Summer Olympics 2016: 10 Early Storylines to Watch

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistMay 19, 2016

Summer Olympics 2016: 10 Early Storylines to Watch

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    Gymnast Simone Biles is among the American athletes headlining the Rio Olympics.
    Gymnast Simone Biles is among the American athletes headlining the Rio Olympics.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The Olympics, like a good movie, have a set of plot lines that surprise the viewer. They can’t be anticipated before we watch. That's what provides the excitement.

    We get to see no-name athletes burst into stardom. After all, Michael Phelps was once just another swimmer. Then he became a household name.

    Every movie also has a trailer to go along with it, a preview to try to entice the viewer to watch. It gives us a general guideline of what we will see without spoiling the excitement.

    Consider these 10 storylines your Olympics trailer. It’s a set of talking points sure to be highlighted throughout this summer’s Olympic coverage, each of which can add to the excitement and intrigue of the upcoming Games.

    You’ll hear about the debuts of the South Sudan and refugee delegations quite a bit. But we’ll still be left wondering whether any of those underdog athletes can medal in their events. As in any Olympics, there will be athletes chasing records in the pool, on the field or track and in the gym. We know that history will be made. We just don't know how.

    This preview is an attempt to give you a better shot at catching that history in the making. 

South Sudan and Refugee Team Both Debut

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    Swimmer Yusra Mardini is vying for a spot on the refugee team, which will debut in Rio.
    Swimmer Yusra Mardini is vying for a spot on the refugee team, which will debut in Rio.Associated Press

    When the Olympics conclude this summer, there will be a small set of athletes with no country to call home. The IOC decided it wouldn’t allow that to prevent these athletes from competing on the world’s stage.

    This summer, the IOC will debut a team under the name: Team Refugee Olympic Athletes.

    According to the Olympics' official website, the team will march at the opening ceremony carrying the Olympic flag right before Brazil.

    Olympic Solidarity, an organization that gives delegations need-based financial assistance, will cover all associated expenses for these athletes and continue to support them after the Games conclude. According to the BBC43 potential athletes have been identified for the delegation, but the number could be reduced to between five and 10. Swimmer Yusra Mardini, formerly of Syria, is among those targeting a spot on the team, according to Philip Oltermann and Esther Addley for the Guardian.

    Mardini has a unique story in which her athletic skill helped her flee Syria. She and her sister were traveling on a boat of about 20 refugees when the motor stopped working. She was one of three swimmers who jumped into the Aegean Sea and helped push the boat to land, according to Kimberly Yam of Huffington Post.

    Another new team will be the delegation from South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in July 2011. The country couldn’t compete in the 2012 Olympics because of an Olympic policy that deemed it needed five world sport federations to recognize the country, according to the Agence France-Presse (via the Guardian).

    The article also details that Sudan was instrumental in helping South Sudan gain recognition from the five sports federations.

    Men’s marathoner Guor Mading Maker is among the headliners for the South Sudanese delegation. Maker competed in high school track in the United States and at Iowa State.

Michael Phelps Eyes 20th Gold Medal

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    American swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history.
    American swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Michael Phelps' name is written in the Olympic history books with permanent marker. 

    The swimming sensation is the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a record 22 medals in three Olympics. His 18 gold medals are also a record.

    In his fourth and, he says, final Olympics in Rio, Phelps will look to add to his record-breaking career, though it hasn't yet been determined which events he'll compete in, according to Karen Rosen of Team USA’s official website.

    After returning from a DUI and subsequent suspension, according to the site, Phelps says he is as motivated for Rio as he has been for any Olympics. Beth Harris of the Associated Press (via WPXI.com) reports that Phelps has been training at high altitude at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

    He recently left the facility to be with his fiancee, Nicole Johnson, who gave birth to their first child, Boomer Robert Phelps. He is named after Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, according to Harris.

    Phelps will be 31 at the time of the Rio Games. In an interview with Matt Lauer for NBC News, Phelps detailed the profound effect rehab had on refocusing his training for Rio.

    "I want to be here," Phelps told Lauer. "That's the difference. I had no desire to go to workout before. I want to retire how I want to retire. With where I am in training now, holy crap, I haven't trained like this in a decade."

Jamaicans Run Toward History

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    Jamaican sprinters Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce are both reigning two-time Olympic champions in the 100-meter dash.
    Jamaican sprinters Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce are both reigning two-time Olympic champions in the 100-meter dash.Associated Press

    For nearly a decade, Jamaica has been synonymous with one of the Olympics’ glamour events.

    Jamaican sprinters Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce have dominated the Olympic field in the 100-meter dash. Fraser-Pryce is the reigning two-time Olympic champion on the women’s side.

    No female track athlete has won the same individual track event three straight times, according to Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports. At the London Games, Fraser-Pryce also took silver in the 200 meters.

    According to biography.com, Fraser-Pryce was the first Jamaican woman to win Olympic gold in the 100 meters.

    By winning gold in the 100 and 200 meters and the 4x100-meter relay, Bolt became the first athlete to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in all three events. Should he win gold in the 100 and 200 in Rio, he will become the first male athlete to win three straight golds in an individual Olympic track event.

    At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Bolt won the 100 and 200 meters in record time—becoming the first athlete to do so, according to his personal website.

    The women’s 100-meter final will take place on Aug. 13 and the men’s final in the event the day after.

Can the U.S. Men's Volleyball Team Upset Brazil?

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    American outside hitter Taylor Sander is among the most talented indoor volleyball players in the world.
    American outside hitter Taylor Sander is among the most talented indoor volleyball players in the world.Leo Correa/Associated Press

    Over the course of the year, there are frequent reminders that Brazil is among the world’s best in soccer, and the fight fans among us understand the country’s love for mixed martial arts.

    But only at the Olympics are we reminded that the Brazilians aren’t nearly as dominant in those two sports as they are in volleyball.

    In indoor volleyball, the Brazilian men are ranked No. 1 in the world, according to SI.com.

    The United States, though, has flashed the ability to beat Brazil. The Americans won gold at the 2008 Olympics and upset the Brazilians at the 2014 FIVB World League for gold. However, the American men failed to medal at the London Games.

    Should the two countries meet in the final, the match will feature a pair of 24-year-old stars in the sport.

    Outsider hitter Taylor Sander was the MVP of the 2014 FIVB World League tournament and was named the 2014 AVCA Player of the Year, which is the most prestigious award in the sport, according to SI.com's Chris Chavez.

    Ricardo Lucarelli, also an outside hitter, is considered among the next generation of great Brazilian volleyball players, according to Volleywood.net.

    American middle blocker Max Holt is among the best in the world at his position, according to Volleywood.net. He also figures to be a key in the United States upset bid.

Simone Biles Is a Transcendent Gymnastics Talent

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    Simone Biles has won a record 10 world championship gold medals. She'll look to add Olympic gold to her mantel in Rio.
    Simone Biles has won a record 10 world championship gold medals. She'll look to add Olympic gold to her mantel in Rio.Associated Press

    Simone Biles, 19, has never competed in the Olympics, yet she’s already considered one of the best gymnasts of all time.

    A top-notch performance at the Rio Olympics might cement her legacy as the greatest female gymnast ever. Her 10 world championship gold medals are a record

    A video on Pop Sugar notes that she does a patented flip during her floor exercise routine appropriately named The Biles. She is the two-time champion in the all-around and will headline the event.

    Biles is the first woman of color to win an all-around world title, and, like many pioneering athletes of color before her, has dealt with racism along the way.

    American Gabby Douglas won the all-around title at the 2012 Games. She too is vying for a spot on the Olympic team and might be a favorite to repeat as all-around champion if it weren't for Biles.

    The American women are going for their second straight Olympic team title and are the favorites heading into Rio.

Rugby Sevens Back in the Games

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    Rugby sevens will make its Olympic debut in Rio. The 15-player version of the sport was an Olympic event from 1900-1924.
    Rugby sevens will make its Olympic debut in Rio. The 15-player version of the sport was an Olympic event from 1900-1924.Associated Press

    For the first time since 1924, rugby will be an Olympic event. This is the first time the Games will feature rugby sevens.

    According to Rio2016.com, from 1900 to 1924, the Olympics featured a 15-player version of rugby. As one might surmise given that there are fewer players, rugby sevens underscores the speed of the game and promotes more action.

    There has been a longstanding push to get rugby reinstated as an Olympic sport, according to SI.com's Tom Taylor, who wrote that in 1960, Italy advocated for it to be included in the Rome Games. The Soviet Union tried again in 1980.

    The first sign that rugby could come back to the Olympics came at the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, when wheelchair rugby was included. This came a year after the IOC added the International Rugby Board, now known as World Rugby, to its list of recognized international federations.

Eatons Chase Gold for Different Countries

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    Ashton Eaton is looking for his second straight Olympic gold in the decathlon.
    Ashton Eaton is looking for his second straight Olympic gold in the decathlon.Ian Walton/Getty Images

    If Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton compete for the television remote at home, it may serve them well come the Rio Games.

    The husband and wife are both track and field stars. They obviously won’t compete against one another. But they’ll compete for different delegations.

    Ashton, an American, won the gold medal in the decathlon at the London Games. He is the reigning world champion, and according to Rosen, he holds the world record in the competition, which spans 10 events over two days.

    Eaton could go down as the greatest decathlete of all time.

    Brianne will compete for the Canadian delegation in the heptathlon, a seven-event competition whose winner earns the moniker “greatest female athlete in the world.” In 2013 and 2015, Brianne won silver at the World Championships, according to Rosen.

    While Ashton is the clear favorite in his event, Brianne will be among those in contention for the gold in hers.

    The two athletes have a joint website, weareeaton.com, which includes a breakdown of each of their competitions.

Host Brazil in Political Upheaval

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    Braziliant president Dilma Rousseff has presided over great political unrest.
    Braziliant president Dilma Rousseff has presided over great political unrest.Associated Press

    There isn’t much more that could go wrong for a host country than what we’ve seen transpire in Brazil.

    Political unrest. Concerns over the environment. Crime. Corruption. All of it has caused trepidation.

    For starters, the country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, has been suspended pending impeachment hearings, according to Reuters. The wire service detailed that Rousseff has undergone five months of impeachment hearings and also faces senate hearings concerning irregularities in the government budget.

    The BBC reported that there are ongoing concerns over the Zika virus and pollution in the country’s waterways. The latter poses a major problem for events that take place in open water, including boating events and long-distance swimming.

    The BBC speculated that these concerns could contribute to lower ticket sales.

    The Miami Herald argued that Rousseff isn't at fault for Brazil’s upheaval, instead placing the blame on "corrupt lawmakers."

Men's Olympic Boxing to Ditch Headgear

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    American heavyweight Cam Awesome, right, and other male boxers won't wear headgear in Rio.
    American heavyweight Cam Awesome, right, and other male boxers won't wear headgear in Rio.Associated Press

    The IOC is intuiting what seems to be a counter-intuitive measure in an attempt to reduce concussions in men’s boxing: Athletes will not wear protective headgear at the Rio Games.

    Boxers have worn headgear in every Olympics since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, but Wu Ching-Kuo, president of the International Boxing Association (AIBA) predicts that the change will decrease concussions, according to the BBC.

    "AIBA provided medical and technical data that showed the number of concussions is lower without headgear,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams told the BBC. “They have done a lot of research in the last three years. The rule will go ahead for Rio."

    Oddly, female boxers will continue to wear headgear at the upcoming Games. That's because there isn't sufficient concussion data on women’s boxing, per the BBC.

NFL Players Chase Olympic Dream

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    Marquise Goodwin of the Buffalo Bills is hoping to make the U.S. team as a long-jumper.
    Marquise Goodwin of the Buffalo Bills is hoping to make the U.S. team as a long-jumper.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Heading into Rio, Herschel Walker stands as the only Olympic athlete with prior NFL regular-season playing experience, according to NBC Sports' Nick Zaccardi. He competed in the bobsled in the 1992 Games.

    That number figures to change this summer.

    Per Zaccardi, at least five athletes with NFL experience are hoping to make Olympic teams this summer with Buffalo Bills wide receiver Marquise Goodwin the likeliest candidate to compete in the Games as a long-jumper.

    Former Detroit Lions running back Jahvid Best is trying to make the St. Lucia team as a 100-meter runner, according to an interview he gave the St. Lucia News (h/t Detroit Free Press' Brian Manzullo). Best's father is from the Caribbean nation, and he would need to be granted citizenship.

    New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner is attempting to make the American rugby team, while recently retired San Francisco 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne hopes to compete in the sport for Fiji.