Rio Olympics six months out: Burning questions

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Six burning questions on the six months out date from the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony:

1. U.S. or China?

The U.S. and China are expected to be the top two nations in the medal standings for a third straight Olympics.

The U.S. has won the overall medal count at each of the last five Summer Olympics and the gold-medal count at four of the last five. China earned the most gold medals at Beijing 2008.

But China would top the Rio Olympic medal standings and the U.S. would win its fewest medals in 56 years if the results were based on the most recent World Championships across all Olympic sports, according to Italian Luciano Barra, who projects Olympic medal counts.

2. What about Russia?

Russia placed third behind the U.S and China in the 2012 Olympic medal standings, but its track and field federation has been suspended by the IAAF due to rampant doping and cover-ups. It’s unknown if the ban will be lifted before the Games.

And that’s not the only sport under scrutiny.

American athletes sent a letter to IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency leaders urging an expansion of the investigation into Russian doping to sports beyond track and field.

SIX MONTHS OUT: Burning Questions | Team USA Roster | Rio Schedule Highlights | Key Qualifying, Trials Dates | Records Watch | Brazil’s Preparations

3. Which U.S. stars will be left home?

Every Olympics sees big names fail to qualify or simply be left off U.S. teams. This year will be no different.

The toughest roster decisions could come in basketball. The rise of Stephen CurryPaul GeorgeKyrie IrvingKawhi Leonard and others in the last four years could make for high turnover from the last Olympic team. Nine of the 12 Olympians from 2012 are among 30 finalists for the team.

On the women’s side, the likely additions of first-time Olympians Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne and perhaps Odyssey Sims and Breanna Stewart could squeeze out veteran national team members, as all but two of the 2012 Olympic team players are still in the running for Rio.

The return of golf to the Olympics after a 112-year break has created enormous competition for U.S. spots. The top four U.S. men and women ranked in the top 15 on July 11 will earn berths. Tiger Woods is out of the equation. Michelle Wie is ranked No. 31 with serious ground to make up. Phil Mickelson is No. 32. At this point, Jordan Spieth is the only U.S. golfer who can feel safe.

McKayla Maroney hasn’t competed since 2013, putting her well behind for one of five U.S. women’s gymnastics team spots. That’s if she has any comeback plans at all.

In soccer, nearly half of the 2015 Women’s World Cup team is not on this month’s Olympic qualifying tournament roster. Megan Rapinoe and Christie Rampone will try to make the final 18-player Olympic team in returns from injuries.

If the men’s soccer team qualifies for Rio in March, it has the option of adding three players over the age of 23 to the normal U-23 roster for the Olympics. Could goalie Tim Howard, who didn’t play a minute at his only Olympics in 2000 while the over-age Brad Friedel started, return to Brazil and return to the Games?

Swimming’s maximum of two athletes per nation in individual Olympic events will lead to medal contenders missing the U.S. Olympic team at trials in June and July. Particularly in the women’s 200m freestyle, which includes 2012 Olympic champion Allison Schmitt, 2013 World champion Missy Franklin and 2015 World champion Katie Ledecky.

In track and field, there is more breathing room with the top three per event making the Olympic team. Still, tough luck in the 100m hurdles, where the world’s five fastest women last year were all Americans. And 2013 World champion Brianna Rollins was tied for sixth fastest.

4. Which events will Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky race?

Phelps has long been coy on his Olympic trials schedule, and other swimmers have started to follow suit in the run-up to these Games.

Phelps, following a 20-month competitive retirement and later suspension, was the world’s fastest in the 100m and 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley last year. He may also swim the 100m and 200m freestyles at the Olympic trials to show he deserves places on relay teams, which could line him up for at least six Olympic events.

Lochte, who is one year older than Phelps, made the 2015 World Championships team in two individual events — the 200m IM (which he won at a fourth straight Worlds) and the 200m freestyle — his lightest slate at a major international meet in 11 years. Expect Lochte to add events for the Olympic trials. The grueling 400m individual medley is back in the picture for Lochte, who had said immediately after London 2012 that he would focus more on shorter events.

Franklin appears set for the 100m and 200m backstrokes and 200m freestyle. Her fourth event, the 100m freestyle, is not so concrete after she finished seventh at the World Championships on Aug. 7.

Ledecky could try to become the second U.S. woman to make an Olympic team in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles, potentially setting her up for seven events in Rio.

5. Can Usain Bolt be beaten?

Last spring, Bolt’s supremacy was in major peril with the rise of Justin Gatlin and the big Jamaican’s injuries and slow times in early season races.

Though Bolt improved by the World Championships, the truth is that he was not the world’s fastest man on the night of the 100m final. Gatlin was actually faster in the earlier semifinals than Bolt was in the final. And Gatlin’s uncharacteristic loss of form late in the final cost him gold in a defeat by .01 of a second.

This year, Gatlin may not be Bolt’s biggest threat. The American turns 34 on Wednesday. Rather, the co-Worlds bronze medalists Trayvon Bromell and Canadian Andre De Grasse, 20 and 21, have greater room for improvement.

Times in spring races and the U.S. and Jamaican Olympic trials will be great indicators as to if Bolt could lose an Olympic race for the first time since 2004.

6. Who will light the Olympic cauldron?

Brazil has no shortage of sports legends, or other recognizable figures, who could be the final torch bearer on Aug. 5. Obvious choices are soccer heroes Pelé, though he is not an Olympian, and current star Neymar.

Another respected Olympian choice would be Vanderlei de Lima, who led in the late stages of the Athens 2004 Olympic marathon when he was grabbed by a defrocked Irish priest running onto the course. De Lima recovered to earn bronze.

The final torch bearer has actually been multiple people at the last three Olympics, so it will be interesting to see if Rio ends that streak.