Top Storylines to Follow in the Final Weeks Before the 2016 Summer Olympics
Most of the Olympic teams have been selected, but the run-up to Rio will still have plenty of intrigue.
Which athletes will get the bulk of the pre-Games publicity?
Will injured athletes regain their form in time to take gold?
Which companies will cash in with clever campaigns?
Is Rio ready?
Here's a look at what to follow with just a few weeks to go...
Get on the Hype Train
The Washington Post headline of Dave Sheinin's story put it simply: Katie Ledecky is "better at swimming than anyone is at anything."
That's not just the bragging of a hometown newspaper. Ledecky already has accomplishments far beyond the norm. In fact, we already know Ledecky can’t possibly top what she did in the World Championships last year. That’s not her fault. The World Championship programme includes the 1,500-meter freestyle, in which Ledecky is simply peerless. The Olympic programme does not.
At Worlds last year, Ledecky won the 400 by 3.89 seconds, the 800 by 10.26 seconds and the 1,500 by 14.66 seconds. At least the 200 might be close. She doesn't have the world record at that distance, and she only won that race by 0.16 seconds at Worlds.
Another hype train is rolling for the U.S. women’s gymnastics squad. Again, the results justify the reputation. Simone Biles has won the last three all-around world titles. Gabby Douglas won the last Olympic all-around title.
Talk of a gold-medal sweep might be overblown, but not by much. Several countries have vault specialists who can hang with Biles, who took third in the event in the 2015 World Championships. Madison Kocian was in a four-way tie for the world title on the uneven bars, Biles' weakest event. At Worlds, Biles won the balance beam by more than a point (15.358 to 14.333) and the floor exercise by 0.7 points.
In the unlikely event Biles and Douglas falter, the team still has Aly Raisman (2012: floor gold, beam bronze, fourth all-around) and 16-year-old phenom Laurie Hernandez.
Clever (Absurd) Corporate Tie-Ins
The Few Of Us Who Write A Lot About Olympic Sports are used to getting a certain style of press release: “Corporate Sponsor’s Maddie Everywoman is ready to rock and roll in Rio! If you’d like to talk with Everywoman about how Corporate Sponsor makes her (swim/run/aim things) better than the rest, contact PR Rep at email@example.com”
But give SodaStream credit for the most wonderfully contrived quote you may ever see in a press release, in this case for a petition asking the International Olympic Committee to add “cannonball” and “bellyflop” to the Rio programme.
An astonished Emma Froelich-Shea, VP of Marketing for SodaStream USA, writes:
Diving in the Summer Games is super hard. Some of those divers have been training for years. They use these really high diving boards, and yet they make as few bubbles as possible! At SodaStream, we try to put as many bubbles in the water as we can, and we make bubbles easy for everyone. Why shouldn’t Olympic diving be as easy as turning plain water into sparkling water with SodaStream?
The Rio programme isn’t changing. Wouldn’t it be easier to just ask an individual diver to do a cannonball or bellyflop? If someone’s in ninth place heading into his or her final dive, would the lure of a post-Olympic endorsement deal be worth the pain of bellyflopping from the 10-meter platform?
You won't find SodaStream on the official list of IOC or United States Olympic Committee sponsors, and those organizations don't play when it comes to proper usage of intellectual property. But how many companies will try what SodaStream is trying?
Basketball Players in Bubble Wrap
No one will care about the results when the U.S. women’s hoops team plays the USA Select team, France, Canada and Australia in seven days later this month. The Australia game will be at Madison Square Garden, where the U.S. men’s hockey team lost 10-3 to the Soviet Union in February 1980. The movie on that team spends a bit more time on the rematch a couple of weeks later in Lake Placid. Just a bit.
The U.S. men also have a busy schedule before the Olympics, with games in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago and Dallas.
None of these games will be particularly memorable—unless Kevin Durant or Elena Delle Donne hits the floor awkwardly.
USA Basketball has every reason to schedule these warm-up games—players can get hurt just as easily in practice, and sitting around the gaming console is no way to get ready for the Olympics. But basketball fans will be holding their breath throughout.
Are You Healthy or Not?
Jamaica’s track and field selection process is a bit more forgiving than the USA’s, and Usain Bolt has been named to the team despite dropping out of the trials with a hamstring injury. But will he be the same record-setting, track-burning, finish line-posing speedster we’ve seen in the last few Olympics and World Championships? Or should we just hand a gold medal or two to the USA’s Justin Gatlin?
The Anniversary Games, scheduled for July 22-23 in London, might normally be something only a Diamond League aficionado would circle on the calendar. But Bolt is planning to compete there, the BBC confirms, and those might be the 10 most interesting seconds in sports that weekend.
The USA has its own very fast man with a recent injury, Carlin Isles, who qualified for the USA Track and Field Olympic trials at 100 meters but did not enter. He's focusing on his main sport, the new Olympic event of rugby sevens. If you haven't seen the Isles highlight reel that has nearly 7 million views on YouTube, check it out now.
Isles told NBC Olympics that he’s healthy and ready to go despite a high ankle sprain that bothered him earlier this year. The roster will be named July 18.
Already named to a roster without playing any games since an ACL injury is Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. women's soccer team. She has been a great player in the last five years, but is coach Jill Ellis taking a risk by including her on the small team roster?
Representing Russia ... Anyone?
Circle July 19 on the calendar. That's when the Court of Arbitration for Sport will hear an appeal that may determine how many medals Russia can win in Rio.
In London, Russia won 16 medals in track and field. The country has great female athletes in particular, especially in the field events and race walking.
As it stands now, Russian track and field athletes will not be allowed to compete in Rio unless "they can show they have been based outside the country and subject to testing from a respected, non-Russian anti-doping agency," the Associated Press reports.
Russia's doping scandal blew up late last year with the help of whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova. She has been cleared to run as a "neutral" in Rio, the BBC reports.
Representing No One...and Everyone
Yuliya Stepanova won't be the only athlete eligible to compete without a "home" country in Rio. The IOC has selected 10 athletes to compete on the Refugee Olympic Team.
Five of the athletes are runners from South Sudan and now train in Kenya. Two judo athletes from the Democratic Republic of Congo train in Brazil. One Ethiopian marathoner runs with assistance from Luxembourg, while two Syrian swimmers will compete after training in Germany and Belgium.
Don't expect this group to make a splash on the medal table. But you'll surely hear more of the harrowing stories they've already shared through the United Nations: fleeing coaches who locked athletes in cages, swimming to push a refugee boat to safety, etc. Their presence will give hope to the tens of millions of people displaced by war and oppression.
For some reason, male golfers seem much more concerned about the Zika virus than their female counterparts or athletes from any other sport. Many of them said “no” to the Games. Rory McIlroy admitted he wasn't all that interested in the first place, a stance for which Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee utterly shredded him.
Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar said yes. They're the U.S. team bound for Rio.
But golfers withdraw from tournaments all the time. Will anyone from that foursome join McIlroy, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Adam Scott in some supposedly safer activity in August?
In 2012, wrestling matches were decided in a "best-of-three periods" format. Win the first two periods, and you don't need to wrestle the third.
In 2016, wrestling has gone back to cumulative scoring. Add up points through the whole match, which is now two three-minute periods rather than three two-minute periods. The scoring rules have been tweaked yet again, and wrestlers face greater penalties for being passive.
The changes are a reaction to wrestling's Olympic status being in jeopardy in 2013. International sanctioning body moved swiftly, and the IOC voted to keep the sport in the Games after all. Longtime wrestling coach Dan Chandler told Rachel Blount of the Star-Tribune he realized the year on the brink was "a blessing in disguise."
Catch up with the sport before Rio with highlights and interviews on USA Wrestling's prolific YouTube channel.
Is Rio Ready?
The Zika virus is hardly the only thing to worry about in Rio. Venue construction is pushing deadlines even more than in past Olympics, and track cycling fans will be a little nervous seeing the VeloNews headline “Rio velodrome ready—sort of.”
At least a shiny new velodrome should have no more threats to cyclists’ safety than any other velodrome. The same can’t be said for athletes competing out on the water, where U.S. rowers have sought safety in “antimicrobial suits” to combat the fecal bacteria and other nasty things floating around. Researchers who spoke with Wired magazine, though, were skeptical about the suits’ capabilities in fighting illness.
And few major events have seen public safety forces turn up at the airport with a banner warning that people coming to the venue "will not be safe." But that's what local police did in response to drastic budget cuts in Rio, the Associated Press reported.
The Next Generation
In women's soccer, say goodbye to Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone. Say hello to National Women's Soccer League sensation Crystal Dunn and recent high school graduate Mallory Pugh.
In track and field, meet young sprinters Trayvon Bromell, Marvin Bracy, Deajah Stevens and Jenna Prandini. Check out the field events to see Vashti Cunningham and Keturah Orji.
In women's basketball, watch for Breanna Stewart, who just finished her career as one of the best players in Connecticut history. Yes, that's a high bar.
And in the pool, don't miss Maya DiRado in her first and possibly only Olympic appearance. Teen sensations Simone Manuel and Abbey Weitzeil have the freestyle sprints covered. And Jordan Wilimovsky will swim an unusual double of 1,500 meters in the pool and 10 kilometers in open water.