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

1 Comment

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 as Gavin Hubbard, 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 really 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Tokyo 2020 master competition schedule

[twitter-follow screen_name=’nzaccardi’ show_count=’yes’ text_color=’00ccff’]

Peter Snell, 3-time Olympic track champion, dies

Getty Images
Leave a comment

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Three-time Olympic champion and world mile record-holder Peter Snell has died in Dallas. He was aged 80.

Snell, who is regarded as one of the greatest middle-distance runners of all-time, won the 800m at the 1960 Rome Olympics aged 21, and the 800m-1500m double at the 1964 Tokyo Games.

He was the first man since 1920 to win the 800m and 1500m at the same Olympics. No male athlete has done so since.

Snell also won two Commonwealth Games gold medals in the 880 yards and mile at Perth in 1962.

He twice held the mile world record and also held world records in the 800m, 880 yards, 1000m, and the 4xmile relay.

Snell’s death was confirmed by family friend and New Zealand sports historian Ron Palenski, who heads New Zealand’s Sport Hall of Fame.

“It is very sad news, a grievous loss for New Zealand,” Palenski said. “In terms of track and field, he is probably the greatest athlete New Zealand has had.”

Snell was coached by Arthur Lydiard, an innovator who was regarded as one of the world’s finest coaches of middle and long distance athletes. Lydiard also coached Murray Halberg to win the 5000m at Rome in 1960.

Snell’s wife, Miki, said he died suddenly at his home in Dallas around noon on Thursday. He had been suffering from a heart ailment and had required a pacemaker for several years.

Snell’s athletics career was relatively short. He retired in 1965 to pursue educational opportunities in the United States.

Snell graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in human performance from the University of California, Davis, and later with a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Washington State University.

He became a research fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in 1981, later becoming director of the university’s Human Performance Center.

Snell was knighted by New Zealand in 2009. A statue in his honor stands at Cooks Gardens, Whanganui, near his birthplace of Opunake, where he broke the mile world record for the first time in 1962.

Grand Prix Final results show women’s figure skating revolution progressing quickly

Grand Prix Final podium
AP
Leave a comment

The revolution in women’s figure skating is being televised.

That’s a turn of phrase on an admittedly dated reference (Google it). The point is we all have been able to witness, from TV broadcasts or live streams, a season with the most radical change in the sport since child prodigy Sonja Henie, then age 11, began doing jumps in her programs nearly a century ago.

What we watched other child prodigies do at last week’s Grand Prix Final boggled the minds of even those who saw it coming, because no one imagined it coming this soon and to this degree.

This essentially Russian revolution, which has taken maximum advantage of the scoring system and youthful body types to overthrow longtime technical norms of women’s skating, has split the discipline into haves and have-nots.

There are those who have the high-scoring quadruple jumps or multiple triple Axels to seize all the medals. And those who do not have those big jumps and, as of now, no chance to regain the podiums from which they have been summarily ousted.

Given what already had happened this season, it was not surprising that Russian first-year seniors Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova swept the medals in the senior Final. Each had qualified by winning two of the six events in the Grand Prix series.

What is surprising is how far and fast the Troika – as NBC commentator and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir artfully nicknamed them, in a reference to a traditional Russian three-horse sled – has pushed the envelope and how far and fast they have left everyone else behind.

And imagine what the gap could be if women were allowed to do quads in the short program, which likely will be proposed at next year’s International Skating Union congress.

A year ago, it was shocking when the Troika, then all juniors internationally, swept the medals at the senior Russian Championships. Now it will be shocking if they don’t do it again at this year’s Russian Championships, which take place Dec. 24-29.

No women were regularly doing quads until last season. Consider what the Troika has done just this autumn:

*Kostornaia, 16, did not attempt a triple Axel in international competition before this season. Now she is doing one in the short program and two in the free, and all three were very well executed as she took gold at the Grand Prix Final.

*Shcherbakova, 15, began her international season the way she had finished last year at junior worlds, with one quad Lutz in the free skate; at the Grand Prix Final, she did two quad Lutzes (one clean, one under-rotated) and attempted her first quad flip (fall) in finishing second.

*Trusova, 15, began this season after having landed quad Lutz, quad Salchow and quad toe loop as a junior, but she was not attempting more than two in a program. In her senior Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada, she did four quads (three clean). At the Grand Prix Final, she added an excellent quad flip for five free skate quads, one of which she doubled and three of which were clean. She also attempted (and under-rotated) a triple Axel for the first time in the short program.

Even with the mistakes, the quads still racked up enough points for Shcherbakova that she beat a flawless Kostornaia in the free skate. And they gave Trusova a 20.71-point overall margin over fourth finisher Rika Kihira, 17, of Japan, who already had mastered triple Axels but has dropped so far from contention against the Troika that Kihira tried (and fell on) her first quad in competition.

And you have to feel a little sorry for reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia, at the technical cutting edge of her sport less than two years ago, now utterly overmatched – and still just 17 years old.

Zagitova’s free skate, an error-filled mess, dropped her from second after a fine short (less than six points behind Kostornaia) to sixth overall, more than 42 points behind Kostornaia and nearly 28 behind the third-place Trusova.

Even had she skated cleanly, having a long program with no quads or triple Axels meant the base value of Zagitova’s elements was more than 30 points less than Trusova’s, more than 20 less than Shcherbakova’s and about five less than Kostornaia’s. Zagitova would have needed otherworldly Grades of Execution marks and program component scores to compete for a medal.

Zagitova acknowledged the futility of her current situation by telling a Russian TV station Friday she was effectively putting her competitive career on hold by withdrawing from the Russian Championships and not asking to be considered for selection for either the European or world championships.

According to a Eurosport summary of the interview, Zagitova said she needed to find new motivation to continue competing. The story quoted her as saying she intended to do shows and keep training under her longtime coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who also coaches the Troika.

Zagitova also said she intended to learn new elements and ways to go into jumps.

“I need to find the desire to want to go into a competition,” she said, according to a translation. “The athletes who have gone down that road will understand me.”

Those who decry how much the quads have thrown the sport’s athletic-artistic balance out of whack found some satisfaction in Kostornaia’s having won with a performance and interpretive quality rare for a skater of her age.

Yet Kostornaia also accumulated some 21 free skate points for her triple Axels, about 13 more points than fifth-place finisher Bradie Tennell of the U.S. got for two clean double Axels. Even if Tennell had not made some relatively small mistakes, there was no way she could make up that difference.

And remember that if Trusova had cleanly landed the quad she doubled and the quad that resulted in a fall, she could have overcome not only her short program mistake but also the margin Kostornaia built in program components with clearly superior skating skills and artistry.

Tennell, 21, the top U.S. woman at the 2018 Olympics (ninth) and the last two World Championships (sixth and seventh), this season has displayed the best overall level of skating in her career. But a lack of quads and triple Axels has dropped her exponentially further behind the leaders.

Yet Tennell presses on.

“She may never catch them, but we keep pushing forward, trying to improve on both components and technical,” said Denise Myers, who coaches Tennell. “She is not settling for where she is now.”

About a month ago, I began to wonder if changing the factoring of the five Program Component Scores (PCS) so that they were the same for women as for men would level a playing field that has tilted so dramatically toward the jumpers.

Since the International Judging System was introduced in 2004, factors of .8 (short program) and 1.6 (long) have been applied to the raw total of each woman’s component score. They are 1.0 and 2.0 for men.

The logic behind the difference was until last season, a men’s free skate was 30 seconds longer with one more element. (Why it also applied to the short program is unclear, since the number of elements and time have been the same.)

“The idea of possible new factors for the program components for men was evaluated in the past season, because for the top skaters the technical score in the last years had considerably increased,” Italy’s Fabio Bianchetti, chair of the ISU technical committee for singles and pairs, said in an email.

“At the moment, for the majority of the [men], the [PCS] is still corresponding to about 50 percent of the total score. In some cases, the relation might not be exact, but a rule must consider all the skaters and not only the top five.

“Now we are dealing with the same situation for the ladies. This is something totally new, and we will study the problem during the season. But again, we cannot look at a couple of skaters only.”

In a recent interview with Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports, Weir seconded the idea of giving the women’s PCS scores the same weight as the men’s.

“It would give them a little better chance,” Samuel Auxier, an international judge and former U.S. Figure Skating, said in a text message last month.

So much has changed on the jump front since then that it turns out using the men’s PCS factors would have had almost no impact on the women’s results at the Grand Prix Final.

With some computational help from skatingscores.com, I recalculated the PCS scores from the Final with the 1.0 and 2.0 factors, added them to the TES scores and found just one difference: Kostornaia would have moved from second to first in the free skate. The overall and short program finish order would have been the same.

Actual Grand Prix Final scores
One of these (factor .8 / 1.6) shows the actual scores. Skatingscores.com
A re-imagined scoring of the Grand Prix Final
The Refactored scores show what they would be with factors of 1.0 and 2.0. Skatingscores.com

So, the 20% adjustment of PCS factor gender equality is not enough to put women without the most difficult jumps into medal contention.

And as Bianchetti pointed out, making that change or a more substantial one in the women’s factoring must take into consideration not only a few exceptional new talents.

“I truly do not believe that anyone seriously thought a lady would deliver four quads so quickly and especially at such a young age,” Ted Barton of Canada, who was involved in the creation of IJS, said in a text message last month. “Alysa Liu is a good American example of what the present is and future might be.”

(And, yes, there is an elephant in the room: whether the young talents are getting exaggerated PCS scores from judges smitten by their jumping. That’s a question for another day – or lifetime.)

Yet there is every indication the Troika are only the leading edge of a blizzard of jumping phenoms, not only from Russia. After all, Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalist Liu, 14, last season became the youngest singles champion in U.S. history with three triple Axels, and she has added a quad Lutz this season.

“The factoring and [other] calculations were developed on what was being done at that point,” Barton said. “Now that skaters have shown new possibilities, the technical committees will look to see what adjustments can and should be made. Interesting times, indeed.”

For now, though, we are seeing in real time the unsettling effect revolutions can have.

And it seems surreal.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: What’s next for Nathan Chen after third consecutive Grand Prix Final win?

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!