The biggest questions in Olympic sports for 2023

Simone Biles, Suni Lee
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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Burning questions in Olympic sports for 2023, when athletes start qualifying for the 2024 Paris Games …

How many Olympic all-around gold medalists will return?
Suni Lee
competed strictly in NCAA gymnastics since winning the Tokyo Olympic all-around, but she announced last month that this sophomore season will be her last for the Auburn Tigers. Lee plans to return to elite, Olympic-level gymnastics after this winter. She hasn’t announced her comeback meet, but she has plenty of time ahead of the most significant domestic competitions in August.

Meanwhile, Simone Biles said in September that she plans to be at the Paris Olympics. She just has to decide whether that will be as an athlete or a spectator. Biles hasn’t provided further updates since but, as of the third quarter of this year, was still getting drug tested. That’s significant because if Biles does not withdraw her name from the testing pool, she is excused from the six-month waiting period to return to competition for athletes who leave and then re-enter the testing pool.

Then there’s 2012 Olympic all-around champ Gabby Douglas. She last competed at the 2016 Rio Games, but reports — and a photo — from this fall indicated she has been training at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Texas, which produced Olympic all-around champions Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin and reigning U.S. all-around champion Konnor McClain. Douglas hasn’t commented publicly, and her representative said Wednesday there is nothing new to report.

What will Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone race?
For the first time, McLaughlin-Levrone has a bye into the world championships as a reigning gold medalist. That means she can race the 400m hurdles at August’s worlds in Budapest without entering the event at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in July. Athletes with byes sometimes compete in other events at nationals. Mix that with her comments from this fall that she wants to add the flat 400m to her program — but not give up the hurdles, yet at least — and we have our burning question.

When McLaughlin-Levrone made those fall comments, no concrete decision had been made about a possible 400m/400m hurdles double bid in 2023 (or 2024). At worlds, the women’s 400m hurdles first round heats start 2 hours and 20 minutes before the women’s 400m semifinals. Top-level pros rarely race multiple times in one session in a distance longer than 200 meters at any meet.

The Olympic schedule is accommodating as ever for a possible women’s 400m/400m hurdles double in 2024 (no woman has ever earned a medal in both races at one Olympics or worlds). For the first time in Olympic history, none of the rounds of those races take place on the same day at the Games. But doing both through the finals would still be a challenge: racing six consecutive days at the Olympics (and a seventh day at the end if adding the 4x400m relay).

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Will Caeleb Dressel compete in 2023, and if so, when?
Dressel, who won five golds at the Tokyo Games, withdrew on unspecified medical grounds during June’s world championships after winning his first two finals. He hasn’t competed since and last provided an update on Sept. 4, saying he was happy, had not swum since worlds and missed swimming. He ended the social media post with the line, “I’ll be back.”

The next major meet is the U.S. Championships from June 27-July 1, the qualifying meet for the world championships in Japan later in July. In Dressel’s absence, Olympic 200m fly champion Kristof Milak became the new world champion in the 100m fly, where Dressel holds the world record. In the 100m freestyle, where Dressel had been the world’s fastest man outside of the super-suit era, 18-year-old Romanian David Popovici won the world title and then broke the world record.

Is Katie Ledecky headed for a Race of the Century?
Swimming worlds may also produce the most anticipated head-to-head-to-head race in 18 years. The women’s 400m freestyle could pit Ledecky (reigning world champion) against Australian Ariarne Titmus (reigning Olympic champion) and 16-year-old Canadian phenom Summer McIntosh. This year, Titmus broke Ledecky’s world record but skipped a showdown with Ledecky at the world championships in prioritizing the Commonwealth Games. McIntosh took silver to Ledecky at worlds, becoming the fourth-fastest woman in history.

The hype has been compared to the “Race of the Century,” when Michael Phelps, Aussie Ian Thorpe and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband met in the 200m free at the 2004 Athens Games (won by Thorpe).

Will Mikaela Shiffrin break one of Alpine skiing’s historic records?
Shiffrin heads into 2023 in arguably her best form since her incredible 2018-19 season, winning her last four races across three different disciplines to reach 80 World Cup wins. She is two victories shy of Lindsey Vonn‘s female record and six away from Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record that has stood since he retired in 1989. Shiffrin getting to 87 would be the most significant accomplishment in American ski racing — outside of the Olympics — since her breakout world title at age 17 in 2013.

Shiffrin is 27 years old and expects to compete at least through the 2026 Winter Games. If she gets to 87 World Cup wins in 2023, having averaged about eight victories per season, you have to start wondering whether 100 is possible.

What happens with Russian athletes?
Russians and Belarusians in most Olympic sports have been banned from international competition since the invasion of Ukraine 10 months ago. Olympic sports leaders have discussed since at least September how athletes who do not endorse the war could return in the future. The International Olympic Committee is not yet recommending the lifting of the bans, but did say it planned to explore the possibility of Russian athletes taking part in Olympic qualifying competitions in Asia rather than Europe.

A key sport is gymnastics. Russian gymnasts won men’s and women’s team gold at the Tokyo Games. As rules currently stand, Russians must compete at their continental championships this year (April for Europe, May or June for Asia) to remain eligible to qualify full teams for the Paris Games.

Will any U.S. beach volleyball gold medalist return?
The Olympic beach volleyball qualifying window runs from January 2023 into June 2024. It looks likely to start with no public word from reigning gold medalists Alix Klineman and April Ross on whether either will bid for the Paris Games. Klineman, 33, hasn’t competed since shoulder surgery last January. Ross, 40, last competed in March, then withdrew before June’s world championships, where she was entered with Emily Day, with an unspecified injury.

“I’m weighing a lot of factors, a lot of life factors, a lot of, you know, opportunity factors,” Ross said earlier this month. “There’s a lot of things that are appealing to me at the moment, and I just have to decide which direction I want to go. But yeah, I still feel like I have a lot of good years of volleyball left in me.”

Kerri Walsh Jennings, the most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player with four medals (three gold), has been working out on Hermosa Beach with 2000 Olympic indoor teammate Logan Tom, according to videos posted by Buzzle this month. Walsh Jennings, 44, last played a tournament in June 2021, when she and then-partner Brooke Sweat were eclipsed for the second and last U.S. spot for the Tokyo Games. Walsh Jennings said last spring that she wanted Tom to be her new partner, then said in October that she should have an answer on her 2024 Olympic bid plans after the start of the new year.

The gold medalists have some time to deliberate, but probably need to return at some point in 2023 or risk falling significantly behind in qualifying for two Olympic spots. The U.S. has two strong, younger pairs in Sara Hughes and Kelly Cheng, who won the most recent top-level international event earlier this month, and Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss, who won five times between the domestic AVP and international FIVB tours in 2022.

Stephen Curry, Steve Kerr
Will Stephen Curry join Steve Kerr at the 2023 FIBA World Cup? (Getty)

Which NBA superstars will suit up for USA Basketball?
The U.S. men’s basketball team may face a gigantic threat at the Paris Games (more on that in the next burning question), but first comes the quadrennial FIBA World Cup in August and September. Recall four years ago that the Americans, with just two reigning NBA All-Stars on the team and one player with Olympic experience, lost twice at the World Cup en route to their worst major tournament result ever — seventh place.

After Gregg Popovich coached the team to a bounce-back gold in Tokyo, Steve Kerr succeeded him as head coach. Grant Hill followed Jerry Colangelo as national team managing director. Will America’s best players sign up to travel around the globe — the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia co-host worlds — a month before NBA preseason training camps?

Which country will Joel Embiid play for?
The Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center, who was born in Cameroon, gained French nationality and U.S. citizenship this year, potentially making him eligible to represent any of those nations in international basketball. Embiid has not yet announced his choice, if he decides to play at all, but France’s GM expressed confidence last month.

If Embiid joins France, it could give the Olympic host country triplet towers with fellow 7-footers Rudy Gobert and Victor Wembanyama, an 18-year-old whom LeBron James described as a one-of-a-kind talent. That could pose problems for the U.S. Anthony Davis, who skipped the Tokyo Olympics, is the lone U.S. center to make an All-NBA first, second or third team in the last five seasons.

Can Kelly Slater qualify for Olympic surfing at age 51?
Many thought surfing’s debut in Tokyo was Slater’s only shot at the Olympics. He missed the team by one spot when it came down to the last event of yearlong qualifying. Then Slater came back in February to win the most prestigious contest in the sport — the Pipeline Masters — 30 years after he won it for the first time. Slater didn’t make the quarterfinals again until the season’s penultimate event — placing third at the 2024 Olympic venue in Tahiti — and finished ranked third among American men in world standings.

The top two American men in next year’s standings likely qualify for the Olympics. In a change from Tokyo, the U.S. has the chance to earn a third Olympic men’s spot if it wins the 2024 World Surfing Games. That spot can be filled via discretionary pick.

Will the 2030 Winter Olympic and Paralympic host be decided?
The IOC announced earlier this month that the 2030 host is no longer expected to be decided before next fall, citing wider discussions into the future of the Winter Games, including the effects of climate change and the possibility of rotating the Games within a pool of hosts.

Previously, Salt Lake City, Sapporo, Japan, and Vancouver were confirmed as bids. Then in October, the British Columbia government said it would not support a Vancouver bid, a major setback, though organizers did not say that decision ended the bid. Then last week, Japanese officials announced a pause in the active promotion of the Sapporo bid that may include a national survey asking the public whether it wants to host the Games.

U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials have said Salt Lake City is a likelier candidate for 2034 than 2030 — with Los Angeles already hosting the 2028 Summer Games — but could step in for 2030 if asked.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Kelly Slater was fifth among Americans in 2022 and made one quarterfinal. He was third with two quarterfinals.

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Isabeau Levito, Bradie Tennell, Amber Glenn named to U.S. team for World Championships

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SAN JOSE, Calif. – With a calm command belying her age, Isabeau Levito has taken control of U.S. women’s skating at age 15.

Levito came here as the solid favorite to take her first national title, and she did it with a seemingly effortless grace, her balletic style producing solid winning performances in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate.

She was the last of 18 skaters in the free skate, following rivals who made mistakes big and small. Levito did not need perfection, but her skating approached it, even if the execution of some jumps could have been better.

Levito left no doubt of her superiority and burst into a wide smile even before the scores were announced. After a narrow win over Bradie Tennell (.02 points) in the short program, Levito (223.33) wound up 10.21 points ahead of the runner-up Tennell (213.12) in the final standings.

Amber Glenn was third at 207.44. She, Levito and Tennell will fill the three women’s places on the U.S. team for the March World Championships in Japan.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Two of the three U.S. women’s skaters on the 2022 Olympic team have announced their retirements (Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell; Karen Chen is a student at Cornell and might not return). Given that and Tennell’s recurrent problems with injuries, Levito’s stature as the leading U.S. woman seemed assured. Whatever pressure she felt holding that position was not evident.

“My entire goal truly for both programs was to stay composed and to really try to suppress my nerves as much as possible and to really not let little minor silly mistakes happen,” Levito said. “I feel as though I did just that today and I’m very proud of myself for it.”

“I’ve gotten very good at suppressing nerves,” she had said after the short program. “I still feel the effects of the competition. But I find my own way mentally to handle it.”

For both Tennell and Glenn, there was a redemptive quality to their skating.

Neither had a result at last year’s nationals. Glenn had to withdraw after the short program when she tested positive for COVID. Tennell never made it to the event because of the foot injury that kept her out of competition for all last season.

“Honestly, it was terrifying being back here after the conclusion of my season last year,” Glenn said. “That was a big mental hurdle for me, but I was happy I was actually able to enjoy myself again and enjoy competing.”

Glenn made her 10th career attempt at a triple axel, stepping out of the landing after getting full rotational credit. Her persistence in trying that jump, which she never has landed cleanly, is one reason she was holding her hip after finishing the free skate. Glenn insisted it was just soreness.

“An unfortunate side effect of being 23 and doing these ultra (difficult) elements is my body can’t always keep up very well,” Glenn said.

Tennell, who turns 25 Tuesday, has been battling an injury in her right foot for more than a year, then an injury in her left foot since October. She fought past all that to make the podium for the fifth time in her last five nationals – twice first, twice second and once third.

“This one probably means the most, because I didn’t think I was going to be able to do this again,” Tennell said. “To be here and to have achieved it, especially after the (poor) start of my season and the bumps that I had to overcome, I’m very proud of what I accomplished.”

Levito, the reigning world junior champion, reeled off seven triple jumps, two in combination with other triple jumps. She glided from element to element seamlessly.

“I finally skated the free the way I’ve been training to do it,” she said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Scotty James wins fifth X Games snowboard halfpipe title

Scotty James
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Scotty James doesn’t have Olympic gold, but he remains king of the X Games halfpipe.

James, the Australian snowboarder who took bronze and silver at the last two Olympics, earned his fifth Aspen gold, repeating as champ of the biggest annual contest under falling snow in the Colorado Rockies. Only the retired Shaun White has more X Games men’s snowboard halfpipe titles with eight.

Nobody on Friday night attempted a triple cork, which was first done in competition by Japan’s Ayumu Hirano last season en route to the Olympic title. Hirano placed sixth Friday.

“It was a tough night, pretty interesting conditions,” James said. “Had to adjust the game plan. The show goes on.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression over the course of a three-run jam session for the entire field rather than scoring individual runs.

Earlier, Olympic gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand repeated as women’s snowboard slopestyle champion, passing Olympic bronze medalist Tess Coady of Australia on the final run of the competition. Sadowski-Synnott, the only snowboarder or skier to win Olympic, world and X Games slopestyle titles, capped her finale with back-to-back 900s.

The competition lacked 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion Jamie Anderson, who announced her pregnancy last month.

Canada’s Megan Oldham landed the first triple cork in women’s ski big air competition history to beat Olympic silver medalist Tess Ledeux of France, according to commentators. Oldham, a 21-year-old ex-gymnast, was fourth at the Olympics.

Eileen Gu, the Olympic champion from China, did not compete but is entered in halfpipe and slopestyle later this weekend.

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