The Rio Olympics is coming our way. Of course the media being what it is, it chooses to focus on all the bad news with the bad construction problems and the Zika virus and the slow ticket sales. The story of the Russian track team being systematically doped added to the fire and has led to scrutiny of the whole Russian team in recent weeks. However there have been tales of woe before past Olympic Games and they’ve gone off excellently so it would be fair to give Rio a chance. So without further ado, here’s my focus on thirteen to watch–eight individual athletes, a duo, and four teams:
-Katie Ledecky/USA – Swimming: You all thought Michael Phelps would be the top swimmer of focus in my blog, right? Wrong. He will be looked into in a focus on another swimmer later in my blog but now the swimmer of top focus here is the US’s next big swimming sensation: Katie Ledecky. As a 15 year-old, she competed in London as the youngest member of the US Olympic team. She won gold in the 800m freestyle and broke the American record along the way. Since then, she has become a distance freestyle ace with world records in the 400, 800 and 1500m freestyles along with World Championship golds in those events as well as the 200 free. She is poised to win gold in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles in Rio: a feat only achieved once before by American swimmer Debbie Meyer in 1968. Katie can even add a bonus gold with the 4*200m free relay. Her chances are good as her best time in the 800 this year is 12 seconds faster than the second-best and her top 2016 time in the 400 is 1.5 seconds faster than that of American teammate Leah Smith. However the 200 will be her toughest event to win as Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom’s 2016 best is less than .1 faster than Katie and just .12 behind her is Italy’s Federica Pellegrini: 2008 Olympic champion who finished fifth in London. Nevertheless it will be a brave attempt from the 19 year-old.
-Simone Biles/USA – Gymnastics: Women’s gymnastics has become a complicated sport ever since it was revolutionized by ‘pixies’ like Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. It seems a gymnast’s career at the top is very short. It’s very hard to develop consistency especially with time encroaching. However one gymnast who can beg to differ is 19 year-old Simone Biles. She has shown a consistency in World gymnastics not demonstrated since Ludmilla Tourischeva back in the 70’s. In the past three World Championships starting in 2013, Biles has won fourteen medals including ten gold. She has also won the last three World all-around titles. Biles appears invincible but she does face rivalry from her own teammates Gabby Douglas (defending champ from London) and Laurie Hernandez as well as Russia’s Angelina Melnikova. Rio could just be the arena to crown her greatness in the sport.
-Ashton Eaton/USA – Athletics: There have only been two decathletes who have won back-to-back Olympic gold medals: The US’s Bob Mathias and the UK’s Daley Thompson. Ashton Eaton looks poised to become the third. He first burst onto the scene at the 2011 Worlds as a 23 year-old when he finished second behind his American teammate Trey Hardee. Hey, the US is known for their decathletes as they have won a total of 28 medals including thirteen gold. The following year, Eaton beat Hardee at the US Olympic Trials with a world record points total. Eaton went on to win gold in London as well as the last two World Championships. Eaton appears invincible having the year’s best result at the US trials but he does have rivals in Germany’s Arthur Abele and Canada’s Damian Warner who finished behind Eaton in second at the Worlds. Rio could just be the arena for a great to deliver.
-Usain Bolt/Jamaica – Athletics: What can I say? The ‘Lightning Bolt’ has proven himself to be the biggest thing in athletics since Carl Lewis. He has an unmatched streak at dominating sprinting in major events. It all started when he won the 100, the 200 and the 4*100 relay in Beijing in 2008 all in world record time. Since then every Olympics or Worlds he entered, he’d leave with golds in all those events each time with the exception of the 100 in 2011 where he received a false-start disqualification. Already people are ruling Bolt to achieve the triple-triple here in Rio. However it’s not 100% guaranteed. Bolt had to pull out of the Jamaican Olympic trials because of a pulled hamstring injury. He has since recovered well and even won a major 200 in London a few weeks ago. However the 100m has three runners that have a faster year’s best than Usain. Topping the list is 2004 Olympic champion Justin Gatlin. The 200m features four runners who ran a faster time this year than Usain’s 2016 best. Topping that list is American LaShawn Merritt: 2008 Olympic 400m champion. Win or lose, chasing Olympic history will make for an exciting show from a legend.
-Mo Farah/Great Britain – Athletics: Seven male distance runners have won both the 5000m and 10000m runs in the same Olympics. However one–Finland’s Lasse Viren– has done it twice back in 1972 and 1976. Mo Farah, A Somali who moved to the UK when he was eight, appears poised to duplicate Viren’s feat. Farah’s last loss of a major 5000 or a 10000 came at the 2011 World Championships. Since then he has taken gold at the 2012 Olympics and both the 2013 and 2015 World Championships in both events. There will be rivals trying to block his path like Ethiopian Muktar Edris, American Galen Rupp, his Portland training partner, and Kenyans like Caleb Ndiku, Paul Tanui and Geoffrey Kanworor. Whatever the situation, Farah’s pursuit will be one to watch.
-Cate and Bronte Campbell/Australia – Swimming: Admit it. You get intrigued when you see a pair of sibling athletes either competing together or against each other. Enter the Campbell sisters from Australia who are at the top of the world in sprint freestyle. 24 year-old Cate is the one with Olympic medals–two bronze in 2008 and a relay gold in 2012–along with 100 free gold at the 2013 Worlds. 22 year-old Bronte won the 2015 World Championship in the 50 and 100 free with Cate winning silver in the 50 and bronze in the 100. However Cate that this year’s fastest times in the world in the 50 and 100. Bronte has the second-fastest in the 100 and fifth-fastest in the 50. Ah, don’t you wish sibling rivalry was this civil? However the Malawi-born Campbell sisters are not alone at the top. They will face challenges from Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom who also made the 2015 Worlds podiums in both events and 2012 Olympic champion from both events Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands. The Rio stage should provide for some fun drama. And after all that rivalry, the two could just team up for a gold in the 4*100 free relay!
-Laszlo Cseh/Hungary – Swimming: All eyes will be on Michael Phelps. He may have won it all with 22 medals over three Games including 18 gold but he’s making a comeback after a troubling time since London which included his second DUI arrest. Who’s also worth looking at is 30 year-old Hungarian Laszlo Cseh. When Phelps won six golds and two bronze in Athens, Cseh won 400 individual medley bronze. While Phelps won eight golds in Beijing, Cseh won three silvers. While Phelps won four golds and two silvers in London, Cseh won 200 IM bronze. In all cases, Phelps was the Olympic champion. Here in Rio, we have a different scenario. We have Phelps trying to get back his old form while Cseh appears to be in the best form of his life. Cseh has the world fastest times this year in both the 100 and 200 butterflies. Cseh is a heavy favorite for the 200 but he does face rivalry from Phelps, American Tom Shields and Poland’s Konrad Czerniak in the 100. Cseh has never been called ‘Phelps’ Shadow’ in his career but Rio could become the first Olympic arena to finally beat Phelps and win Olympic gold.
-Majlinda Kelmendi/Kosovo – Judo: 75 nations competing in Rio have never won an Olympic medal. Two nations–Kosovo and South Sudan– will be making their Olympic debut. Kosovo’s team will consist of eight athletes in five sports. Leading the team is 25 year-old judoka Majlinda Kelmendi. Back in 2012, Kosovo was not officially recognized by the IOC and Kelmendi opted to compete for Albania. Since then Kelmendi has won gold at the World Championships in the lightweight category in 2013 and 2014. She missed out on the 2015 season because of an injury but is poised for a comeback in time for Rio. She has already won this years’ European championship. She faces rivalry from Japan’s Misato Nakamura and Brazil’s Erica Miranda. Whatever the outcome, be sure she’ll do her country proud. She will also be the flagbearer during the opening ceremonies.
FROM THE HOST NATION:
Of course there is to be some focus on athletes of the host nation. I make it a priority as it makes some of my favorite Olympic moments with athletes winning gold or a medal in front of their home crowd. And in Rio, Sports Illustrated predicts Brazil to win 20 medals including six gold. The most medals Brazil has won in a single Olympics is 17 back in London. The most golds, five in Athens in 2004.
Focus on the two teams later. Here are the duo and individual of focus:
Isaquias Queiroz and Erlon Silva – Canoeing: Brazil has won Olympic medals in thirteen sports but canoeing isn’t one of them. In recent years, Brazil has fielded a canoeing duo who have emerged at the top of the world in the 1000m event. Isaquias won the Worlds in 2013 and 2014 in the individual 500m. Erlon was part of the bronze medal-winning 200m pair in 2014. However both were competing in events that won’t be contested in Rio. Leading to last year’s Worlds, the two were paired together and trained for the 1000m pairs event. They entered that event at the Worlds and won. They will face challenges from the duos of Hungary and Poland. They could just make Brazilian Olympic history here in Rio.
Fabiana Murer – Athletics: Brazil is not expected to win any medals in athletics, according to Sports Illustrated. Overlooked must be pole vaulter Fabiana Murer. She’s a 2011 world champion and she finished second at last year’s World but is known for Olympic choking. In 2008, she finished 10th. In 2012 she failed to qualify for the finals. 2016 looks to be a good year for Murer as she set a new South American record back in July. However she faces challenges from London Olympic champion Jennifer Suhr of the US, last year’s World champ Yarisley Silva of Cuba, last year’s World bronze medalist Nikoleta Kyriakopolou of Greece and American Sandi Morris who’s the only vaulter to have a higher 2016’s best than Murer as of now. Whatever the situation, the home country has her back.
Refugee Olympic Athletes Team: In the past, you had to have some citizenship ties in order to compete at the Olympic Games. Refugees in the past have been overlooked as they were believed to have bigger problems than sports to deal with. Some would have to wait many years to represent the nation they’ve been adopted into. At the last Olympics in London, some refugees participated as Individual Olympic Athletes. IOC president Thomas Bach has taken note of the current worldwide refugee crisis by trying to break barrier for refugee athletes who want to compete at the Olympics. In March of this year, Bach announced his intention to create a team of refugees to compete in Rio taking into account the athletes’ sporting ability, personal circumstances and United Nations-verified refugee status. A $2 million fund created by the IOC was used to help train the athletes for Rio. At these Olympics, there will be ten athletes competing as Refugee Olympic Athletes. Five are runners from South Sudan who reside in Kenya. One is an Ethiopian marathoner who sought refuge in Luxembourg. Two are Congolese judokas living in Brazil and two are Syrian swimmers who have sought refuge in Belgium and Germany. They may not have much of a medal chance but they will already achieve victory by just competing at the Olympics.
United States Women’s Football Team: If there’s one team that one can call the class of the field, it’s the American women’s football (soccer) team. The US Women have won three of seven Women’s World Cups and four of the five Olympic gold medals. Those who saw last year’s Women’s World Cup know about how well the American women continue to play brilliantly. Here in Rio, fourteen women from last year’s WWC squad are part of the Olympic squad including stars Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo. There are also four newcomers including Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn. Since their WWC win, the team has won all but three of their matches since, losing only once to China 1-0 in a friendly back in December. WWC finalists Japan may not have qualified but it’s not to say the US won’t face some tough rivalry from China, France and even hosts Brazil. Nevertheless if they’re as brilliant together in Rio as they were in Canada last year, magic can happen again.
TRIVIA: Being WWC-holder is actually bad luck for the Olympics. In the previous five Olympics, no team that was the WWC-holder at the time has won Olympic gold. They’d make the Olympic podium, yes, but never the top step. Can the US break this bad-luck spell?
FROM THE HOST NATION:
Brazil’s Olympic Volleyball Teams: Football may be Brazil’s #1 sport. It’s safe to say volleyball is Brazil’s #2 sport. Ever since the men’s team won Brazil’s first ever court volleyball medal, Brazil has been on a roll winning a total of nine Olympic medals including four gold. They’ve also won 11 of the 30 Olympic medals awarded in Beach Volleyball including two gold medal-winning duos. Brazil is expected to dominate here. In beach volleyball, Brazil’s pairs won five of the six medals with only the men’s silver conceded to a Dutch pair. Brazil is not as dominant in court volleyball at the Worlds but the teams have what it takes to deliver as the women have won Olympic gold back in 2008 and 2012. Here in Rio, the women will face tough competition from the US and China who finished ahead of them at the 2014 Worlds. The men appear heavy favorites to win but they will face challenges from 2012 Olympic champs Russia and 2014 Worlds champs Poland. It could be possible the home crowd’s cheering could propel them both to win gold.
Brazil’s Olympic Football Teams: You’d figure Brazil, a country that has won a total of five World Cups, would have at least one Olympic gold in football, right? Wrong! It’s all because of eligibility rules in football over the years. Before 1984, footballers couldn’t even make a penny off their sport if they wanted to compete. That would allow the Eastern Bloc countries to field their best for the Olympics and propel them to the podium while World Cup-winning countries like Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy could only field ‘diluted’ teams to the Olympics which would finish in a shabby ranking or not make the Olympics at all. Brazil was able to qualify for six Olympics in that period but failed to win a medal.
In 1984, the Olympic door was open to professionals despite some restrictions or two. In 1992, professionals as long as they were 23 or under could compete. Since 1996, each squad had to have all but a maximum of three footballers under 23 with the other three being anyone they wanted. The opening of the floodgates to pros has boosted Brazil’s men’s team as they’ve qualified for six of the eight previous Olympic competitions and have stood on the podium five times. What they want here in Rio is to stand on the top step for the first time. In London, Brazil fielded a kit featuring a 20 year-old Neymar Jr. and won silver with Mexico taking the gold. Here in Rio, Neymar is back and the other 17 members of the Olympic squad are part of pro teams from Brazil, Spain, France and Italy. The Olympic squad may have finished third at the 2015 Pan Ams but the team has been consistent in friendly play over the last two years losing only to Nigeria back in March. Most of all, the team wants to return the football spirit to the country that left the nation broken-hearted at the 2014 World Cup and achieving shabby results at the last two Copa Americas. Whatever the situation, Brazil may just lift the spirits of their country.
Oh, did you think I’d forget the women’s football team? I didn’t. Women’s football isn’t as restrictive as the men’s competition. Every woman that competed at last year’s WWC is eligible to compete in the Olympics. As for Brazil’s women’s team, they have two Olympic silvers from 2004 and 2008. However they have had difficulties in the last major tournaments with losing in the quarterfinals at the 2012 Olympics and losing to Australia in the Round of 16 at the 2015 WWC. The team has since had their ups and downs with losses to the US, France, Canada and New Zealand they’ve trained hard under coach Vadao and have had mostly wins. Stars Marta, Formiga and Cristiane will be there. Hopefully the Brazilian women will be as victorious as their men and these Olympics here could be the arena for it.
And there you have it. Some of the athletes who to look out for at the Rio Games. Remember the gold medal does not go to the hardest worker, the most deserving, the most talented, the one with the most pre-Olympic accolades or even the best athlete. The gold goes to the one that’s the most there. And Rio will be the arena to decide the Olympic champions. These seventeen days will allow the athletes to “live their passion.” My review of Canadians to watch was printed the following day. Just click here.