Tokyo Olympics preview: storylines, USA and South Florida athletes to watch, TV guide

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·11 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

For better or worse, after a yearlong delay and international hand wringing over the global pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday with a scaled back Opening Ceremony attended only by a limited number of athletes and 950 VIPs, government officials and foreign dignitaries.

Rising COVID-19 cases in Tokyo and a largely unvaccinated population opposed to these Games have cast a shadow over the entire event.

Competitions will be held in empty, ambiance-free venues. International spectators — including athletes’ families — were banned a few months ago, and last week Japan entered a state of emergency that prohibits local fans from enjoying the festivities.

Medal winners will not be running into the stands to hug their loved ones or grab their nation’s flag from fans for victory laps. There will be no roars from the crowd as U.S. gymnast Simone Biles defies gravity with her aerial tricks or swimmer Katie Ledecky reaches toward the wall in another world-record quest.

Giant plazas built with the intention of hosting throngs of international visitors will go unused. No pin trading at these Olympics. Athletes will put medals around their own necks to protect against spreading the virus. Even high-fives are banned in what figures to be the most cheerless Olympics in history.

The strict safety protocols, which include masks, frequent COVID testing, social distancing and tracking apps for visitors, have not been able to stop positive COVID-19 cases from surfacing in the Olympic village and within the Olympic family.

Some opinion polls in Japan, where only 20 percent of the population is vaccinated, are running as high as 80 percent against hosting the Olympics. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, an official Olympic sponsor, wrote an editorial in May calling for a cancellation.

But the Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee decided that despite the difficulties and risks, the five-ringed show will go on.

More than 15,000 athletes and tens of thousands of officials, VIPs and media members will make their way to Toyko over the next three weeks while the rest of the world watches the muted event on TV.

Though these pandemic Olympics will lack the joy and spirit of Games of the past, there will be story lines aplenty. With the retirements of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and American swimmer Michael Phelps, a crop of new stars — some already known, some unknown — will emerge.

SIMONE BILES GETS AN EMOJI

Biles is the overwhelming gold-medal favorite and could become the first woman to repeat as all-around Olympic champion since Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia did it in 1964 and 1968.

Biles, 24, is a five-time Olympic medalist and has won more gold medals at the world championships than any other gymnast. She has invented jaw-dropping moves no woman has done before, aerial twists one might see from a diver.

In May, she became the first woman to land a Yurchenko double pike vault during which she does a back handspring onto the vault, and then two backflips with her folded body in a pike position.

This week, she became the first Olympian with their own custom Twitter emoji. It is a gymnast goat with a medal around it to show that Biles is one of the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T.).

KATIE LEDECKY STILL FAVORITE

Ledecky made her first big splash as a 15-year-old at the London Olympics in 2012, when she unexpectedly won the gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle. She is now 24 and a five-time Olympic gold medalist who owns world records in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles. She has the 24 fastest swims of all time in the 800, the top 11 in the 1,500, and 12 of the top 14 in the 400.

She will be competing in up to six events and could lower her own records.

Other swimmers to watch include University of Florida alum Caeleb Dressel, aiming for his first individual Olympic gold. He is the world record holder in the 100-meter butterfly and is competing in three individual events and up to four relay events.

Also look for Simone Manuel, who five years ago made history as the first Black woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming at the Rio Games. She narrowly won the 50-meter freestyle event at the Olympic trials.

The youngest swimmer on Team USA is 15-year-old Katie Grimes, who will compete in the 800-meter freestyle event.

ALLYSON FELIX, NOAH LYLES LEAD USA TRACK TEAM

Allyson Felix, the best-known U.S. track and field athlete, qualified for her fifth Olympics and is among the favorites at 400 meters.

The 35-year-old is a six-time Olympic gold medalist and won three silvers in the 200 meters and 400 meters. She became a Mom in 2019 and is a strong supporter of athlete mothers.

Sydney McLaughlin is a medal favorite in the 400-meter hurdles. The fastest female U.S. sprinter won’t be in Tokyo. Sha’Carri Richardson, who won the 100-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Trials, was later disqualified after testing positive for the marijuana.

On the men’s side, don’t miss the 200 meters, where American favorite Noah Lyles and 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton of Tampa are expected to put on a brilliant battle. Brighton, who also runs the 100, is the youngest U.S. runner on an Olympic team since Jim Ryun in 1964. Another U.S. athlete poised for the medal podium is Grant Holloway (110-meter hurdles).

USA BASKETBALL TEAMS UNDER PRESSURE

The world took notice earlier in July when the men’s Team USA basketball team lost back-to-back Olympic warmup games to Nigeria and Australia. Although both opponents featured NBA players, Team USA was expected to win.

Despite the wakeup calls, Team USA, led by Kevin Durant, is the heavy favorite to win the gold medal. Other big names on the teams include Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Draymond Green, Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, and the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo.

The U.S. women’s basketball team has not lost an Olympic game since 1992, and chances are, that streak will continue. They have won gold in every Summer Olympics since 1996. Among the team leaders are veteran leaders Sue Bird, 40, and Diana Taurasi, 39, both playing in their fifth Olympics.

RIKAKO IKEE IS FEEL-GOOD STORY

All of Japan — and TV viewers around the world — will be grabbing for tissues during the women’s swimming relay races when they see Japanese leukemia survivor Rikako Ikee.

The Japanese swimmer finished sixth in the butterfly at the 2016 Olympics as a high school freshman. Two years later, she was named MVP of the Asian Games after winning six gold medals. She was expected to be a darling of the Tokyo Olympics. But in February 2019 she was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia and fighting for her life.

She underwent chemotherapy and because the Olympics were pushed back a year due to COVID-19, she still had hope. She got back in the pool in August 2020 and in April 2021 won four events at the Olympic trials (50m butterfly, 100m butterfly, 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle). None of her times were fast enough to qualify for the individual races, but her victory in the 100m free qualified her to compete in the 4x100m medley and 4x100m freestyle relays at the Olympics.

Other international athletes to watch include …

Jamaican sprinter Shelley-Ann Fraser Pryce, aiming to become the first woman to win 100-meter gold in three Olympics.

Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand, the first transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics. Hubbard, 43, competed in men’s weightlifting before transitioning in 2013. She is eligible to compete as a woman because the IOC guidelines allow any transgender athlete to compete as a woman provided their testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months before their first competition.

Sky Brown, a 13-year-old skateboarder from Great Britain, is the youngest British Summer Olympian in history. She was born in Japan. Her mother is Japanese and father is from Britain.

Hand Zaza is even younger than Brown. The Syrian table tennis player is 12 years old, the fifth-youngest Olympian ever.

SOUTH FLORIDA CONNECTIONS

South Florida will be well-represented with nearly 40 Olympians — some competing for Team USA, others for their native countries.

The Team USA flag bearer is Miami baseball player Eddy Alvarez, who also competed as a short track speedskater in the Winter Olympics. Alejandro Sancho of South Miami is a U.S. Army officer competing in Greco-Roman wrestling. Hialeah’s Ariel Torres is a karate Olympian. All three are Cuban-Americans.

Sylvia Fowles of Miami is a key player on the U.S. women’s basketball team and Ashleigh Johnson of Miami is a return Olympian for the U.S. women’s water polo team. Golfer Lexi Thompson is from Coral Springs. Shot putter Jessica Ramsey is from Boynton Beach. El Salvador flag bearer Celina Marquez attends Nova Southeastern University.

NEW SPORTS

Aiming to reach younger audiences, the Tokyo Olympic menu will include surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing. Karate will also make its debut.

Among the athletes to watch are American skateboarding icon Nyjah Huston, who has nearly 5 million Instagram followers, made a name in the X-Games and has won three of the past four world titles in the street division. The women’s surfing competition will feature Australian Stephanie Gilmore and American Carissa Moore.

HOW TO WATCH

Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of the Eastern Time zone, so if you want to watch live, you’ll have to wake up early. But there will be plenty of coverage in prime time and via streaming.

You can watch on NBC, or on any of NBC’s cable channels — NBC Sports, NBC Olympics Channel, Golf Channel, USA Network and CNBC.

You can also watch online at NBC.com or NBCOlympics.com or through the NBC Sports app on a mobile device or streaming device, such as Roku, Apple TV or Amazon Fire TV.

Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, has a free level, which will air highlights. More diehard Olympic fans can pay $5 per month for a version with ads, or $10 per month for a version with fewer ads.

Tokyo Olympics

When: July 23-Aug. 8

Nations: 206

Athletes expected: 11,091

New Sports: Karate, sport climbing, surfing, skateboarding. Baseball and softball return for first time since 2008.

T.V.: NBC, also streaming on NBCOlympics.com and Peacock

U.S. Athletes to Watch: Simone Biles (Gymnastics), Caeleb Dressel (Swimming), Trayvon Bromell (Track), Noah Lyles (Track) Katie Ledecky (Swimming), Sydney McLaughlin (Track), Heimana Reynolds (skateboarding), Nyjah Huston (skateboarding), Allyson Felix (Track), Noah Lyles (Track), Eddy Alvarez (Baseball, Marlins).

South Florida Connections:

Briseida Acosta, Mexico, Taekwondo (trains West Kendall)

Bam Adebayo, USA, Basketball (Miami Heat)

Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson, USA, Volleyball (Ft. Lauderdale, St. Thomas Aquinas)

Alejandro Alonso, Paraguay, Rowing (Barry University)

Eddy Alvarez, USA, Baseball (Miami Marlins, Columbus High, St. Thomas University)

Nicole Barnes, USA, Sailing (Miami)

Jennifer Brady, USA, Tennis (Boca Raton)

Triston Casas, USA, Baseball (Pembroke Pines, American Heritage High)

Aisha Chow, Trinidad and Tobago, Rowing (University of Miami alum)

Laura Dallman-Weiss, USA, Sailing (Miami)

Angelica Delgado, USA, Judo (Miami, Ferguson High, FIU)

Virginia Diaz Rivas, Spain, Rowing (Barry University)

Kent Farrington, USA, Equestrian (Wellington)

Sylvia Fowles, USA, Basketball (Miami, Miami Edison High, Gulliver Prep)

Emma Gullstrand, Sweden, Diving (University of Miami)

Dave Hughes, USA, Sailing (Miami)

Ashleigh Johnson, USA, Water Polo (Miami , Ransom Everglades High)

Mulern “Meme” Jean, Haiti, Track and Field – hurdles (TruFit Athletics, Tropical Park)

Fred Kerley, USA, Track and Field – sprinter (TruFit Athletics, Tropical Park)

Laura Kraut, USA, Equestrian (Wellington)

Grace Lau, Hong Kong, Karate (trained in West Kendall)

Adrienne Lyle, USA, Equestrian (Wellington)

Nick Martinez, USA, Baseball (Miami, Belen Jesuit)

Paige McPherson, USA, Taekwondo (Miami)

Nick Lucena, USA, Beach Volleyball (Cooper City, Western High)

Celina Marquez, El Salvador, Swimming (Nova Southeastern University)

Ebony Morrison, Liberia, Track and Field – hurdles (Miami, Robert Morgan High, Killian High, UM alum)

Alysha Newman, Canada, Track and Gield – pole vault (University of Miami alum)

Pedro Pascual, USA, Sailing (Miami, FAU)

Jessica Ramsey, USA, Track and Field – shot put (Boynton Beach)

Alejandro “Alex” Sancho, USA, Greco-Roman Wrestling (Miami, South Miami High)

Lexi Thompson, USA, Golf (Coral Springs)

Ariel Torres, USA, Karate (Hialeah, Westland Hialeah High)

Danny Valencia, Israel, Baseball (University of Miami alum)

Ben Wanger, Israel, Baseball (University of Miami)

Jordan Windle, USA, Diving (Fort Lauderdale)

Anna Weis, USA, Sailing (Ft. Lauderdale)

Zion Wright, USA, Skateboarding (Jupiter native)

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting