The Biggest Storylines to Watch for in Rio 2016 Olympics
The drama. The diversity. Scandals and showcases.
There's nothing quite like the Olympics. Like the world's biggest wedding, everyone fusses about the preparation, whether they're worried about conditions in the host nation or their countries' national teams, and then we get a memorable, inspirational experience.
We'll meet people from countries we can't find on a map. We'll see athletes overcome obstacles and test the limits of human skill, strength and speed. And we'll get to follow along as we see some athletes in their swan song Olympics, an emerging megastar in gymnastics, and whether the city of Rio de Janiero will steal headlines for reasons that have nothing to do with sport.
We'll cheer, we'll argue, we'll hold our collective breath, as the drama unfolds.
Here we go, with the biggest storylines to watch for in Rio.
Year of the Woman, Again
In 2012, the USA took more female athletes (269) than male athletes (261) to the Olympics for the first time ever, and they won 58 medals. This time, the U.S. team has 292 women and 263 men, and who would bet against 60 medals?
Katie Ledecky notwithstanding, the U.S. women's medal hauls aren't a case where a couple of athletes win a ton of medals. It's the other way around—the USA is dominant in team sports, where a win counts as a "1" in the official medal count even as four, 12 or 18 players walk off with prizes.
No, they won't win everything with three or more people. U.S. women didn't qualify teams for handball, synchronized swimming (a duet will compete), four-woman canoe and, surprisingly, archery (one individual will compete). A rugby medal is a long shot, and they're not in the mix in table tennis or rhythmic gymnastics.
But they're gold-medal favorites in basketball, soccer, water polo, gymnastics, rowing eights, the 4x400 (track) and the 4x200 freestyle (swimming). They're medal favorites in volleyball, the 4x100 (track), team sabre, rowing quadruple sculls and the other two swimming relays. They also have a shot at the podium in field hockey and team epee.
Add it all up, and the Rio airport security screeners will be seeing a lot of round metal objects in U.S. women's luggage on the way home.
The Elusive World Cup/Olympic Soccer Double
The 1992 Olympics, held one year after the USA won the first World Cup in women's soccer, had no women's soccer competition.
In 1996, the USA knocked out World Cup champion Norway and won gold.
In 2000, Norway flipped the script, beating the World Cup champion USA in the final.
In 2004, the USA repeated its 1996 run, taking out World Cup champion Germany in the semifinals and winning gold.
In 2008, Germany again came into the Olympics with the World Cup title but fell in the semifinals, and the USA beat Brazil in the final.
In 2012, the USA avenged its 2011 World Cup final loss to Japan.
The USA won the World Cup in 2015. Can they become the first team to add the Olympic gold the year after taking the Cup?
U.S. gymnast Jordyn Wieber won the 2011 all-around world title. The next year, she was unable to qualify for the Olympic all-around final.
An Olympic flop? Not exactly. Wieber scored 60.032 in qualifying, a higher score than the 59.382 that won her the world championship the year before and good for fourth place. That would be enough to make the final if not for one problem—two U.S. teammates, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, scored higher. The rules allow only two finalists per team.
The competition within the team won't be any easier this year. Defending Olympic champion Douglas is back. So is Raisman. They're joined by three-time defending world champion Simone Biles and teen phenom Laurie Hernandez, who finished second behind Biles in the U.S. Championships in June. Madison Kocian won't contest the all-around but will contend in the uneven bars, in which she was in a four-way tie for the world title last year.
Could they win nine, 10 or even the maximum 11 medals, all higher totals than any team since the Soviet era? Could they be the first to sweep all six golds? They took eight medals at last year's World Championships, with Biles adding gold on beam and floor to her all-around victory. Only the vault eluded them, with Biles taking bronze.
Ledecky's Drive for Five
At last year's World Championships, freestyle swimmer Katie Ledecky won five gold medals—four individual and one relay.
She can't match the individual tally this year because the Olympic program does not include the 1,500-meter freestyle, in which she's dominant. But she's unbeatable in the 800, a big favorite in the 400 and a slight favorite in the 200. She should also lead the USA to victory in the 4x200-meter relay again, and USA Today's Christine Brennan reports she has been added to the 4x100-meter relay as well.
It won't be easy, and she has a grueling schedule to get through. And she won't tie the record of six medals in one summer, jointly held by the USA's Natalie Coughlin (2008) and East Germany's Kristin Otto (1988, though all East German swimming feats from that period have been questioned in doping investigations).
But she's likely to be in good company among swimmers who have taken five medals, she has a good chance of matching Missy Franklin's haul of four golds and one bronze from 2012, and she may be the first female swimmer since the cloudy 1980s to win five golds.
An athlete crosses the finish line and celebrates. The flag goes up, and the anthem blares.
Then, anywhere from two days to eight years later, that athlete puts the medal in a box and sends it back.
We've seen it so many times that we now have to wonder if anything we see is credible. Any athlete who shaves significant time off a personal best will be under immediate suspicion. And it's impossible to get rid of that suspicion. They can pass every test the World Anti-Doping Agency can throw at them, but so did Lance Armstrong.
The Olympics and various sports federations have banned many athletes, especially from Russia. How many will be caught and punished during the Games? Or in a few years?
Some people in the sports world are so exhausted with anti-doping efforts that they're beginning to question whether they're worthwhile at all, Vice reports. Will reality one day match the classic Saturday Night Live sketch?
Health and Safety
The Olympic venues are not easy targets for terrorism. The Games have already suffered two horrific blows—the massacre of Israeli athletes and coaches in 1972 and the Centennial Park bombing in 1996. Today, security is stringent at every venue and official gathering. Imagine going through airport security several times per day, and you get the picture.
But outside the Olympic bubble, Rio still has concerns. Police and firefighters staged a protest warning visitors that they are not getting their paychecks and that whoever visits will not be safe. The city has enough crime on a regular basis that navigation app Waze has just added a feature alerting users to avoid certain areas, Wired reports.
Veterans of recent Olympics know that many of the pre-Games health and safety concerns often dissipate once the competition starts. The worries fade when the worst-case scenarios don't come to pass, and everyone simply enjoys the Games. We can only hope that's the case once again.
The 100-meter dash is one of the marquee events of the Games. It's the most basic test of raw speed, just long enough that the start doesn't determine the finish. This year, it's expected to be one last showdown between the two men who have dominated the race for the past 12 years.
Justin Gatlin won the 2004 Olympics and 2005 World Championships before serving a four-year doping suspension. Tyson Gay won the 2007 title, and then came the reign of Usain.
The lanky Jamaican Usain Bolt won three major titles with the three fastest times in history, including the world-record 9.58 seconds at the 2009 World Championships. (He false-started in the 2011 World Championships; fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake took the title.)
Gatlin made a remarkable comeback. He was third in 2012 behind Bolt and Blake, and then he beat Bolt in a 2013 Diamond League race. But Bolt came back to beat Gatlin in the 2013 World Championships (9.77 to 9.85) and hasn't lost to Gatlin since.
Bolt ran little in 2014, and Gatlin posted the five fastest times of 2015, topping out at 9.74. But in the World Championships, Bolt beat him by 0.01 seconds—9.79 to 9.80.
At age 34, this is Gatlin's last chance to beat Bolt on the sport's biggest stage. He has the year's two fastest times (9.80, 9.83). Can he cap his comeback with gold?
Bolt has gone back and forth on his retirement plans, but the latest word is he'll bow out after running at the World Championships next year in London, where organizers plan to admit children for a record-themed £9.58. Barring a change of heart, Rio will be his final Olympics.
Michael Phelps also doesn't plan to stick around after this. Venus Williams, a five-time Olympian like Phelps, was coy about retirement when speaking with Nick McCarvel for USA Today, but even in the fine form she's in, it's tough to imagine she'll play at age 40 in 2020.
Tamika Catchings is planning to win her fourth gold medal before stepping away from Team USA and the WNBA. Argentina's Manu Ginobili, a gold medalist in 2004, also is set to leave the Olympic basketball court.
Others identified by the Rio site as likely retirees include Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, five-time sailing medalist Robert Scheidt of Brazil, seven-time cycling medalist Sir Bradley Wiggins (obviously from Great Britain), Chinese badminton legend Lin Dan and Abhinav Bindra, a shooter who currently has the only individual gold medal won by an Indian athlete.
Then there's Maya DiRado, the U.S. swimmer who says Rio will be her first and last Olympics.
Whether it's their first or sixth Olympics, athletes will take more from Rio 2016 than politics, fear and controversy. It's the event of a lifetime. That's why we watch.