 16 medals and eight golds, was in part due to success in sports outside of the traditionally bountiful swimming, track and field and gymnastics.

In London, the U.S. bettered its medal totals from Beijing in sports such as diving, tennis and wrestling. New champions also emerged in judo (Kayla Harrison) and boxing (Claressa Shields).

Overall, the London Games provided a showcase for track cycling, because of host Great Britain’s rich team, and archery, due to the “Hunger Games” boost.

What can we expect at Rio 2016?

Volleyball, both indoors and on the beach, will be a hot ticket. Brazil’s men’s indoor team has won at least silver at each of the last three Olympics, and the women are two-time reigning Olympic champions.

Brazil has won more beach volleyball medals than any nation since the sport’s Olympic inception in 1996. On Copacabana Beach, Brazilian pairs will look to regain the dominance the nation once had in the late 1990s, when Brazil was sweeping World Championships.

In their way is the greatest women’s beach volleyball player ever, three-time U.S. Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings. Walsh Jennings, a mother of three, has found early success with new partner April Ross following the retirement of Misty-May Treanor.

Two years out: Rio’s readiness | Storylines: Swimming | Track and Field | Gymnastics | More Sports

The U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams will likely be overwhelming favorites to win gold again, though the future of NBA stars in the Olympics faces questions with Paul George‘s gruesome injury Friday. London coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Geno Auriemma decided to stick around for another four-year cycle.

American divers bagged four medals in London, after not winning any at the two previous Olympics combined. Platform gold medalist David Boudia will try to add springboard to his plate, while China will take another run at sweeping all eight gold medals. No man or woman has won medals on both the platform and springboard since 2000.

The face of U.S. wrestling, Jordan Burroughs, got married and welcomed a son since London. He also captured the 2013 World Championship four weeks after breaking an ankle and, in February, lost for the first time in his international career, ending a 69-match win streak. No U.S. wrestler has won back-to-back Olympic golds since John Smith in 1988 and 1992.

In shooting, Kim Rhode is back after giving birth to son Carter in May 2013. In London, she became the first American to win medals in five straight Olympics in an individual event. If she makes the podium in Rio, she could become the first Summer Olympian from any nation to win individual medals at six different Olympics.

World No. 1 Gwen Jorgensen could become the second-ever U.S. triathlete to win an Olympic medal, and the first to win gold.

Rio will also see the return of golf and rugby to the Olympics.

Golf was last in the Games in 1904, and it has made plenty of headlines recently with Rory McIlroy‘s decision to represent Ireland over Great Britain, the course’s delayed construction and how the 60-player fields will be determined.

No more than four players from any country can make the field, making qualification difficult for American stars such as Tiger WoodsPhil Mickelson and Michelle Wie.

Rugby was last in the Olympics in the 15-player, men’s-only format in 1924, when the U.S. won its second straight gold medal.

In 2016, rugby sevens debuts at the Games in both men’s and women’s competitions. Sochi Olympic silver medalist bobsledder Elana Meyers played for the American team internationally this year and has not shut the door for a potential run to Rio.

The U.S. men and women are no lock to qualify for the Olympics, though. The Olympic rugby tournaments will include 12 men’s and 12 women’s teams, with Brazil taking one spot in each.

The U.S. men were ranked No. 13 in this past season’s World Series standings, though England, Scotland and Wales — three nations ranked higher — will be part of one nation at the Olympics.

The U.S. women appear to be in better shape, ranked No. 7 in the World Series standings and placing third at the 2013 World Cup.

Copenhagen withdraws as 2021 World Gymnastics Championships host, cites pandemic

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Copenhagen withdrew as host of the 2021 World Gymnastics Championships, citing financial strain as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gymnastics worlds are usually not held in Olympic years, but the October 2021 edition remained scheduled when the Tokyo Games were postponed to summer 2021.

Denmark’s gymnastics federation board made the decision to not host worlds due in part to uncertainty about the global development of the coronavirus pandemic. That combined with financial losses already associated with the pandemic led to the bowing out.

The International Gymnastics Federation executive committee will “consider all consequences” from Copenhagen withdrawing, including launching a new bid process.

The 2022 Worlds are set for Liverpool, Great Britain, and 2023 in Antwerp, Belgium. Denmark will look into bidding to host in 2025.

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Allyson Felix, Noah Lyles headline Inspiration Games; TV, stream info

Allyson Felix, Noah Lyles
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In Allyson Felix‘s 17 years on the senior international level, she has never experienced anything like what Thursday will bring.

Felix, a nine-time Olympic medalist, will line up at a track in California to race 150 meters. Her opponents will be on the other side of the country — Bahamian Shaunae Miller-Uibo in Florida — and the other side of the Atlantic Ocean — Swiss Mujinga Kambundji in Zurich.

The Inspiration Games air live on Thursday from 2-3:30 p.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. The meet is a repurposed version of a Diamond League stop in Zurich, Switzerland.

“I’ve just been training and training and training, so anything to break it up. … this seemed like something great. I just loved the concept,” said Felix, who memorably raced alone in at the Rio Olympics in a re-run of the 4x100m first round. “I’m not really sure what to expect. I think [it’s] the first time that we’ve all done anything like this. I’m just approaching it to have fun and hopefully give people something to watch and to be entertained by. I think we all miss sports so much.”

Meet organizers had to get creative with the coronavirus pandemic limiting athlete travel and group events. The Impossible Games was first to go on June 11 — in an Oslo stadium with few spectators and even fewer athletes (and others competing in different countries).

The Inspiration Games takes virtual competition to another level. Felix, Miller-Uibo and Kambundji are all slated to sprint at the same time in different locations. As are world champion Noah Lyles, Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre and the Netherlands’ Churandy Martina in a later 200m.

It marks the first meet since the coronavirus pandemic for Felix, bidding to make her fifth Olympic team and first as a mom. The pandemic and restrictions in California forced her to train on streets.

“Everything is still pretty much locked down,” she said. “You can’t get onto a track without jumping a fence.”

Felix admitted she’s “definitely not sharp” going into her first race since February.

“Once we knew for sure that the Olympic Games would be postponed, we really had to think about being at our best a year from now,” said Felix, a 34-year-old bidding to break Michael Johnson‘s record as the oldest Olympic 400m medalist. “In my situation and where I’m at in my career, I had to make some adjustments, just with the level of impact on my body so that I could still be able to continue to train, but to save something and to have that one last time to be at my best next year. I definitely think things have shifted now.”

Lyles raced last Saturday at a small meet in Florida, outsprinting Justin Gatlin in a 100m heat (9.93 seconds to 9.99 with a hefty four meter/second tailwind).

The regular Diamond League calendar is scheduled to resume in August.

Here are the Inspiration Games entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:35 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
1:35 — Women’s Pole Vault
2:05 — Men’s Triple Jump
2:10 — Women’s 150m
2:27 — Men’s 100 Yards
2:41 — Women’s 300m Hurdles
3:06 — Men’s 200m
3:20 — Women’s 3x100m Relay

Here are five events to watch:

Women’s Pole Vault — 1:35 p.m.
Greek Katerina Stefanidi, a Stanford grad, and American Sandi Morris renew their rivalry. Stefanidi will be in California. Morris will be in Florida. Swede Angelica Bengtsson rounds out the field. Stefanidi relegated Morris to silver at the 2016 Olympics and 2017 Worlds. But Morris snapped’ Stefanidi’s streak of eight straight wins in their head-to-head back in 2018 and has bettered Stefanidi in four of their last six meetings.

Men’s Triple Jump — 2:05 p.m.
Double Olympic champion Christian Taylor takes on longtime rival Pedro Pablo Pichardo, a Cuban-born Portuguese, and American Omar Craddock. Taylor bettered Pichardo in five of their last six meetings. In more than 30 meets together, Taylor has lost to Craddock just once (when Taylor has competed in full).

Women’s 150m — 2:10 p.m.
Felix and Miller-Uibo go head to head for the first time since the 2017 World Championships. Their most memorable duel came at the Rio Olympics, where a diving Miller-Uibo edged Felix by .07 for 400m gold. While Miller-Uibo and Felix primarily compete over a full lap, the 150m is closer to Kambundji’s wheelhouse. The Swiss earned 200m bronze at the 2019 World Championships, taking advantage of a depleted field.

Men’s 100 Yards — 2:27 p.m.
Triple Olympic medalist Andre De Grasse of Canada, Olympic 110m hurdles champion Omar McLeod of Jamaica and French veteran Jimmy Vicaut all train in Florida and will presumably be racing at the same venue on Thursday. The 100 yards is scantly contested in top-level meets. Nobody has broken nine seconds in a 100-yard (91.44-meter) race, according to World Athletics. But Usain Bolt‘s estimated 100-yard time en route to his 2009 world record in the 100m was 8.87 seconds.

Men’s 200m — 3:06 p.m.
Lyles has lost an outdoor 200m just once in this Olympic cycle and wouldn’t normally be pestered by Lemaitre or Martina, but these are unusual times and this an unusual competition. Lemaitre is the Olympic bronze medalist but was sixth at last year’s French Championships. Martina, 36, and, like Lemaitre, hasn’t broken 20 seconds in more than three years.

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