A few things to know about the upcoming Olympics

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It’s taken five years, a worldwide pandemic and countless trials and tribulations to get here, but this week, the Summer Games are officially back.

This is the season of staying up late to watch live broadcasts, re-runs and highlights of events you might not otherwise go out of your way to see. (My personal favorite is handball, the thrilling sport that resembles a drier version of water polo. And then there’s actual water polo, which is just as awesome — like handball, only wetter.)

Plus, it’s the only time in the United States when non-traditional sports (gymnastics, swimming, track & field) seem to garner more attention than traditional ones (basketball, soccer, now baseball). When you think about recent Olympic greats, your mind likely drifts to Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt or Katie Ledecky, not Kevin Durant or LeBron James, despite each of the latter two having won two gold medals for the U.S.

The world’s greatest international athletic spectacle is coming your way on Friday, July 23 — lasting until Aug. 8 — and as expected, Tokyo 2020 is going to be packed full of stars, storylines and controversies.

Here are some of the most important/intriguing storylines you should know before you sit down to watch the opening ceremony on Friday evening.

1. COVID-19 strikes again

Last year, the Tokyo Olympics were pushed back to 2021 after COVID-19 ravaged the globe and shut down international travel and sports of all kind in plenty of countries for most of 2020 (and part of 2021).

Now, as vaccination numbers rise across the world, COVID is still finding ways to sneak into even the most exclusive events.

So far, more than 70 people connected to the Games — a mix of event/team staffers, officials and athletes — have tested positive for the virus just days before the torch is set to be lit on Friday.

The list includes notable U.S. athletes like rising tennis star Coco Gauff, Washington Wizards’ guard Bradley Beal and the Seattle Storm forward Katie Lou Samuelson, who was scheduled to play in the inaugural women’s 3x3 basketball event in Tokyo.

On Tuesday, the chief of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, Toshiro Muto, did not rule out the idea of canceling the Games if COVID-19 cases continue to spike.

In recent weeks, protests have popped up in Tokyo calling for the government to cancel the Olympics primarily becaue of public health concerns. In a June poll taken by The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most notable newspapers, 62% of respondents were in favor of a cancellation.

All of this comes alongside the recent news that a state of emergency had been put into place for Tokyo until Aug. 22 due to a surge in positive coronavirus cases in the city. The IOC and Japanese government decided to ban all spectators from the Games following the announcement.

As of now, there has been no change to the Olympic schedule, but if COVID-19 cases continue to go up, the Games may actually be in jeopardy.

2. More sports keep coming

If you were getting tired of watching the same 28 Olympic sports each year, then you’re in luck.

In 2016, the IOC approved the addition of five sports to the Olympic roster for the 2020 Games, including baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing, adding an additional 18 events and 474 athletes to the slate.

Team USA has representatives in all five sports, including a makeshift baseball team full of former MLB stars and rising prospects that aim to make noise in the six-team field.

3. Where the U.S. could be a shoe-in for gold …

In terms of Olympic gold medals, there isn’t a country that holds a candle to Team USA.

Over the duration of the Games’ history, the U.S. has amassed 1,127 gold medals, a little over 400 more than Russia (726), the second-place nation, and nearly 550 more than Germany (578) in third place.

This year, the U.S. has plenty of opportunities to add to that total, starting with gymnast Simone Biles, who is arguably the gymnastics G.O.A.T. and already has two moves nicknamed “the Biles” because … well … she’s the only person who can do them.

There’s a shot that Biles, the defending all-around Olympic champion, could win as many as five golds in Tokyo, which would net her a tie with Soviet Larisa Latynina for the most Olympic gold medals by a female gymnast in history.

In addition to Biles, you can’t talk about international competition without mentioning the U.S. women’s soccer team, the reigning World Cup champion led by Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe. It’d be a shock if Team USA didn’t win the gold on the pitch.

And there are plenty more, such as track & field (including Noah Lyles, the reigning world champion in the men’s 200-meter dash and Dalilah Muhammad/Sydney McLaughlin, who each have a shot to win gold in the women’s 400-meter hurdles in an intense race, among others), swimming (Katie Ledecky has won five golds in the past and could possibly seek a three-peat in the women’s 800-meter freestyle, while Simone Manuel won a whopping four golds in the Rio 2016 Games), to name a few.

4. … and where it might not

OK, the jig is up.

This is just a place for me to write about how badly Team USA men’s basketball team has performed in its exhibition games up to this point.

The team, spearheaded by superstars Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum, looked less-than-stellar in its pre-Olympic competition, which included two uncharacteristic exhibition losses — one to Nigeria, 90-87, and another to Australia, 91-83 — and two wins against Argentina and Spain.

We’re used to seeing Team USA dominate its competition — like the 83-point, 156-73 win over Nigeria in the 2012 London Olympics — so anytime our stars falter, even by playing close games, it seems like the basketball world is crashing down.

In reality, things are a lot less dramatic.

Team USA is headed to Japan with a shorthanded roster, down a few players who are still competing in the NBA Finals (the Milwaukee Bucks’ Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, the Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker) and one player, the Chicago Bulls’ Zach LaVine, who is in health and safety protocols due to a likely COVID-19 exposure.

But once the full roster’s together, there’s a good chance Durant turns back into his role as one of the greatest scorers of all-time, Lillard begins playing like he has ice in his veins and the U.S. retains its basketball dominance.

They’re the favorites for a reason.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.


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