Ready or not, the Summer Olympics in Tokyo are set to begin later this week. Already postponed a year by the pandemic, the IOC is determined to go through with the event this summer despite great variations in vaccination levels, vaccine capabilities, and precautionary measures from country to country. In short, you could not pick a more difficult time to be throwing a global event.
Meanwhile, the weeks leading up to the opening ceremonies have seen a series of unexpected developments, not least of which being the uproar over United States sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson being disqualified from running in the 100 meters after failing a drug test for marijuana. With Richardson poised to be one of the biggest storylines in Tokyo, especially for American audiences, suddenly an already fraught Games has an ever darker cloud hovering over it.
All that being said, it's still the Olympics. And if the last year and a half has taught us anything, it's that we will find a way to get invested in the things we love, if only as a manner of escape. So as we look ahead to Friday's opening ceremonies and beyond, here are the storylines most likely to capture our attention over the next two weeks:
We'll start with the bad news, as after a long time of hoping that the Tokyo games could go on with spectators in attendance, it was determined hat the safest course of action would be to ban fans from attending the games. Between Japan's low vaccination rates and the rise of the Delta variant, officials officially pulled the plug on fans earlier this month. American sports got by in 2020 with empty stadiums, and everything was fine (if not ideal), but with the Olympics being so much about the world community coming together, it's going to feel very different without a stadium full of spectators cheering on the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremonies. Not to mention losing out on all the gymnastics parents going nuts during their kids' routines.
Speaking of gymnastics, by far the most celebrated and spotlighted American athlete in Tokyo will be U.S. gymnast Simone Biles. Perhaps the greatest Olympic gymnast of all time, Biles is looking to defend her all-around gold medal from the 2016 Rio games, which would make her the first gymnast to go back-to-back in the all-round since 1968. She won three golds in Rio, and there's every indication she could win even more in Tokyo. Expect every single telecast during the gymnastics competition (and some before and after the gymnastics competition) to lead with Biles.
After Simone Biles, the most impressive and dominant U.S. athlete has to be Katie Ledecky, the swimmer who won four gold medals at the Rio games, in addition to the one gold she won in 2012 in London. Her dominance in the pool has been firmly established, and if she can pull down five golds in Tokyo, she'll set the record for career gold medals by a female Olympian. The swimming events are always the first to capture the spotlight at the Summer Olympics, so Ledecky could set a great tone for the event.
Meanwhile, among the men's swimmers, the mantle of "the next Michael Phelps" is probably too daunting to truly capture, but it'll be fun to watch Caleb Dressel try. Dressel won two golds in relay races in Rio, and he's dominated the last few World Championships. He holds the world record in the 100-meter butterfly, so that ought to be a good place for him to start.
The Tokyo Olympics will mark the debut of skateboarding as an Olympic event, with both men's and women's competitions in Street and Park styles. Much like when the Winter Olympics added snowboarding and half-pipe to their program, the Summer games are looking to goose their youth viewership by adding skateboarding and expanding their BMX events. The top American skateboarder is Nyjah Huston, whose 4.6 million followers on Instagram are probably looking pretty attractive to NBC. Huston's top competitor will be Japan's Yuto Horigome, looking to make a splash in front of his home country (although, as mentioned, not any in-person fans). In addition to the already established BMX event, Freestyle BMX will also be held in Tokyo, with the top attraction being 19-year-old American Hannah Roberts.
Tennis at the Tokyo Olympics is currently in a very precarious position, with many of the top players — including Serena Williams and, recently announced, Roger Federer — opting not to compete. There's a chance the #1 men's player in the world, Novak Djokovic, will opt out as well, which would be a shame as it would rob the games of one of its most compelling stories, that being Djokovic's quest for a "Golden Slam." Djokovic is currently three-fourths of the way towards the elusive Grand Slam, winning all four major championships in the same calendar year. He's triumphed at the Australian Open, the French Open, and just recently Wimbledon. If he takes the title this September at the U.S. Open, he'll become the first male to complete the Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969. What would turn that Grand Slam golden would be the addition of a Gold Medal at the Olympics, something only ever accomplished by Steffi Graf in her Grand Slam year of 1988. Djokovic is the overwhelming favorite to take gold in Tokyo if he competes, but much like seemingly everything at the delayed 2020 Olympics, everything is up in the air.
NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics kicks off this Friday with the opening ceremonies live from Tokyo at 6:55 AM ET/3:55 AM PT, followed by a primetime rebroadcast that night.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.