Bold Predictions for the 2016 Summer Olympics

Beau Dure@duresportFeatured ColumnistAugust 4, 2016

Bold Predictions for the 2016 Summer Olympics

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    Relay batons are supposed to stay in runners' hands.
    Relay batons are supposed to stay in runners' hands.AFP/Getty Images

    Breaking news: The USA is likely to win a lot of medals in Rio. Both basketball teams should take gold. A lot of swimmers and gymnasts will win. For Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky, only the quantity of medals is in doubt. Crunch the numbers all you want; it’s safe to say the star-spangled banner will wave in Rio de Janeiro.

    But the Olympics have the capacity to surprise. Check through the slideshow to see a few things most pundits aren’t expecting.

Justin Gatlin Will Beat Usain Bolt

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    So close in 2015.
    So close in 2015.Ian Walton/Getty Images

    We thought Justin Gatlin might take down Usain Bolt last year at the IAAF World Championships. Gatlin had the 28-race win streak and all the fastest times of the year. Bolt had been ailing. But in the 100-meter final, a charging Bolt ran down Gatlin and won by 0.01 seconds.

    This year looks like a replay so far. Gatlin ran the two fastest 100-meter times of 2016 a few weeks ago in Eugene, Oregon. Bolt pulled out of the Jamaican trials with a hamstring tear, though he seemed OK in the 200-meter dash in London in late July.

    Gatlin (34) is older than Bolt (29). But he has posted the fastest times of his career in the seven years since serving a four-year doping suspension. Bolt was out of this world in 2009. Since then, the Jamaican has been just good enough to hold off Gatlin. Bolt may do so again in the 200 in Rio, but Gatlin's recent times and the Jamaican's hamstring issues will give the American the 100.

    But there’s bad news for Gatlin...

The U.S. Men Will Find a Way to Botch the Relay

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    The good news: When the U.S. sprinters get the baton around the track cleanly in the 4x100-meter heats and the final, they tend to win. The bad news: They’ve only won once in the last nine major meets (Olympics and World Championships).

    Here are some lowlights:

    • Bungled baton exchanges and silver medals: 2004 (Justin Gatlin to Coby Miller), 2013 (Mookie Salaam to Gatlin).
    • Disqualified (DQ) or did not finish (DNF), illegal exchanges or drops: 2005 (Mardy Scales to Leonard Scott), 2008 (Darvis Patton to Tyson Gay), 2009 (Shawn Crawford to Patton), 2011 (Patton fell; see video above), 2015 (Gay to Mike Rodgers).

    In 2012, Team USA finished second in a race for the ages, with Usain Bolt anchoring Jamaica to a world record. But the USA relinquished the silver medal because of Gay’s doping violation.

    Oh, and Gay was once again part of a botched exchange at this year’s Penn Relays.

    The coach is Dennis Mitchell, who was part of a winning team in 2001 until doping authorities caught up with Tim Montgomery. Gay, Gatlin and Rodgers are once again part of the relay pool. But their talent and experience may not be enough to overcome their shoddy exchanges.

Katie Ledecky Will Win a Nail-Biter

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    Katie Ledecky
    Katie LedeckyAssociated Press

    Barring illness or perhaps a meteor striking Rio, Katie Ledecky will win gold in the 800-meter freestyle. She doesn’t just own the world record, set earlier this year, but she also has the five fastest times ever in the event. For the rest of the world, finishing within 10 seconds of the 19-year-old American is an accomplishment.

    The 400-meter freestyle is another safe bet. She’s chasing her own records.

    But the 200-meter freestyle is no sure thing. Italy’s Federica Pellegrini still holds the world record, set in 2009, and her time of 1:54.55 from June 26 is faster than Ledecky’s trial-winning time of 1:54.88.

    Ledecky went slightly faster (1:54.43) in January, but Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom beat that at last year’s FINA World Championships, finishing at 1:54.31. And we don’t want to count out Missy Franklin, who has been battling the lingering effects of a back injury but still made the team in this event.

    Franklin will help in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, as will likely 400-meter medalist Leah Smith and Allison Schmitt, who’s the defending Olympic champion in the event and might have made the individual race from any country other than the USA. But peek at the world rankings and you’ll find two Chinese swimmers ahead of every American but Ledecky.

    Ledecky may still have better than 50-50 odds to take four gold medals. (Now that she has been added to the 4x100-meter relay, she has a chance at five, but the USA is not favored in that race.) But two of those will be tricky, particularly for someone who’ll have to be in and out of the pool to compete in five races and their prelims.

Kosovo Will Win Its 1st Medal

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    You don't want Majlinda Kelmendi standing over you.
    You don't want Majlinda Kelmendi standing over you.Buda Mendes/Getty Images

    Welcome to the Olympics, Kosovo! Despite anger over the move from Serbia, the IOC granted Kosovo full membership in December 2014. 

    The tiny country will have a tiny team, but don’t dismiss its medal chances. Sports Illustrated's Brian Cazeneuve’s medal predictions give former Albanian judoka Majlinda Kelmendi a silver medal. She stumbled in London four years ago but has since won two world titles. Vice Sports' Smriti Sinha shared Kelmendi's story.

    Fellow judoka Nora Gjakova also has a resume to take seriously.

    And will this be the year San Marino breaks through for its first medal? Cazeneuve picks Arianna Perilli to take bronze in women’s trap shooting.

U.S. Sailors Will Break Medal Drought

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    Stuart McNay has the 470 helm, while David Hughes dangles over the water.
    Stuart McNay has the 470 helm, while David Hughes dangles over the water.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    A strange thing happened in the English Channel four years ago. U.S. sailors were shut out of the medal count. Excluding the boycotted 1980 Olympics, Team USA had won at least two medals per Games on the water since the Olympics resumed after World War II.

    But you can’t keep Paige Railey down. The 2006 World Sailor of the Year finished eighth in 2012 and then had a bike accident in 2014 in which she lost several teeth and fractured her spine. She returned to take gold in last year’s Pan American Games and silver in this year’s world championships.

    Also in strong contention are the men’s and women’s pairs in the 470 (two-person dinghy) class. Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha were sixth in the women’s world championships in February. Stuart McNay and David Hughes are fifth in the world rankings.

Rugby Will Kick Off a Helmet Debate

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    Would football (the American variety) be better off without helmets?

    Expect to see a few more people asking that question after the Olympics introduce new fans to the fast-paced sport of rugby sevens, where open-field tackles take place without helmet-to-helmet or helmet-to-anything-else collisions.

    The person who can make the best comparison of helmeted football and bare-headed rugby is Nate Ebner—a safety for the New England Patriots and a member of Team USA’s rugby squad this year. He can’t see football without helmets, but he says rugby players gain a good understanding of how to tackle. Or how NOT to.

    "Everyone playing the game has an understanding that no one has a helmet on, so it’s kind of a group effort to keep your head out of the contact area," Ebner told the Boston Globe's Ben Volin. "As a tackler you have to use your shoulders, your body, and you can’t just dive in with your head."

    Few sports are safe from concussion risks—synchronized swimmers never hit each other intentionally, but the sport is grappling with head injuries from close formations. And we may be more likely to see a next generation of football helmets instead of bare heads on the offensive and defensive lines.

    But maybe rugby will at least remind some football players and coaches that they can tackle without using an encased skull as a weapon.

The Water Will Be Worse Than Zika

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    The cleanup effort is getting there.
    The cleanup effort is getting there.YASUYOSHI CHIBA/Getty Images

    Zika is legitimately frightening. It can be spread to pregnant women through mosquitoes or by sexual transmission. (See the CDC page for the latest on the latter.) Then it can cause birth defects that can leave children in need of a lifetime of medical care.

    But a Yale School of Public Health report (via concludes the risk of being infected in Brazil, much less transmitting it back in the USA, is low. And it seems mosquitoes have likely brought the virus to Miami, anyway, according to health officials in Florida (h/t Reuters).

    What we generally do not have in the United States are competitions held in abject filth. "Open water swimming" and "superbacteria" are phrases we try to avoid mixing.

    Gevvie Stone, a rower and doctor, tells USA Today's Charlotte Wilder rowers often compete and train on nasty waterways elsewhere, but she’s still taking plenty of “mouthwash and hand sanitizer” to go with the bug spray.

China Will Sweep Diving and Table Tennis Gold

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    We don't care how many games you won in your garage. You're not returning this.
    We don't care how many games you won in your garage. You're not returning this.ROSLAN RAHMAN/Getty Images

    China might win every possible medal in diving and table tennis.

    In diving, with two competitors in each individual event and one team in each synchronized event, that would be eight golds and four silvers. The biggest hurdle will be on the men’s platform, where world champion Qiu Bo faces off against former world champion Tom Daley (Great Britain) and defending Olympic champion David Boudia (USA), along with a few other challengers.

    (Don’t cry for Chen Aisen, who will almost certainly have a gold from the synchronized platform as consolation if he fails to medal individually.)

    In table tennis, the max medal count is six medals from four events. The four golds (two team, two individual) seem safe from a quick peek at the world rankings. The silver medals might be in dispute.

    China swept all five badminton golds in 2012, winning eight of a possible 10 medals for the country, but that’s far less likely to happen this time around.

    Another possible sweep is in archery, where South Korea could win both team events and sweep all the medals in each individual event. American Brady Ellison may have something to say about that.

Christian Taylor Will Finally Get Famous

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    Don't be alarmed. He has to land at some point.
    Don't be alarmed. He has to land at some point.FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

    If Christian Taylor were British, he’d have been knighted by now.

    The only triple-jumper who has gone farther than Taylor did in winning last year’s IAAF World Championships is Jonathan Edwards. That’s Jonathan Edwards, CBE—technically one step below knighthood.

    So maybe Taylor would be more famous with multiple world championships? Well, he has that, having won in 2011 and 2015. Maybe one gold medal at the Olympics would make him a household name? He did that, too—he’s the defending champion.

    This year, Taylor has the two top jumps in the world. The only person within a foot of him is U.S. teammate Will Claye.

    So if wins again, especially if he breaks Edwards' record, can he possibly get his picture on a Wheaties box? Or put him in an ad jumping with the Geico gecko? America may not understand the triple jump, but it loves a winner.

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