2021 Tokyo Olympics: Bold Predictions for the Summer Games

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Though some Olympic sports, like soccer and softball, are already underway this week, the Tokyo Olympics will officially kick off Friday with the opening ceremony. The ceremony, which will take place at 7 a.m. ET, will be rebroadcast on NBC in prime time at 7:30 p.m. ET.

    When most viewers think of the opening ceremony, what comes to mind is the lighting of the Olympic flame, as well as the Parade of Nations, when each country’s delegation marches into the stadium wearing its official uniforms. The USA flag-bearers, MLB player Eddy Alvarez and WNBA player Sue Bird, were announced Wednesday.

    If the world were further removed from the COVID-19 pandemic, these Games could have been seen as a triumphant celebration of bringing the world back together again. However, athletes have already begun to test positive for COVID, and a survey recently released in Japan indicated 83 percent of the public is against holding these Games this summer.

    Even as we explore some of the top storylines to follow heading into the Olympics and predict which athletes could make history or earn their first medals, the pandemic threatens to remain the main storyline through the closing ceremony.

    Nevertheless, the Games are going on, and so cover the athletes we must. And there are plenty of records that could be set at this Olympics, from American gymnast Simone Biles winning the most gold medals of any American woman to Team Great Britain skateboarder Sky Brown becoming the youngest gold medalist ever, at 13.

    There could also be some shocks in store; the U.S. women’s national soccer team, gold-medal favorites, could fail to go all the way, while Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic could see his chance to win the Golden Slam end in Tokyo.

    What follows are seven bold predictions for this year’s Games.

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Before the pandemic, when it was still preparing to host the Olympics in summer 2020, the Japanese Olympic Committee was feeling confident about the number of golds its athletes could secure in the Games. 

    The magic number for the JOC? Thirty, which would nearly double Japan’s previous gold-medal high (16, both in Tokyo 1964 and Athens 2004). 

    However, leading up to these Games, with all the uncertainty surrounding training to whether athletes will even remain healthy for their events, the JOC is no longer looking to set a new record. 

    “In regard to whether it’s important to achieve 30 gold medals, I would have to answer clearly ‘no,'” Japanese Olympic Committee president Yasuhiro Yamashita told reporters last month

    Host nations usually see a corresponding spike in their medal haul, which makes sense; their athletes have the world’s biggest home-field advantage. With no spectators allowed at these Games, however—including Japanese residents due to the new COVID-19 state of emergency—that factor is much less significant. 

    With all the criticism much of the Japanese public has directed at these Games and its organizers, it’s the right move for the JOC to back off on talk of medal tallies. “I think it is a common understanding that we want to have each athlete be able to do their best and do their utmost,” Yamashita said. 

    While gold medals are hardly a salve for political and social discontent, for those Japan residents who would glean a sense of national or cultural pride from their athletes dotting the podiums over the next two weeks, there is reason to be optimistic. Japan is a legitimate contender not just to podium but to earn gold in lots of events. 

    Individuals to watch for include Daiki Hashimoto in artistic gymnastics; Kohei Uchimura or Hashimoto on the high bar; Kaya Kazuma on the pommel horse; Kento Momota in badminton; Yusuke Suzuki in the 50-kilometer race walk; Yumi Kajihara in cycling omnium; Naohisa Takato, Hifumi Abe and Shohei Ono in men’s judo; Funa Tonaki, Uta Abe, Tsukasa Yoshida, Chizuru Arai, Shori Hamada and Akira Sone in women’s judo; Ryo Kiyuna in men’s kata; Miho Miyahara in women’s kumite; Yuto Horigome or Sora Shirai in men’s street skateboarding; Aori Nishimura in women’s street skateboarding; Sakura Yosozumi or Misugu Okamoto in women’s park skateboarding; Daiya Seto in men’s 400-meter individual medley; Naomi Osaka (who is representing Japan instead of the U.S.) in women’s singles tennis; Hikaru Mori in trampoline; Kenichiro Fumita in Greco-Roman wrestling; and Risako Kawai in women’s freestyle wrestling. 

    Team events in which Japan could contend for gold include baseball, softball, men’s and women’s mixed team judo and men’s artistic gymnastics. 

    Nielsen’s Gracenote, a sports statistical analysis company, estimates Japan’s final medal tally as 60 overall, with 26 gold, 20 silver and 14 bronze.

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    There’s a reason gymnast Simone Biles is expected to win nearly—if not every—event she’s contesting in Tokyo. The 24-year-old is a five-time world all-around champion and came home from the 2016 Rio Games with five total medals—three individual gold medals in all-around, vault and floor; bronze in balance beam; and gold with the rest of Team USA in the women’s team final. 

    This time around, Biles could win five potential gold medals. She’s the favorite to repeat in all-around, vault and floor. The U.S. women are again favored in the team final. And while Biles “only” took bronze in balance beam in 2016—and will have to outduel China’s Guan Chenchen and Ou Yushan this year—her skills in that discipline have improved in the last five years. 

    Depending on her medal outcomes in these events, there’s plenty of history Biles could make at these Games. 

    She needs three medals of any color to pass Shannon Miller (seven) for the most Olympic medals in U.S. Gymnastics history, man or woman. With two gold medals, she’ll pass Anton Heida for the most Olympic gold medals in U.S. Gymnastics history (man or woman).

    But with five gold medals, Biles would go into a tie for second-most of an Olympian (Michael Phelps has 23). That she would get there in only her second Olympics would be a monumental feat. To do it, of course, she’d have to get her first Olympic gold on the beam. 

    Ou and Guan have the two highest beam scores in the world this year, with 15.633 and 15.466, respectively. But if Biles can land her triple-double dismount, she has a good shot at securing her only individual gold medal that is even a tiny bit in doubt.   

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    It could be a banner year for tennis fans—and Novak Djokovic fans. The Serb is in pursuit of an elusive Golden Slam, which requires wins in all four majors and an Olympic gold medal in the same year. If successful, he would become the first man to do so. 

    Djokovic is well on his way, having already won the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon this year. But to keep the dream alive, he has to not only win a singles gold medal in Tokyo but also cap it all off with a win at the U.S. Open, which begins August 30. 

    This may arguably be his best chance to win an Olympic gold medal; multiple big-name players, including Roger Federer, world No. 6 Dominic Thiem, Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal, have pulled out of the Olympic tournament this year due to injuries and/or the need for some rest after the French Open and Wimbledon. In fact, only four other top-10 players are competing at the Games. 

    However, let’s not forget that Djokovic has never won an Olympic gold medal. His best result was bronze in 2008 when he lost to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. Del Potro prevented him from winning a second bronze in 2012 and then bounced him from the first round in 2016. 

    Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are also podium favorites. Crucially, the Olympics have moved to a best-of-three sets format, which does not favor Djokovic, with so little margin for error. Medvedev has won 10 tour-level titles on hard courts, the same surface he’ll play on at the Games. 

    Finally, there’s the extreme pressure to consider. Djokovic confessed to increased nerves at Wimbledon and was mulling skipping the Olympics altogether given the lack of spectators allowed and restrictions of the Olympic Village. While this may be his best (or last) chance at a Golden Slam, there are simply too many factors working against Djokovic to bet on it.    

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Having just turned 13 on July 7, Team Great Britain skateboarder Sky Brown is one of the youngest Olympians in Tokyo and the youngest summer Olympian in Team GB history. 

    But if the women’s park skateboarding rising star, who comes into the Games ranked third in the world, wins gold in her event on August 3, she’d also become the youngest Olympic gold medalist…ever

    And she’d do it by quite a large margin. When we’re talking about youngest-ever records, every day matters. And the current record holder, Marjorie Gestring, won gold in three-meter springboard diving in Berlin in 1936 aged 13 years and 268 days. 

    Brown will be one of the most exciting female skateboarders to watch this year as the sport makes its Olympic debut. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a British father, she elected to represent Team GB at the Olympic level. But Brown has been tearing it up on the competitive skateboarding circuit for years. As an eight-year-old in 2016, Brown became the youngest person ever to compete in the Vans US Open. 

    There’s almost no question Brown will earn a place on the podium in these Games. But can she win gold?

    She’s up against two of Japan’s own, Sakura Yosozumi and Misugu Okamoto. At Dew Tour in May, the final park skateboarding Olympic qualifying event, Yosozumi took gold, Brown took silver and Okamoto took bronze. All three women have learned a backside 540, a trick few female skateboarders have that could become the key to winning in Tokyo. Brown also has a frontside rodeo 540; she’s the only woman to have landed the trick in competition.

    If Brown can land both her 5s at the Games, she just may be entering the Olympics record books with a gold medal.    

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    If you want to see a world record broken during these Games, the men’s 110-meter hurdles event will be one to watch. There, American hurdler and sprinter Grant Holloway, who already holds the world record in the 60-meter hurdles, could attain another record.

    The 23-year-old is already well known in the world of track and field. He won eight NCAA titles at the University of Florida. After turning pro in 2019, he won the 110-meter event at the 2019 world championships. 

    But Holloway entered mainstream headlines at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials this June, where, in his semifinal heat, he ran a 12.81. That result was his personal best and this year’s fastest time worldwide; it’s also oh-so-close to the world record of 12.80 set by American Aries Merritt in 2012. Holloway went on to win the event with a time of 12.96. 

    Holloway knows a lot of attention will be on him as he tries to break the record at the Olympics, and he acknowledges it’s possible. But that’s not his main focus. 

    “Everybody knows what my goal is,” Holloway said, per Sarah Lorge Butler of Runner’s World. “As long as [the medal is] a gold, it doesn’t matter what the time is.”

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    Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press

    A week ago, it would have been preposterous to claim the World No. 1 U.S. women’s national soccer team would fail to bring home the gold in Tokyo. After all, it hadn’t lost since a January 2019 friendly in France. The U.S. came into Wednesday’s match against Sweden unbeaten in its previous 44 matches (40 wins). 

    U.S. women’s soccer also just wins at the Olympics, period. Since women’s soccer became an event, the Americans have won five medals in six Games, including four golds and a silver. 

    However, the team shockingly suffered a 3-0 loss to the Swedes, looking lost and disorganized and never threatening to take the lead. 

    “We got our ass kicked a bit,” Megan Rapinoe said, per ESPN’s Caitlin Murray. “There’s a lot of stuff we can clean up—trap the ball, pass the ball to your own team is probably the first one.”

    Not to jump on the panic bandwagon, but suddenly, the USWNT’s gold-medal hopes in Tokyo are not all but guaranteed. Next up is New Zealand, which should not provide nearly the challenge Sweden did. But the struggles Vlatko Andonovski’s side displayed went deeper than a tough opponent. It’s also worth noting, as Stefan Fatsis pointed out on Twitter, the team’s five pre-Olympics matches were against teams with the following rankings: No. 28 Mexico (twice), No. 30 Portugal, No. 38 Nigeria and No. 51 Jamaica.

    The USWNT have too much talent to fail to make the podium in Tokyo. But in order to remain gold-medal favorites, we’ll have to see a lot more cohesion and teamwork from this unit in the remainder of the tournament.    

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    American swimmer Lilly King is having a dominant year, and she’ll have a chance to make history if she can keep up her winning ways at the Tokyo Games. 

    King has already become the first woman to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in the 100-meter breaststroke event in consecutive Games since Tracy Caulkins did in 1980 and 1984. But Caulkins wasn’t able to participate in the 1980 Moscow Games due to the U.S. boycott, and she finished fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke in the 1984 Games. 

    If King can earn another gold medal this year to go with the one she earned at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, she will become the first woman to win the 100-meter breaststroke event in multiple Olympics. What’s more, the U.S. has never won this event in consecutive Games. 

    In the 100-meter breaststroke event at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, King defended her title with a time of 1:04.79. Her time in the semifinal, 1:04.72, was even better. No one but King has come close to besting her world record of 1:04.13 at the 2017 world championships.

    But simply making history in the 100-meter breaststroke wouldn’t be enough for the ambitious and outspoken King. She’ll also look to become the second woman since Penny Heyns in 1996 to win the 100-meter/200-meter breaststroke double in a single Games.

    And if you ask her, she’s feeling pretty confident in her chances—and in Team USA overall. King has said the U.S. women can win every individual event in Tokyo, a clear challenge to rival Australia. “It’s the same race we’ve always had: USA vs. Australia,” King said, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). “I know they’re swimming really fast at their trials, but so are we.”    

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