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 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.

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Adam Jones, five-time MLB All-Star, becomes Olympic eligible

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Should the U.S. qualify for baseball’s Olympic return, a five-time MLB All-Star could be eligible for its roster in Tokyo. And he has interest.

Outfielder Adam Jones signed with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s domestic league, which, unlike MLB, will take an Olympic break next summer to allow players to take part in the first Olympic baseball tournament in 12 years.

Jones, 34, made no mention of Olympic eligibility in a social media post announcing the signing. His Instagram avatar is a photo of him in a Team USA jersey from the World Baseball Classic.

Jones’ agent later said that Jones does have interest in playing for the U.S. in Tokyo, should an American team qualify in the spring.

“To play over in Japan has always been a desire of Adam’s, and the timing worked out that the Olympics happens to be played in Tokyo the first year of his contract,” Jones’ agent wrote in an email. “It wasn’t one of the factors on his decision BUT more of a [sic] addition to the overall package to decide to go.”

Jones called being part of the U.S.’ 2017 WBC title, “probably the best experience of my life so far, especially with sports,” according to The Associated Press. He was one of five players to be on the U.S. team at each of the last two World Baseball Classics.

The U.S. still faces a difficult task to qualify for the Tokyo Games. It lost to Mexico last month in its first of up to three chances at qualifying tournaments, using a roster of mostly double-A and triple-A caliber players.

Major Leaguers are not expected to be made available for qualifying or for the Tokyo Games.

The next two qualifying tournaments will be in late March (an Americas qualifier in Arizona) and early April (a final, global qualifying event in Chinese Taipei). It remains to be seen how MLB clubs will go about releasing minor leaguers for a tournament that will take place during spring training.

Jones could become the third player with prior MLB All-Star experience to compete at the Olympics from any nation, joining Australian catcher Dave Nilsson and Canadian pitcher Jason Dickson.

Jones made five All-Star teams during an 11-year stint with the Baltimore Orioles from 2008-18 before playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.

Many players competed at the Olympics before making an MLB All-Star team, including Stephen Strasburg and Jason Giambi.

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Russia boxers to boycott Olympics if sanctions not lifted

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Russian boxers will only take part in the Tokyo Olympics if doping sanctions forcing them to compete as neutral athletes are overturned, the general secretary of the Russian Boxing Federation told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Umar Kremlev said he has spoken with the Olympic boxing team and they “unanimously” rejected the conditions laid out by the World Anti-Doping Agency as punishment for manipulating doping data.

The WADA sanctions, announced on Monday, ban the use of the Russian team name, flag or anthem at a range of major sports competitions over the next four years, including next year’s Olympics.

“They said we won’t go without our flag and anthem,” Kremlev said. “We aren’t going for medals, but for that feeling that I brought the highest honor home for my country.”

Separately, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament said Russia could create an alternative to the Olympics.

“This ruling show the clear crisis in international sports institutions. I believe that Russia could host its own games at home,” Valentina Matvienko said in comments reported by the Interfax news agency.

There is a precedent. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union refused to compete in the Olympics and hosted its own Spartakiads — named after the ancient rebel slave Spartacus — with a strong socialist slant. However, the Soviet Union began competing at the Olympics in 1952 and Russians generally take great pride in the country’s Olympic achievements since then.

If the sanctions aren’t overturned, Kremlev said Russian boxers would prefer to turn pro rather than compete at the Olympics.

“A world champion (in professional boxing) is better known than an Olympic champion,” Kremlev said, adding the Russian anthem would be played before pro title fights.

Kremlev said boxers are being asked to shoulder the blame for offenses committed in other sports. He said they would still stay at home even if Russia’s athletes in other sports decided to take part.

“If other sports are guilty and people have breached the WADA code, why are we punished?” he said. “We are for honest sport and against doping. We want our sport to be clean … If someone breaks the rules, we push them out.”

Russia is a major power in amateur and Olympic boxing. It hosted both men’s and women’s world championships this year, finishing at the top of the medals table at the women’s event and second in the men’s championships. The International Olympic Committee has taken direct charge of boxing at the Tokyo Olympics after criticizing chronic financial problems and infighting at the International Boxing Association.

Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov talked up Russia’s chances of overturning the WADA sanctions.

“I think that there is every basis to appeal the decision, because our experts have presented their position, and they have the same database as WADA does,” Kolobkov said in comments reported by state news agency TASS. “There is an answer to every question and the whole process is ahead of us.”

The official decision on whether to dispute the sanctions will be made on Dec. 19 by the Russian anti-doping agency’s supervisory board, but senior figures, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have signaled their preference for taking the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

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