Ranking the Best Rivalries Between Countries at the 2016 Summer Olympics

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJuly 18, 2016

Ranking the Best Rivalries Between Countries at the 2016 Summer Olympics

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    Sprinters Justin Gatlin (left) and Usain Bolt are rivals and friends.
    Sprinters Justin Gatlin (left) and Usain Bolt are rivals and friends.GREG BAKER/Getty Images

    The final countdown is on.

    The Olympic trials have solidified rosters and provided a clearer picture of what and who we'll see when the 2016 Summer Games kick off Aug. 5 in Rio de Janeiro.

    In some sports, the favorites are clear (*cough* women's gymnastics *cough*). In others, the medal field is more open. In the interstitial sweet spot, there are rivalries between countries, and the top podium position is dangling in the balance.

    So what are the best rivalries in Rio? Which teams and individuals are most strongly positioned for a neck-and-neck, winner-take-gold collision?

    The stakes don't get any higher, and these matchups are where we could see sparks fly. We will rank the rivalries based on the talent involved, the nature and history of the rivalry, and the medal expectations for each side. Intranational rivalries are not eligible. Sorry, Ryan Lochte.

9. Serbia vs. France, Men's Basketball

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    Serbians Boban Marjanovic (left) and Nikola Jokic
    Serbians Boban Marjanovic (left) and Nikola JokicAssociated Press

    Don't get confused. Team USA is still the odds-on favorite to take the gold in men's basketball. 

    But don't worry: There's plenty of intrigue elsewhere, as the NBA's international expansion of recent years increases the number of non-U.S. players whose talents are well-known to fans the world over.

    We already know the matchups for the group stage, and one of the most pro-laden among those is France vs. Serbia on August 10. France is among the medal contenders. Serbia's more of a dark horse but solidly in the field's upper half.

    France has a formidable stock of talent, led by point guard Tony Parker, shooting guard Nicolas Batum, forward Boris Diaw and center Rudy Gobert.

    But don't count out the Serbians. They're led by 21-year-old Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic. But that's not all—hold onto your hats.

    Surely you're familiar with Boban Marjanovic, the 7'3" behemoth who became something of a folk hero in short order for his enormous hands and affable demeanor. Think Gheorghe Muresan for the meme age.

    Well, Marjanovic's from Serbia, and although he was originally left off the team because of contract negotiations with the Detroit Pistons, he's now hoping to rejoin his countrymen. That would make quite a one-two punch down low.

    Add in the fact that Marjanovic played with Parker and Diaw last season with the San Antonio Spurs, and you have a pretty intriguing early matchup.

8. USA vs. China, Men's 10-Meter Platform Diving

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    Qiu Bo
    Qiu BoVaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    In 2012, China's Qiu Bo took home a silver medal after falling short to America's David Boudia. But Qiu rebounded, winning world titles in 2013 and 2015.

    He'll try to bring it full circle at the Rio Games, where Indiana's Boudia will once again be waiting for him. Most recently, Qiu got the better of Boudia at last year's worlds, and the 23-year-old appears to be peaking. 

    If Qiu is indeed at the top of his game, that could mean the top of the podium for the Chinese in this event.

7. United Kingdom vs. Canada, Heptathlon

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    Brianne Theisen-Eaton
    Brianne Theisen-EatonKirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    England's Jessica Ennis-Hill wrapped up a home-country fairy tale when she captured heptathlon gold in London in 2012. It might be an even better story if she can repeat the feat in Rio—and in the process become only the third person to repeat a gold-medal performance after giving birth.

    Standing in her way is Canada's Brianne Theisen-Eaton, the Saskatchewan native who is one of the favorites to top the podium. She's also the defending world indoor pentathlon champion, the five-event cousin to the seven-event heptathlon, and has the world's leading heptathlon score of 2016 thus far.

    This is the defending Olympic champ against the athlete who is performing at her best coming into the Games. Either or both could wind up with medals. It's set up for a solid showdown.

6. Brazil vs. USA, Women's Judo

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    Mayra Aguiar (left) and Kayla Harrison
    Mayra Aguiar (left) and Kayla HarrisonGEOFF ROBINS/Getty Images

    Mayra Aguiar and Kayla Harrison share probably the best rivalry in judo. 

    Harrison is the defending Olympic champion at 78 kilograms in women's judo. Aguiar returned the favor, to some extent, when she beat Harrison in the 2014 world championship semifinals, which she went on to win. Aguiar also won bronze in the last Olympics and has split her 16 meetings with Harrison.

    Plus, Aguiar will have a supportive—and combat sports-happy—crowd at her back in Brazil. 

    Coming into Rio, Harrison is the top-ranked judoka in the world, while Aguiar is No. 4.

    “I’m not talking smack or anything,” Harrison told JudoInside.com. “But I think it would be pretty poetic if I fought a Brazilian girl in the finals in Brazil.”

5. Cuba vs. USA, Men's Triple Jump

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    Christian Taylor
    Christian TaylorKirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    It's being called the greatest triple jump competition ever.

    So if you've never watched the event before, it's time to start.

    In one corner, you have Cuba's Pedro Pablo Pichardo. In the other, you have American Christian Taylor, the reigning Olympic champ. 

    These two know each other well, swapping wins on the international circuit. The most famous contest occurred last year in Doha, Qatar. Thanks to Pichardo and Taylor, that became the only competition in history that saw more than one competitor record jumps of longer than 18 meters.

    What could they have up their sleeves for this summer in Brazil? If they top what they did in Qatar, it will be historic.

4. Brazil vs. USA, Women's Beach Volleyball

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    Agatha Bednarczuk (left) and Barbara Seixas
    Agatha Bednarczuk (left) and Barbara SeixasAssociated Press

    Misty May-Treanor may be gone, but Kerri Walsh Jennings is still going strong.

    Team USA's three-time gold medalist is looking for No. 4 in Rio alongside new partner April Ross, who formed half of the 2012 silver-medal team in London. Not a bad B Team to pull from.

    Since beach volleyball's introduction as an Olympic sport in 1996, no country has broken through and topped the U.S. The host nation hopes to be the first.

    Playing in front of what is sure to be a rollicking crowd on Copacabana Beach, 2015 world champions Barbara Seixas and Agatha Bednarczuk, as well as Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes, could both land on the medal podium—and above Team USA, no less.

3. USA vs. South Africa, Men's 100-Meter Butterfly

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    Michael Phelps
    Michael PhelpsAssociated Press

    The butterfly has long been Michael Phelps' territory. The most decorated athlete in Olympics history took gold in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly at the 2004 and 2008 Games. In London, he grabbed a gold in the 100-meter and a silver in the 200-meter.

    So who broke his streak? That would be South African Chad le Clos.

    The rivalry has simmered ever since, and it could come to a head in Rio, where Phelps will swim in his final Olympics. Phelps is the defending Olympic champion in the 100-meter butterfly, but le Clos is the reigning world champ, and both are turning in scorching times.

    Says analyst Lauren Neidigh of SwimSwam

    The battle between Olympic champ Michael Phelps and world champ Chad Le Clos has been highly anticipated since they traded blows in the fly events in 2012. Le Clos pulled off the upset in the 200 fly, dethroning Phelps before the latter came back to win the 100 fly. Tensions have run high since Phelps came out of retirement, with the two clearly keeping each other in mind last summer.

    This one should be appointment viewing for any swimming or Phelps fan. 

2. Brazil vs. Argentina, Men's Soccer

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    Neymar
    NeymarWinslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    Brazil vs. Argentina might be the best sports rivalry in the world. 

    Although it's not guaranteed that these two will meet, chances are good. Oh, yeah, and if it does happen it will be in the final.

    It's hard to believe the host nation has never won an Olympic gold in men's soccer. Team Brazil enlisted superstar Neymar, among others, to help it get over the hump in front of its faithful. Its draw in Group A—where it joins South Africa, Iraq and Denmark—looks pretty favorable too.

    In Group D, Argentina is looking at a tougher draw in Honduras, Algeria and recent Euro winners Portugal. Facing that slate without the legend Lionel Messi, who was not included on the team, makes it tougher. But led by Angel Correa, the side still has talent.

    Yet that doesn't change the fact that these are two high-octane groups with genuine disdain between them. If they face off in the final, what a matchup that will be. 

1. Jamaica vs. USA, Men's 100 Meters

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    Usain Bolt (left) and Justin Gatlin
    Usain Bolt (left) and Justin GatlinWANG ZHAO/Getty Images

    How is Usain Bolt's hamstring?

    It's one of the key athletic questions on observers' minds as the Rio clock ticks down. As you'll recall, the world's fastest man sustained a Grade 1 hamstring tear recently that forced him out of Team Jamaica's Olympic trials.

    As if that wasn't enough, Bolt, improbably, is looking over his shoulder at an all-too-familiar rival. The 34-year-old Justin Gatlin is back for his third Olympics. These two have shared podiums at competitions around the world, and there appears to be an earned admiration between them. 

    As Gatlin told Chris Chavez of Sports Illustrated

    The world really doesn’t see how we are as human beings together. We’ve partied together, drank champagne and hung out at clubs together in Zurich and overseas. I have the utmost respect for him. At the end of the day, I’d like to bring the best athlete out of him because he does the same for me. I also want to win on top of that. It’s competition laced with respect. I love the person that he is. He knows that I’m going to come and fight. He knows if anyone’s going to push him to something great, it’ll be Justin.

    That's admiration laced with a desire to win, in what will probably be the final Olympics go-around for each competitor. Gatlin took the gold in 2004, and Bolt did the deed in 2008 and 2012. What will this summer hold in arguably the Games' most glamorous event? We'll see in short order.