Tokyo Olympics: Brief guide to every sport in the Summer Games
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Here’s a little something to get you ready for the Olympics as they fully begin: I previewed every sport. That’s as much of an intro as I can give, as there are already enough words below. I couldn’t go into too much detail on all of them, but I tried to give you an explanation of what’s going on, what’s new this year, a favorite to watch out for and/or something I just enjoy about watching the sport.
Archery is one of those sports that I usually think I won’t be that into, but find myself rediscovering that it makes good TV (or streaming; whenever I reference TV, assume I mean either TV or streaming). The top competitors are accurate enough from 70 meters (76.5 yards) that there’s pressure on every shot. It’s a satisfying watch because they can show you the archers and then quickly cut to a zoom-in on the targets before the arrows arrive. There is just a tiny sliver of time before the arrow arrives when the anticipation is intense. They compete head-to-head in five-set matches, which also allows the drama to build. They’ll have men’s and women’s individual and team, and mixed team is new in the Olympics this year. American Brady Ellison has three Olympic medals (two team, one individual) but is still seeking his first gold. His world title in 2019 was the first for a U.S. man since 1985.
Artistic gymnastics is the one you’re thinking of—beam, floor, uneven bars and vault for the women; floor, horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, rings and vault for the men. Simone Biles will not wear her rhinestone goat–adorned leotard in Tokyo, but with another performance like she had in Rio, she can wear it wherever she wants forever. After winning four golds and a bronze in 2016, she now seeks to become the first gymnast to repeat as all-around champion since Věra Čáslavská in 1968. Expect her medals, records and accolades to pile up. She will do moves that have never been done before and moves that are named after her. She will get as much media attention as any athlete in Tokyo, and if you only watch one athlete these next 16 days, you should probably pick her. Of course, she is not there by herself. Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum will also compete in the team event, as will Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner in individual events.
The men are led by Sam Mikulak, now in his third Olympics, and Brody Malone, who won back-to-back NCAA all-around titles at Stanford but is short on international experience. No U.S. man has won Olympic gold in any event since Paul Hamm won the all-around in 2004.
Perhaps you are more familiar with the term synchronized swimming, but internationally, it’s typically known as artistic. This is a women’s-only event, in duet and teams, but the U.S. only qualified in duet. Russia wins every year, but the U.S. took a bronze in 2004. It doesn’t start until Day 10, so this sport can offer you a little pick-me-up if you’re going through swimming withdrawal.
You probably didn’t hear as much about badminton in 2016 as you did in ’12, which, for the Badminton World Federation, was a very good thing. Remember that the badminton action in London was marred by a match-throwing controversy where teams were intentionally losing games, in hilarious fashion, to avoid certain opponents in the bracketed rounds. Some rule tweaks have made badminton better, though, I suppose that depends on your definition of what makes good TV. This is an underrated sport to watch, even when everyone is trying. They’ll play singles, doubles and mixed doubles. It is fast-paced and they hit the shuttlecocks very hard.
These sports have been absent from the Olympics since 2008, but were combined into one joint bid and chosen for the Olympics by Japan. The host country will have great teams in both sports.
Baseball fans who enjoy the modern online tradition of “remembering some guys” will have a chance to do just that. Current MLB players won’t be in Tokyo, but Team USA’s roster includes familiar names like Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir and Todd Frazier. And former Yankee Masahiro Tanaka will pitch for Japan.
The U.S. softball team won three golds in 1996, 2000 and ’04, before losing the gold medal game to Japan in ’08. A rematch is expected. The U.S. is led by Cat Osterman, who was on the medal-winning teams in Athens and Beijing, and remains unhittable at age 38. The softball is being played on modified baseball fields, as you may have seen in the early opening games.
Basketball is probably more interesting now than it was a few months ago. Team USA’s men lost back-to-back exhibition games to Nigeria and Australia, then lost several players from the roster shortly before flying to Tokyo. Three others played in the NBA Finals, which delayed their chance to join the team. The U.S. still goes in as the favorite (it still has Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, et al.), but it would not be shocking to see them lose.
The women are loaded up with legendary talent. They have won six straight gold medals, and have not lost an Olympic game since 1992. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi return for their fifth Olympics, plus the squad has younger stars like Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson. Plus more big names after that. They surprisingly lost an exhibition game to Australia like the men did, but still remain the favorite.
I had predicted, when three-on-three was voted into the Olympic program back in 2017, that it would be the breakout star of the ’20 Games. I think people are going to love watching it—even if it takes a little while for it to feel like an Olympic sport—because people love watching the Olympics and love watching basketball. These games are half court, played by one- and two-pointers, and either 10 minutes or up to 21 points. And be aware: The powers that be have decided it should be pronounced three-ex-three.
My prediction took a big hit when the U.S. men failed to qualify. It feels like it’s inevitable (especially if the five-on-five guys lose and it starts a discussion about the rest of the world surpassing the Americans) that USA Basketball will eventually stock this team with players from the league—much like the women’s side has done. The U.S. women’s team took a hit with Katie Lou Samuelson’s COVID-19 diagnosis shortly before the Games, but will still have WNBA players Kelsey Plum, Stefanie Dolson, Allisha Gray and Jackie Young.
A signature event of the Rio Olympics, given the popularity of the sport in our last host country, beach volleyball will still get its usual dose of attention. April Ross returns to the Olympics for Team USA at age 39. After winning silver with Jennifer Kessy in 2012 and bronze with Kerri Walsh Jennings in ’16, she’ll now pair with Alix Klineman for her third Olympics. The duo won silver at the ’19 world championships. In Rio, beach volleyball was on super late at night in front of raucous crowds, often as the last event of the day. The schedule this time around has many matches in the morning in Tokyo, keeping them in the evening in the U.S.
One major concern is the heat in Japan right now. One of the few relatable experiences most of us share with Olympians is when the sand is too hot at the beach. Competitors have complained about how hot the sand is at the practice courts and they have been spraying it down between Games. This is one of several sports that can be significantly affected by the extreme heat currently in Japan.
Olympic boxing is often an adventure. Few Olympic sports dole out the controversy as consistently. In 2019 the Aiba (International Boxing Association) was stripped of its right to oversee boxing at the Olympics, which is instead under the supervision of a task force headed by International Gymnastics Federation president Morinari Watanabe. Just totally normal stuff going on here. Per The Guardian, the IOC report also flagged up “ongoing legal, reputational and financial risks” due to Aiba’s president, Gafur Rakhimov, being identified as “a key member of the Brothers’ Circle, a ‘criminal group composed of leaders and senior members of several Eurasian criminal groups’ ” by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which also said he was “one of the leaders of Uzbek organised crime.” Rakhimov denies any wrongdoing.
The sport has evened up a bit from 10 men’s and three women’s weight classes in 2016 to eight men’s and five women’s this time. Unlike some of the other combat sports that compete entire weight classes in a single day, boxers’ matches are spaced out (which makes sense, as they are getting punched in the face!) so you will have advance notice if the U.S. is progressing through the bracket.
Canoe/kayak is an event made up of both canoeing and kayaking. (Go figure.) In the kayaks, they are seated with double-sided paddles; in the canoes, they are kneeling with one-sided paddles. Much of the paddling will take place on flat water (singles, doubles and four-person kayaks), but a personal favorite event of mine is the slalom. Athletes will paddle through man-made rapids, going with and against the current to maneuver through gates. I have previously compared this event to the American Ninja Warrior of the Summer Olympics, in that it’s the same course and you just watch competitors take two-minute turns going through it until an entire half hour of your life has evaporated, much like when I turn on an episode of Ninja Warrior. It’s great. All slaloming in 2020 will be singles. The men’s canoe doubles (C2) was replaced with a women’s C1 (joining women’s K1). You can still watch the men’s C2 slalom on YouTube, though.
Cycling is one of those umbrella terms that includes an eclectic mix of events that are all very different, even though each involves, you know, riding a bike. There is the classic road race, plus the hillier mountain bike. BMX has been an event since 2008—that’s the one that looks like an X Games event, where riders are released at the top of a manmade ramp and ride down a course with more ramps, jumps and curves. This is wildly entertaining to watch, as they start in a tight pack and race to the finish line. New this year is BMX freestyle, in which riders will perform tricks like you’d see from snowboarders at the Winter Games. 19-year-old American Hannah Roberts is already a two-time world champ.
The rest of the cycling takes place on the velodrome, an indoor oval track with steep embankments along the curves. On the track, you’ll see some interesting races—sometimes working in teams, sometimes following a pacer bike—with what feel like quirky strategies. The two-person keirin heats are the ones where riders start the race by trying to go slowly so as not to be in front of their opponent, but then go all out in a frantic finish. It is fascinating, largely because it seems counterintuitive.
There are eight diving events: men’s and women’s, singles and synchronized doubles, 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform. On Wednesday I asked SI’s staff on the ground in Tokyo what Olympic event they’d be worst in. Stephanie Apstein said diving, and I think I’d say the same! Ten meters might not sound like a lot, but that’s 32 feet. You jump off a three-story building backward and do flips and twists in the air. No thanks. Diving is more regimented than you might realize. Each diver must do one dive from a group of six categories—forward, back, reverse, inward, twisting and armstand (platform only).
Michael Hixon won silver in synchronized springboard in 2016, but now has a new partner. Delaney Schnell won bronze in the platform at the ’19 world championships.
Equestrian got more attention in 2016 than I can ever remember thanks to Smooth Horse, the viral sensation of the Olympic Games. You remember Spanish dressage rider Severo Jurado and his horse dancing to “Smooth” by Santana featuring Rob Thomas, don’t you? I’ll never forget it. How can we top that rock-and-roll performance this time? How about Jessica Springsteen? Does that last name ring a bell? Yes, it’s Bruce’s daughter, who qualified on Team USA’s jumping team. She deserves to be judged on her own accomplishments, but of course, that last name comes with some added attention.
There is a full slate of fencing, with both team and individual, men’s and women’s for épée, foil and sabre. There are distinctions not just in the weapons themselves, but in where and how you can hit opponents. You never know what you’re going to see in a fencing match. In Rio, France’s Enzo Lefort’s phone fell out of his pocket in the middle of a bout. The crowd then booed him as he picked it up and handed it to someone. All videos of the incident appear to be scrubbed from the internet, but please believe me.
Mariel Zagunis, the most decorated fencer in Team USA history, is back for her fifth Olympics. She won individual sabre gold in 2004 and ’08, and team bronze in ’08 and ’16. Eli Dershwitz was just 19 when he competed in Rio. He won individual silver in sabre at the ’18 world championships.
Now here’s an underrated sport to watch. It’s 11-on-11, and subs are live like ice hockey line changes. Shots must come from in close, so there’s plenty of action in front of the goal. There are penalty corners, in which several defenders begin the play crammed into the goal with the goalie and then run out to attack the shooters. Penalty shootouts are great, because shooters can keep chasing their own rebounds (but those don’t start until the knockout stage).
Neither U.S. team qualified, which is why I’ve adopted teams in the Quadrathlon. Usually a huge contingent of the women’s team comes from Pennsylvania, so this was a bummer for me personally.
Golf returned to the Olympics in 2016 after a 112-year break. It will look a lot like a normal golf tournament. First, 60 men will compete in a four-day stroke-play event. Then, 60 women will do the same. There is a limit of four golfers per country in each event, with qualifying based on world rankings.
The headlines in Rio focused on who wasn’t there—notably the top four men’s players in the world at the time (Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson). Soon after Justin Rose won gold in what appeared to be a fun atmosphere, multiple top players expressed regret over not going. That, along with changes to the calendar like moving the PGA Championship to May and shortening the FedEx Cup Playoffs by a week, were designed to make Tokyo more enticing to the names we’re accustomed to seeing in the hunt on Sundays. It seems to have mostly worked. Johnson is again out, but the top four remaining U.S. men (British Open champ Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele and Bryson DeChambeau) are in. So is Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, representing the host country.
The top women mostly did show up in Rio, and will again in Tokyo. Nelly Korda (No. 1) and Danielle Kang (No. 6) are the top-ranked Americans.
Handball is a crowd-pleaser that has benefited greatly from the era of expanded TV coverage and livestreaming. Seemingly everyone loves it—and for good reason. It is fast, it is fun, it has a general concept that is easy to pick up and it shows off the athleticism of its players without making it seem like something you couldn’t do yourself in a rec league. It will once again be played without Team USA, setting off yet another debate about what things would look like in a hypothetical world where the top U.S. athletes were recruited to compete against the best teams from Europe.
Judo is one of several combat sports that has weight classes run through their entire tournament in one day. There is no judo chopping (Austin Powers was wrong). Judokas instead try to throw each other onto and over their backs. One fun thing about judo is that a match can end very suddenly. One great throw can result in an ippon, which ends the match immediately. Your entire Olympics can end in five seconds if you aren’t careful. Team USA has four competitors, but I’m most excited to watch French heavyweight Teddy Riner, who already has two Olympic gold medals (and a bronze) and a record 10 world championships.
Karate is new to the Olympics this year, and we already know it won’t be back in ’24. Men and women will compete in four events each. There are three weight classes in kumite (sparring against an opponent) and one competition in kata (an individually judged performance). Japan does very well in the world championships, so it’s no surprise the host nation has chosen to add an event that will help pad its own medal count. I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually watched competitive karate, so I will be learning more along with you. (And some of you clearly already know more than me.) If you have international karate experience, I would love to hear from you.
You should definitely commit the five events of the modern pentathlon to memory, because this is a bar trivia final question waiting to happen for the rest of your life. Don’t come crawling back to me if you forget it’s fencing (épée), freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, pistol shooting and cross-country running. The sport is not modern, by the way; it’s been in the Olympics since 1912. By far the best detail, to me, is that they have to ride an unfamiliar horse. You don’t get to train your own horse. You show up for the biggest event of your life and hop on whatever horse they give you. Go get ’em.
This is the women’s-only event that involves continuous movement of a piece of equipment—this year it’s hoops, balls, clubs and ribbons. (No rope this time!) The gymnasts do jump, and show off their balance and flexibility, but there are fewer acrobatics than you’ll see in artistic gymnastics. It takes place on the final three days of the Olympics.
There are 14 rowing events, with different numbers of rowers in the boats, but all of them compete on a 2000-meter course. The U.S. does very well here, most famously in the women’s eight. You may remember at the 2016 Olympics they continued a historic streak that had seen them win every Olympics and world championship since ’06. That streak has since been snapped, with an ’18 world championship sandwiched by a fourth-place finish in ’17 and a bronze in ’19. The races are exciting, especially given the typically narrow margins between winning times. And one delightful little charm is seeing all the teams with their nations’ flags on the faces of their oars going in and out of the water.
Rugby made its return to the Olympics in Rio after a 92-year break, and I loved every minute of it. Which is easy to say because the games are short: Just two seven-minute halves with a quick halftime. Unlike in the 1924 Olympics, the new version is rugby sevens (meaning seven players per team), which means a lot of wide-open space and long runs with the ball. You can’t throw the ball forward, so stretches of the game look like when football kickoffs take place on the last play of the game and there are laterals and frequent attempts to reverse the field. There are scrums, fights for the ball and lineouts, in which players hoist teammates into the air. It’s easy to get hooked.
The U.S. women lost in the quarterfinals last time around, and the men didn’t make it out of group play. Both are medal contenders in Tokyo.
Of the sports I attempt to talk about, sailing may be the one in which I am most over my head. What I think you need to know: Men and women will compete in 10 total divisions named after different types of boats. This includes sailboards, one- and two-person dinghies, skiffs and a multihull catamaran (though the specific names are more technical-sounding, like 49erFX and Nacra 17). The action is on mostly at 11 p.m. ET, so you can tune in at a relatively reasonable hour if you want to learn more than I can give you here. The U.S. has the most medals ever (though Great Britain has more golds), and you can expect Team USA to again be in the mix.
There are three variations of Olympic shooting: rifle, pistol and shotgun. Unlike archery, rifle and pistol shooters will compete at multiple distances. Those events will be held indoors, with shooters aiming at bull’s-eyes on targets. The shotgun competition will be held outdoors, with shooters aiming at clay pigeons. Vincent Hancock is competing in his fourth Olympics for Team USA, having already won golds in shotgun skeet shooting in Beijing and London, plus world championships in 2018 and ’19.
Here’s another new sport for 2020, but this one has been provisionally approved for ’24. Men and women will both compete in street and park. Both will have judges giving scores for competitors running through a series of tricks. In the street competition, there will be stairs, railings, benches and other objects for the skaters to use for maneuvers. The park event will feature a large concrete bowl that skaters will ride, with the goal of achieving maximum height. The Games will be a new platform for some X Games champions. And the name I have heard most in the run-up to these Games is Brighton Zeuner, a 16-year-old American. She will compete against Great Britain’s Sky Brown, who will be 13 years and 11 days old when the Olympics begin. In case you didn’t feel old enough already.
It’s soccer! You know soccer. The key thing to remember is that the women’s tournament is a much bigger deal. The countries actually field all their best players, so the USWNT features many of the big-name players you’ve come to know from their recent run of success (Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Julie Ertz, Alex Morgan, Rose Lavelle and others.) The U.S. seeks to be the first team to win the World Cup and then win Olympic gold, though the delayed Olympics means a longer turnaround time. And then the team started in a hole by dropping the first game 3–0 to Sweden. The U.S. and Japan met in the finals of the 2011 World Cup, ’12 Olympics and ’15 World Cup.
The men’s teams, on the other hand, are made up mostly of players 23 and younger, with three age exceptions per country. The USMNT once again failed to qualify.
This is another new sport in 2020. There will be three different types of climbing, with placement in each combined into an ultimate score. Borrowing from my colleague Ben Pickman’s story about the new sports to explain the three disciplines, we’ll see:
Speed climbing, in which competitors race one another to scale a 15-meter wall at a 95-degree angle; bouldering, in which they solve “boulder problems,” featuring unknown sequences, on shorter walls without ropes; and lead climbing, in which they wear harnesses attached to a climbing rope and have six minutes to reach the top of a wall 15 meters high, through a route they can examine only a few minutes before the start.
Bring on the boulder problems!
Your first question and mine: How big will the waves be? The early answer, as far as I can tell, is that they will be “unspectacular.” But some of the biggest names in surfing will compete in the sport’s Olympic debut, even if the waves are relatively tame. It’ll take place in a seaside town about 60 miles east of Tokyo and feature several reps for Team USA. There will be timed heats, judged on degree of difficulty, commitment, innovation, speed, maneuvers and more. Surfing is the most weather-dependent sport at the Games, so they have built extra days into the calendar in case scheduled competition days aren’t suitable.
Olympic swimming is always exciting and dramatic. There’s a very good reason it’ll dominate the prime-time TV coverage the first week of the Games. Michael Phelps will not be in the pool, though you’ll see him on NBC, leaving Katie Ledecky as the top star in the water. She’ll swim the freestyle in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter and 1500-meter distances, plus relays. The women’s 1500 meter is new this year, though men have competed in that distance at the Olympics since 1908. Unfortunately for her, it will be on the same day as the 200 meter, setting up a grueling double. Australia’s Ariarne Titmus recently broke Ledecky’s world record in the 400-meter free, setting up an exciting showdown. Simone Manuel missed qualifying in the 100-meter free, but made it in the 50 meter.
Meanwhile, Caeleb Dressel is The Machine. He won two golds in Rio as a 19-year-old. Then he won eight medals, and six golds, at the 2019 world championships. He will be a force in Tokyo. And keep an eye on backstroker Ryan Murphy.
Table tennis added a mixed-doubles event this year, joining men’s and women’s singles and team. There hasn’t been much drama of late, with every single medal at Beijing, London and Rio going to China. In fact, China has won 28 out of 32 golds since it became an Olympic sport in 1988. Olympic table tennis is a totally different game than the one you played in your friend’s basement growing up. It is impressive to see how far away they stand from the table and how hard they hit the ball. It’s amusing how little of the TV screen is taken up by the actual playing surface so we can follow all the action.
Taekwondo is an ancient sport that joined the Olympics in 2000, but one of the story lines for those who have followed throughout the years is the way it has embraced technology. The action in Rio included competitors’ wearing electronic sensors on both headgear and vests to measure the impact of punches and kicks. According to WorldTaekwondo.org, “At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, viewers around the world will see the sport’s biggest transformation yet. One of the key changes is the adoption of a 4D camera rig that can provide 360-degree ‘Matrix-style’ scans of the athletes’ moves for video replays.” O.K., then. The U.S. has won nine medals, including at least one every year. Paige McPherson won bronze in London in 2012, and silver at the 2017 world championships.
All eyes will be on Naomi Osaka, a star at the top of her sport with a chance to win gold for the host country. This would have been true a year ago, and she’s only garnered more attention since—for first opting out of press conferences at the French Open, then the tournament altogether, then skipping Wimbledon; plus a Netflix documentary, an SI Swimsuit cover and more. She enters play ranked No. 2 in the world behind Australia’s Ash Barty.
On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic has a chance to add to what’s already a historic year. He has won the first three Grand Slam events of 2021, so a win at the U.S. Open would give him the first calendar-year Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969. Adding an Olympic gold would mean matching Steffi Graf in ’88 as the second tennis player ever with the so-called Golden Slam. Djokovic won bronze way back in ’08, but hasn’t medaled since. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will not be in Tokyo. Andy Murray won the last two singles golds, but he is now outside the top 100 in the world.
Track and Field
It is just about impossible to summarize all of track and field in a three-paragraph blurb. The biggest story coming out of the U.S. Trials was Sha’Carri Richardson, who won the women’s 100 meter and then was suspended after testing positive for marijuana. She has become even more of a star since then, but was left off the Olympic team. She was still eligible to compete in the 4×100 relay later in the Olympics, after her one-month suspension, but USA Track & Field left her off the team.
There will be other stars, as there always are. Someone has to take over the men’s 100-meter crown from Usain Bolt. The U.S.’s Noah Lyles is the reigning men’s 200-meter world champion. Sydney McLaughlin broke the women’s world record in the 400-meter hurdles at the U.S. Trials. Allyson Felix returns for her fifth Olympics, with nine medals already in tow.
My colleague Chris Chavez, who covers track closer than anyone, tells me that one of the story lines he’s interested in is how shoe technology will help threaten world records, especially in the distance events. The indomitable human spirit!
Trampoline is a short event. They’ll do the women’s qualifying and medals in one day, and the men’s the next. It takes place at midnight ET on the middle weekend, so maybe set yourself a calendar reminder. It’s gymnastics on a trampoline! They get a ton of air (it’s Olympic trampoline, after all) with trampolinists (real word!) first bouncing straight up and down to get their initial elevation and then doing 10 straight tricks before dismounting.
The Olympics have featured men’s and women’s triathlon since 2000 and this year added a mixed relay. It’s another no-frills event that doesn’t have any heats or qualification, just the race. The Olympic individual distance is a 1.5 km (0.93 mile) swim, 40 km (24.855 mi) bike and 10 km (6.2 mi) run—in that order. The fastest times will be just under two hours, and the races will take place early in the morning in Tokyo, giving it a plum spot in the U.S. prime-time lineup. There is already swimming, running and biking elsewhere in the Olympics, but it’s fun to follow this race and learn about the strategies as you see the same competitors do all three.
The new team relay will feature two men and two women covering much shorter distances. The U.S. won a silver in the 2020 mixed relay world championships, and Team USA’s Katie Zaferes won the 2019 World Triathlon Series.
Volleyball is similar to beach volleyball, except totally different. They play indoors, with six on each side, and have a slightly bigger playing surface, different strategies and different scoring rules. They play best-of-five matches, with sets up to 25. But the fifth set, if necessary, goes up to only 15. They play rally scoring, which means there’s a score on each rally, regardless of which team served. There is a lot of jumping, with plenty of points where multiple teammates jump at once and they all try to recover, and it’s always exciting to watch multiple defenders go up together to try to block a ball at the net. The U.S. men’s and women’s teams both won bronze in Rio.
Water polo is another personal favorite of mine. It takes the features we love about soccer and basketball and drops them in a pool, where there is legitimate violence taking place under the water. It takes a lot out of the athletes to stay afloat, battle opponents for position and throw the ball where they want it to go. You can see standout individual performances and great team ball movement.
The U.S. women have won two straight gold medals, and captain Maggie Steffens is nine goals shy of Tania Di Mario’s career Olympic scoring record. Steffens scored 21 times in London and 17 in Rio. (Di Mario got her 47 goals in four Olympic appearances.) Though Steffens told me she is focused more on winning than the record, it’s another thing to watch for. The U.S. men have not medaled since taking silver in 2008, and are coming off a ninth-place finish at the ’19 world championships.
A very simple concept to understand: see weight, lift weight. Competition is broken into two events—the snatch, and the clean and jerk. The snatch is one continuous motion, lifting the barbell from the ground up over your head. In the clean and jerk, lifters will first clean (lifting the bar off the ground), then jerk (a second motion over their heads). Few sports offer the viewer a chance to truly feel the struggle of the athletes in live time, watching them grimace and shake as they hoist the bar over their heads like a conquered beast.
This sport also has wonderful introductions, as the lifters come out one at a time to walk toward their bars. All that’s missing is letting them choose their own music like MLB closers, in my opinion.
Last but not least. Wrestling was unexpectedly dropped from the list of core Olympic sports back in 2013, losing its guaranteed place in the 2020 Olympics, but was reinstated after the governing body made some changes to modernize the ancient sport. Those changes included narrowing the gap between the number of men’s and women’s weight classes, as we’ve seen in other sports (though Greco-Roman, which bars holds below the waist, remains men’s only), and tweaking the scoring rules. Scoring is now cumulative for the whole match, rather than reset each period, which helps promote more action and results in less passivity.
In 2016, Helen Maroulis became the first U.S. woman ever to win gold in wrestling. She had a difficult road back from multiple concussions and a PTSD diagnosis, and a very emotional win at the U.S. Trials against Jenny Burkert, whose mom had died the week before. Maroulis is moving up a weight class and has another former Olympic champ in her bracket. Adeline Gray also returns for Team USA. She is a five-time world champ, but she fell short of the podium in Rio.
On the men’s side: 2016 gold medalist Kyle Snyder looks to defend his crown, and two-time world champ Kyle Dake will compete in his first Olympics after beating ’12 gold medalist Jordan Burroughs in the U.S. Trials.
• Get to know some of the athletes representing the U.S. in Tokyo with SI’s Meet Team USA.
• Ben Pickman went into a little more depth on all the new sports.
• Michael Rosenberg wrote about what the COVID-19 protocols are really like on the ground in Tokyo.
• Molly Geary wrote about the USWNT soccer loss and what it means moving forward.
• My newsletter from Tuesday on grappling with covering the pandemic Olympics, for those who hadn’t subscribed yet.
As a reminder, this newsletter is free if you sign up to receive it in your inbox. You can also subscribe to SI.com for unlimited access to all the other great stories on our site.
What to Watch
Archery, equestrian, rowing and shooting all begin Thursday night in the U.S.
Then it’s the Opening Ceremony on Friday morning (reairing at night) followed by a whole lot of sports.
We’ll cover it all here. Thanks for reading.