Tokyo Olympics: 20 storylines with one year out to the 2020 Games

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Twenty storylines for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with one year until the Games begin …

Baseball/Softball: Return after 12 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 are vying for spots — pitchers Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman. A softball game will be the first event of the 2020 Olympics, 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.

Basketball: Same U.S. dominance, different leaders, new event
The Mike Krzyzewski/Geno Auriemma era of U.S. basketball is over. With the two legends stepping aside following five straight combined Olympic titles, it’s Gregg Popovich and Dawn Staley who take over the dominant programs. Popovich’s respect across the NBA could rein in stars who passed on Rio for various reasons, like LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Staley is likely to get her Athens 2004 backcourt mates, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, for their fifth and final Olympics. The U.S. will have a tougher time in the new Olympic event of 3×3 played on an outdoor half-court almost surely without NBA and WNBA stars.

Beach Volleyball: U.S. has the world’s best team, chased by Kerri Walsh Jennings
April Ross and Alix Klineman recently moved atop the world rankings after taking silver at the world championships and winning one of the biggest events of the year in Switzerland. They’re in great position to earn one of the two U.S. Olympic berths. 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 41, and Sweat are among the teams currently fighting for the second U.S. spot in a race that could go to next June.

Golf: Can Tiger Woods qualify?
Woods jumped into the Olympic qualifying mix by winning the Masters, but missed cuts at two of the other three majors this season put him back on the outside for golf’s second Olympic appearance since 1904. He must be ranked in the top 15 in the world, and among the top four Americans, come June 22. If he played for most other countries, Woods would be a lock to qualify at age 43. As of right now, it’s Brooks KoepkaDustin JohnsonMatt Kuchar and Tony Finau.

Gymnastics: Simone Biles’ encore
Biles, who earned four golds in Rio in arguably the most dominating performance in the sport’s history, has solidified her place on the throne despite taking nearly two years off from competition. She earned medals in every event at last year’s worlds while competing with a kidney stone as the only member of the team born before the 2000s. It’s looking like the rest of the U.S. women’s team, which will be an overwhelming favorite, will be Olympic rookies.

Japan: Who will light the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony?
The final torch bearer is always a closely guarded secret. At recent Games, favorites stood out with Pele ceding to marathoner Vanderlei De Lima in 2016 and Yuna Kim in 2018. Japan has a number of options, from a legendary Olympian (judoka Tadahiro Nomura?) to active stars (gymnast Kohei Uchimura? wrestler Kaori Icho?) to a symbolic choice such as the other time Tokyo hosted. In 1964, runner Yoshinori Sakai lit the cauldron. Sakai never competed in the Olympics, but he was born on the day of the Hiroshima atomic bombing.

New Sports: Icons, preteens in the mix
Karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing make their Olympic debuts in Tokyo. Kelly Slater, the 47-year-old, 11-time world surfing champion, has a great chance to qualify but isn’t committing to the Olympics quite yet. Meanwhile, skateboarding could produce some of the youngest Olympians in history with pre-teens in the qualifying mix. Three-time Winter Olympic halfpipe champion Shaun White expressed interest in trying to qualify in skateboarding, but he competed once last summer and not at all this year.

Rugby: U.S. now a world power
The U.S. men’s rugby team has been a revelation this Olympic cycle. After being ranked 13th in the world five years ago, and failing to make the Rio Olympic quarterfinals, the Eagles finished second in this season’s World Series to Olympic champion Fiji. The U.S. boasts the two-time World Player of the Year in Perry Baker, who was briefly a Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver (but never played a game). Rugby sevens made its Olympic debut in Rio.

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 is still banned from international track and field competition, though many of its stars are now competing as neutrals. More than 100 “strong cases” of Russian doping are being investigated from a Moscow lab, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency, showing that the country could face further sanctions in the coming year.

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 month 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 Carli Lloyd‘s place in danger.

Swimming: Is Katie Ledecky beatable?
It certainly looks that way at the moment. Ledecky, who won all four of her individual events at her first two Olympics (with two world records), lost to teenage swimmers from Australia, Canada and Japan at major meets the last two summers. The latest defeat came Sunday at the world championships, where Aussie Ariarne Titmus handed an ill Ledecky her first major international 400m freestyle defeat. Ledecky could go for four individual golds in Tokyo with the addition of the 1500m free to the Olympic program, but the younger generation she has helped inspire is closing in.

Swimming: Will Caeleb Dressel eye Michael Phelps’ record?
Dressel is also swimming at the world championships this week. Two years ago, the tattooed Floridian earned a Phelps-record-tying seven golds at a single worlds (two titles were in mixed-gender relays that weren’t on the program in the Phelps era, though one will debut at the Olympics in 2020). Dressel is looking like a gold-medal contender in three individual Olympic events as well as part of at least two men’s relays. The question is whether he can get up to Phelps’ eight events. This week’s results will play a factor.

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 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 third place behind China.

Tennis: Will the Williams sisters qualify; what about Roger Federer?
A maximum four tennis players per gender 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 after making the Wimbledon final. Older sister Venus Williams, also with four golds, has ground to make up after being beaten by 15-year-old Coco Gauff in Wimbledon’s first round. On the men’s side, Roger Federer may need an ITF wild card as he hasn’t competed in the required Davis Cup in four years. Federer has won every major title except an Olympic singles title.

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. The U.S. has the world’s fastest man this year in the 100m (Christian Coleman), 200m (Noah Lyles) and 400m (Michael Norman). All three are competing at the USATF Outdoor Championships later this week (TV schedule here). All three are 23 and younger and could attempt doubles in 2020 — Coleman and Lyles in the 100m and 200m and Norman in the 200m and 400m.

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, will race this week for the first time since emergency C-section childbirth on Nov. 28 at 32 weeks. Felix, at 34, 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 status
For now, the two-time Olympic champion is allowed to race in the 800m, but a Swiss court could change all that. Semenya is appealing the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s ruling that sides with track and field’s governing body, which instituted a rule capping testosterone levels in women’s races between the 400m and the mile for athletes with differences in sexual development. Semenya says she will not take testosterone-suppressing medication, which means her future in the event she has not lost in nearly four years rides on that appeal.

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 by early projections. Gracenote has U.S. women earning about 15 more medals in Tokyo than the men, with Biles and Ledecky in for large hauls.

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 events, began transitioning six 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 to win the Pacific Games title this month. “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: Match of the Century
In Rio, Kyle Snyder became the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion at age 20. One weight class below him, another 20-year-old, Russian Abdulrashid Sadulayev, steamrolled to gold by a combined 28-1, extending a three-year win streak. Sadulayev has since moved up to Snyder’s weight class, and their gold-medal meeting at the 2017 World Championships was dubbed the “Match of the Century.” Snyder beat Sadulayev there, but the Russian Tank shockingly pinned the American in 68 seconds in the 2018 World Championships final. They could meet again at September’s worlds, but the real showdown would be in Tokyo.

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MORE: Tokyo 2020 master competition schedule

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach

GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas

If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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