This is part of Slate’s ranking of every Olympic event—all 339 of them. Here’s the cream of the crop. The can’t-miss, set-your-DVR events. And there’s no better place to start them than with a legend running in the Olympics for the final time.
50. Women’s 400-meters (track)
49. Women’s 4x400-meter relay (track)
These will be Allyson Felix’s only events in Tokyo, but what a swan song they will be. The 35-year-old is in her fifth Olympics (and her first as a mother), and with six gold medals already to her name, a seventh in the relay—an event the USA last lost in 1992—is almost inevitable.
Quanera Hayes and Wadeline Jonathas will also challenge for individual medals, but two women who cannot are Namibia’s teenage phenoms Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi. Despite qualifying for the 200 and having two of the three fastest 400 times of 2021, they are ineligible to compete in middle-distance events due to the same testosterone rules keeping Caster Semenya out of the Olympics.
48. Women’s sport climbing
47. Men’s sport climbing
This debut Olympic sport consists of three unique competitions—lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing—wrapped up into a single event for each gender. Lead climbing is getting as high up on one difficult wall as possible, bouldering is solving a series of short walls, and speed climbing is speedy climbing.
The problem is that all of these are distinct, and whereas the first two are about just doing as well as possible on walls you’ve never seen before, speed climbing always takes place on a wall with the same layout. For the Olympics, competitors are ranked in each, and those rankings are multiplied together to get an overall score; if I finished first in one discipline and fourth in the others, my score would be 16 (1 x 4 x 4). Get it? No? Well, you’re not alone.
This is a confusing system that does not accurately reflect professional climbing, and as you’d imagine, climbers are rightfully pissed. Still, they’re going to be exciting events, even if Americans likely won’t win any medals.
46. Women’s rugby sevens
For the uninitiated: As in normal rugby union, the ball cannot be thrown forward, but can be kicked in any direction. A try (touching the ball down over the goal line) is worth 5 points, and a conversion (the kick after a try) is worth 2. Unlike in rugby union, which has 15 players per side, rugby sevens has … c’mon, you’re smart, I have faith in you. Yes, seven! Also, instead of 40-minute halves, rugby sevens’ halves are, you guessed it, seven minutes long. Games are quick, they’re dangerous, they’re high-scoring, and they’re a blast.
The only reasons the women’s event ranks lower than the men’s are that the game simply hasn’t had as much time or as many international tournaments to develop, and New Zealand has been dominant for the past decade. Still, the USA has won World Cup medals in the past and finished fifth in the 2019–20 World Series, so look for them to make a run at the podium.
45. Women’s BMX racing
44. Men’s BMX racing
BMX racing is really cool. There’s intense speed, banked turns, crowded jumps, contact between racers, and crashes. Watch this footage of the course from Dutch Olympian Niek Kimmann, and imagine seven other cyclists racing at the same time.
Both events are packed with American hopefuls. On the women’s side, Alise Willoughby earned 2016 Olympics silver and 2017 World Championships gold, and 19-year-old Payton Ridenour will be the youngest competitor in the field. Connor Fields is back to defend his title from Rio, and he will be joined by 2017 world champion Corben Sharrah.
44. Women’s synchronized 3-meter springboard diving
43. Men’s synchronized 3-meter springboard diving
Springboard gets bonus points because I like seeing the diving board go boi-oi-oi-oi-oing!
If you expected a better reason than that, thank you for believing in me, and I’m sorry for letting you down.
OK, fine, here’s another: American Michael Hixon was a silver medalist in Rio, and he’ll compete in Tokyo with new partner Andrew Capobianco. Both will make the cool springboard sound when they dive.
43. Women’s 76 kg weightlifting
Only one American woman has ever earned gold in weightlifting, and 22-year-old Oklahoman Katherine Nye hopes to change that. She’s the defending world champion in 71 kg, but that’s not an Olympic event, so she’s been training hard at 76 kg.
North Korea is not participating in the Tokyo Games, which means world record holder and two-time Olympic champion Rim Jong-sim can’t stand in Nye’s way. Her chief competition will be three-time World Championships medalist Neisi Dajomes, who will be a flag bearer for Ecuador, and Great Britain’s Emily Muskett.
42. Women’s handball
41. Men’s handball
Quite possibly the most underrated sport in the Summer Olympics, handball—the team version that’s like bizarro-world soccer, not your nephew slapping a ball off a wall in the schoolyard—isn’t terribly hard to comprehend, and it’s constantly exciting. A team that scores a goal has about one second to celebrate before the other team brings the ball back down the court. Shots frequently involve diving into the crease or jumping to clear the outstretched arms of the defender. Contact, especially in the men’s game, is prevalent. As in ice hockey, substitutions can be made at any time.
The one disclaimer is obvious, considering you’ve probably never watched this sport in your life: The United States is not good at it. In fact, no North American team is in either competition in Tokyo. The men’s competition will feature defending Olympic and world champions Denmark, while the women’s event is highlighted by France, Norway, and the Netherlands. Maybe if some young Americans watch, they’ll be enthralled, paving the way for American handball glory many years hence, grateful that it all started for them in Tokyo.
40. Men’s floor exercise (gymnastics)
Watch one routine by an elite gymnast and you’ll think, “Wait, what? How? Nothing that just happened could actually happen.” Watch the entire competition and you’ll be no closer to answers, but you’ll have an amazing time.
Carlos Yulo of the Philippines, whose 2019 World Championships-winning run is embedded above, will try to fend off the ROC’s Nikita Nagornyy, Israel’s Artem Dolgopyat, and China’s Xiao Ruoteng.
39. Women’s 51 kg boxing
No idea who will win, but three of the athletes have stories that remind you just how impressive the Olympians are:
Mandy Bujold of Canada will box in her second Olympics after winning an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport; she was unable to attend what were retroactively deemed Olympic qualifying tournaments because she was on maternity leave. I should also note that she lost in the quarterfinals in Rio after being discharged from the hospital just two hours earlier due to gastroenteritis.
American Ginny Fuchs is finally making her Olympic debut at age 33 after coming up just short of qualifying for the previous two Games. She participated in a recent PBS documentary called Mysteries of Mental Illness, in which she described managing her obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Mary Kom is 38 years old, a mother of four, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, a six-time gold medalist at the World Championships, one of India’s flag bearers in Tokyo, and a member of Parliament.
38. Women’s 4x100-meter relay (track)
As you’ll see much further down the list, Jamaica should cruise to victory, avenging a loss to the United States in Rio. From the USA’s perspective, this race could be as notable for Sha’Carri Richardson’s absence as for how the team will fare.
37. Men’s 4x100-meter relay (track)
I cannot imagine a scenario in which America loses this race—it would have to be the worst sports calamity since Mr. Burns lost eight of his nine softball ringers in “Homer at the Bat.” The scariest threat to their chances is that I just jinxed them into dropping the baton.
Seriously, the seventh-fastest American sprinter in 2021 has a better time than the second-fastest non-American sprinter. The U.S. hasn’t won this event since 2000, but barring a freak occurrence (furiously knocking on wood), that drought will end on Aug. 6.
36. Men’s 400-meter hurdles (track)
At the U.S. Olympic Trials, Rai Benjamin put up a time of 46.83 seconds, what was then the second-fastest time ever. Five days later, 25-year-old Karsten Warholm of Norway broke the 29-year-old world record, posting a time of 46.70. Of the 10 best times in history, each hurdler has three of them. This is a two-man race, plain and simple.
35. Men’s beach volleyball
Doesn’t it seem kinda weird that we don’t care more about beach volleyball outside of the Olympics? It’s a fun sport contested by very athletic, very gorgeous people amid lovely scenery, and yet, most people could name exactly one team. Many, many Americans have played it too, but in way nicer surroundings than they’ve probably played table tennis or badminton. As if fuzzy memories of beach time fun weren’t enough, the most memorable scene in Top Gun has been living right under our noses for decades, waiting for us to become beach volleyball superfans this whole time. What gives?
Three of the four men on the U.S.’s pair of teams were in the 2016 Olympics but found little success. Curiously, Brazilian gold medalists Bruno Oscar Schmidt and Alison Cerutti are both competing in Tokyo, but with different partners. What gives?!?!
34. Women’s water polo
Take all of the action of the men’s water polo draw and add in a dominant United States squad. They’ve won the past two Olympic gold medals, the past three World Championships, and the past seven World Leagues.
33. Men’s singles tennis
This event could easily rank much higher, but when you look at who’s not playing, it could also go much lower.
Novak Djokovic of Serbia could become the second player, after Steffi Graf in 1988, to ever achieve the Golden Slam. Having won the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon this year, he would just need Olympics and U.S. Open titles for an astonishing sweep.
If he weren’t playing, this event wouldn’t crack my top 100. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and 2020 U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem are out, as are the top three American men in the current rankings. The U.S. contingent is extremely weak, featuring Tommy Paul, Frances Tiafoe, and Tennys Sandgren, whose serendipitous name is more than canceled out by his belief in Pizzagate. The world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev will be there, and he has beaten Djokovic in three of their six meetings since 2019. However, their last meeting was the 2021 Australian Open final; guess who won in straight sets?
32. Women’s 400-meter hurdles (track)
This might be Sydney McLaughlin’s moment. She made the Rio team at age 16, becoming the youngest American track Olympian in more than 40 years. In 2019, she won silver at the world championships. But even then, she wasn’t satisfied. She switched coaches (joining Bob Kersee, who coaches Allyson Felix, among others) and spent the first part of her season racing the 100-meter hurdles to improve her technique.
The plan has worked so far. She crushed the world record by a quarter-second at the U.S. Olympic trials. Fellow American Dalilah Muhammad—the previous world record holder and the 2016 gold medalist—and the Netherlands’ Femke Bol should also be in contention, but McLaughlin might leave the competition in her dust in Tokyo.
31. Women’s basketball
Anyone who tells you women’s basketball is a worse sport than men’s basketball just because they can’t dunk is lying to you. It’s an exhilarating, technically marvelous sport.
Plus, some of them can dunk, bro.
The American women also haven’t lost a game at the Olympics since 1992, and despite a close loss to Australia in a pre-Olympics warmup, that’s not going to change this year. That single-team dominance knocks this event down a couple dozen pegs.
Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson are probably the two best players on Earth, and certainly the two best players in the Olympics. Both 40-year-old Sue Bird and 39-year-old Diana Taurasi are, inexplicably, still performing at a superstar caliber. The team is so good that Candace Parker, Arike Ogunbowale, and Nneka Ogwumike aren’t even on it.
With Australian star Liz Cambage pulling out of the tournament and Ogwumike losing her appeal to join the Nigerian team, the U.S. will have players coming off the bench better than any player on any other team. Watch for the spectacle, but not for a potential upset.
30. Men’s individual all-around gymnastics
29. Men’s team all-around gymnastics
Japanese athletes won these events in 2016, including Kohei Uchimura earning his second straight individual title, and they also took team bronze at the 2019 worlds with a completely different set of gymnasts. They will contend for gold on their home turf against China and the ROC for glory in both events.
The U.S. put up a goose egg in men’s all-around events at the 2016 Olympics and 2019 World Championships; they earned three total medals in men’s gymnastics in Rio, but neither of those athletes is back for Tokyo. (Danell Leyva took home two silvers in 2016, but his most-viewed YouTube video is an American Ninja Warrior run.) Sam Mikulak is back for his third Olympics, which is very impressive for an American gymnast, but don’t pin your hopes on him—or any other American man—to reach a podium.
28. Men’s +109 kg weightlifting
These are the heaviest competitors, which appeals to the most-base instincts in the best way. “Watch large people lift heavy things” is simple fun in the same way you might watch Joey Chestnut eat 75 hot dogs or Pete Alonso smack 35 home runs.
27. Women’s 3-on-3 basketball
France is the top-ranked team in the world, and they’re using the same squad that took bronze at the 2019 World Cup, but the U.S. roster is made up of WNBA players, including two-time All-Star Stefanie Dolson and 2017 Rookie of the Year Allisha Gray.
26. Women’s 57 kg wrestling
Helen Maroulis has something to prove.
In 2016, Maroulis became the first American woman to earn wrestling gold at the Olympics when she beat Japan’s Saori Yoshida, who had won the previous three Olympics and 13 straight World Championships. But after earning gold again at the 2017 Worlds, Maroulis shockingly lost her first-round match in 2018, then didn’t compete in 2019.
She’s back to defend her crown, but she’ll have to take down another Japanese competitor: three-time world champion and Rio 63 kg gold medalist Risako Kawai.
25. Women’s park skateboarding
24. Men’s park skateboarding
These events not only have a course that will lead to more excitement than street skating; they have more interesting stories, too.
The women’s event has youth normally reserved for a gymnastics competition or a spelling bee. Sky Brown of Great Britain, who turned just 13 this month, has already cemented herself as one of the world’s best; she also won Dancing With the Stars: Juniors.
Want some more teens who can shred? Try world champion Misugu Okamoto of Japan and Americans Brighton Zeuner—a two-time X Games gold medalist—and Bryce Wettstein.
For the men, Hawaii’s Heimana Reynolds was the 2019 world champion but has a lower profile than most other skaters and has never won an X Games medal, while fellow American Cory Juneau could also challenge for gold. X Games mainstay Pedro Barros wants to bring a title home to Brazil.
But the coolest story might be skating legend Rune Glifberg, who has been a pro skateboarder for nearly 30 years and will represent Denmark at age 46. When Glifberg started competing at the X Games, they were still called the “Extreme Games.” He was a playable character in the first Tony Hawk game. His daughter is older than all of the women’s competitors I listed. And he’s still here, hanging with the young guns.
23. Women’s 800-meter freestyle swimming
While winning other events will be much more difficult for Katie Ledecky this time around, the 800-meter free is her bread and butter. She doesn’t have the fastest time ever recorded, or the two fastest times. She has the 23 fastest times and won the event in Rio by an absurd 11 seconds.
22. Women’s +87 kg weightlifting
The United States was shut out in weightlifting in three straight Olympics before Sarah Robles snatched bronze in 2016; she’ll be back for her third Olympics. Also competing will be trailblazing transgender lifter Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand, who earned silver at the World Championships, just behind Robles, in 2017. If the 43-year-old Hubbard can reach the podium in Tokyo, watch for smoke coming out of the ears of right-wing news pundits the next day.
21. Women’s 200-meter track
American Gabby Thomas is the heavy favorite—and her adorable puppy, Rico, will surely be cheering for her—but nipping at her heels will be Jamaicans Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson, and Americans Jenna Prandini and Anavia Battle.
Rico will have to wait until she gets home to nip at her heels.
20. Women’s beach volleyball
In 2016, April Ross paired with Kerri Walsh Jennings to earn bronze in Rio. Now part of the No. 2–ranked team in the world along with Alix Klineman, Ross has a great chance at her second medal. The team won silver at the 2019 World Championships, losing to Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes of the beach volleyball hotbed that is … Canada? I had to check my notes on that one. Anyway, a meeting between those two duos in Tokyo is likely.
19. Men’s 200-meter track
Noah Lyles is the defending world champion and has the best time in the world in 2021 at 19.74 seconds, yet he’s not the dominant American story when you consider 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton, who set the under-20 world record—previously held by Usain Bolt—at the U.S. Olympic trials at 19.84. The third American to qualify for Tokyo, Kenny Bednarek, is right behind Lyles with the second-fastest time of the year, a 19.78 personal best he also achieved at the trials.
With Bolt out of the picture, the best chances to stop an American sweep are 2016 silver medalist Andre De Grasse of Canada and Divine Oduduru of Nigeria. Call me biased—which you easily could have done many thousands of words ago—but I’m predicting a sweep.
18. Men’s indoor volleyball
17. Women’s indoor volleyball
Is indoor volleyball as flashy as its outdoor cousin? Well, they’re wearing full uniforms instead of swimwear, so no. But it is faster-paced, harder-hitting, and arguably more athletic. The coordination between six teammates has few parallels in other sports, and despite wearing shirts, indoor players—regardless of which gender(s) you’re into—are just as attractive as beach players.
The only confounding thing is why everyone on a team has to high-five after every point, no matter what happened. I understand “Great spike! High-five!”; “You served the ball into the net! High-five!” makes far less sense.
Both American squads earned bronze in 2016, and the women are currently ranked first in the world, while the men are fifth. The women are also coached by Karch Kiraly, the most famous American volleyball player since Wilt Chamberlain (yes, you read that correctly) and the only person to win Olympic gold in both indoor and beach volleyball.
16. Men’s soccer
While it’s the most popular sport in the world, Olympic men’s soccer is a bit of an afterthought—essentially, a competition for under-24 squads that are allowed to bring in three older players. It’s as if every nation’s soccer team was trying to emulate the United States’ baseball team.
Defending champion Brazil does have a number of stellar under-24 players, such as Everton’s Richarlison and Ajax’s Antony, plus overage leaders Dani Alves and Diego Carlos. Spain will bring a few players who just reached the semifinals of Euro 2020, with Barcelona’s Eric Garcia and Villareal’s Pau Torres anchoring a strong defense.
15. Women’s 4x100 medley relay swimming
14. Men’s 4x100 medley relay swimming
13. Mixed 4x100 medley relay swimming
These events are tremendous toss-ups, because you have no idea who will actually compete. Coaches can mix and match and base their teams on who’s having the best week. They’re among the last swimming events of the Games, and they showcase the best of the best in all four swimming disciplines. They also allow teams that are strong to step up in the most vital moments—in 2016, Great Britain’s men won silver and Denmark’s women won bronze despite each nation earning just one medal in individual events.
The mixed relay, making its first Olympics appearance, will be particularly fascinating. Two men and two women race for each nation, but there’s no restriction on which strokes are performed by which genders. Plus, top swimmers might compete in the mixed event, their gendered event, or both. Expect lots of gamesmanship.
After winning in both the men’s and women’s relays in Rio, the United States took gold in the women’s event and silver in the men’s and mixed events at the 2019 World Championships. Anything less than that would be considered a disappointment.
12. Men’s 97 kg freestyle wrestling
Kyle Snyder had one of the most impressive three-year stretches imaginable for a wrestler. He won the 2015 Pan American Games, then the World Championships, then an NCAA title, then the 2016 Olympics, then another NCAA title, then another World Championships in 2017, then I lost my breath from reciting that list of achievements.
At the 2018 worlds, he lost in the final to Russia’s Abdulrashid Sadulaev, who moved up in weight after taking gold at 86 kg in Rio. The next year, Snyder settled for bronze after losing to another Olympic gold medalist, Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan, in the semifinal. Expect a very similar podium in Tokyo, as these three greats battle it out for heavyweight supremacy.
By the way, Snyder and Sadulaev are both 25 years old. If they stay in the same weight class, this rivalry will continue for a long time.
11. Women’s 400-meter freestyle swimming
This is the colossal one. Ledecky vs. Titmus! Swimming powerhouse nation vs. swimming powerhouse nation! Former British colonies vs. former British jail!
Katie Ledecky set the still-standing world record of 3:56.46 in this event in Rio, but Australian Ariarne Titmus has the best time in the world this season, less than a half-second shy of the world record. It’s likely to be a fight to the finish, and don’t be shocked if one or both swimmers finish with a time that starts with 3:55.
10. Women’s BMX freestyle
9. Men’s BMX freestyle
While everyone thinks of skateboarding as the cool action sport, BMX freestyle—making its Olympic debut in Tokyo—has athletes who fly higher, ride faster, and need less setup time before their next gravity-defying trick. I could (and will) watch these brave souls do double-barspin 720s all day, which the announcers will hopefully say are “totally sick.”
Befitting a sport insane enough that only Americans could have invented it, Hannah Roberts is already a three-time world champion despite being just 19 years old, so she’s the clear favorite, though compatriot Perris Benegas did win gold at the 2018 worlds. On the men’s side, Nick Bruce and Justin Dowell have both earned worlds medals in the past few years, too. Australia’s Logan Martin won 2018 and 2019 X Games gold, and Japanese teenager Nakamura Rim will be in contention.
8. Women’s team all-around gymnastics
Expect Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum to carry the United States to an easy gold medal.
Wait, am I forgetting somebody?
7. Men’s rugby sevens
This tournament will be as action-packed as anything you’re likely to witness in Tokyo, and it’s a wide-open field. Fiji took home gold in 2016—the nation’s first Olympic medal of any color in any sport—and boasts the 2019–20 World Series’ leading scorer in Napolioni Bolaca. New Zealand won that most recent World Series and is a contender at every tournament. South Africa took silver in the last World Series and bronze in the last World Cup.
And the United States? Well, they finished second in the World Series two years ago and bring a team with plenty of experience that, aside from 35-year-old stalwart Perry Baker, is still rather youthful. Captain Madison Hughes is a great tactician, and Carlin Isles is a former All-American sprinter.
6. Women’s singles tennis
There is so much to look forward to here.
Naomi Osaka will represent the host nation following a tumultuous first half of 2021, during which she won the Australian Open, then withdrew from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon to focus on her mental health. Japan has never taken gold in Olympic tennis, but nobody has been in a better position to do it than her.
World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, fresh off a Wimbledon title, will be in Tokyo, along with former Grand Slam champions like Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova and 20-year-old Iga Swiatek of Poland.
And for the United States? Serena Williams and Sofia Kenin chose not to participate, but three strong competitors will be playing, including 2021 Aussie finalist Jennifer Brady.
Or maybe someone completely unexpected goes all the way. That’s what happened five years ago, when Monica Puig—who has only reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam once—took down the likes of Garbiñe Muguruza and Angelique Kerber to earn Puerto Rico’s first-ever Olympic gold medal.
5. Women’s 100-meter track
This event would rank even higher if Sha’Carri Richardson were on the starting line. The charismatic American sprinter won’t be in Tokyo after her controversial positive marijuana test, turning a must-watch showdown into a … still must-watch event, just with half as many megawatts of star power.
Although the NBC broadcast (and the Twitterverse) will focus on Richardson’s absence, the fact remains that there’s still an exciting race to be run.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce holds first place in the World Athletics rankings. She won gold in this event in 2008 and 2012, then bronze in 2016. Close behind her is another Jamaican, 2016 gold medalist Elaine Thompson-Herah. Great Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith or the Ivory Coast’s Marie-Josée Ta Lou might challenge them, but no American present poses a realistic threat.
4. Men’s 100-meter track
This is the showcase race of the Olympics—a dead sprint, straight ahead, with the title of “World’s Fastest Man” on the line. In under 10 seconds, someone can start at great and end at legend, like Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, and Usain Bolt.
The U.S.’s first podium sweep in this event since 1912 is not out of the question. Three of the five fastest 100-meter times in the world this year belong to Americans, led by Trayvon Bromell with a season-best 9.77 seconds, with Ronnie Baker (9.85) and Fred Kerley (9.86) not far behind. If someone is going to stop the Americans, it’s probably 2016 bronze medalist Andre De Grasse of Canada or South Africa’s Akani Simbine.
3. Men’s basketball
You might think this wouldn’t be a must-watch event, since the USA is usually so dominant. But that’s not the case this year—at least, not yet.
An American team with one all-time great in Kevin Durant and 10 other former All-Stars (plus Jerami Grant) losing exhibition games to Nigeria and Australia is nearly unfathomable, though after the past 18 months, nobody knows what timeline we’re in anymore. They finally got a win over Argentina, but now two of those All-Stars, Kevin Love and Bradley Beal—the second-leading scorer in the NBA last season—have left the team. Even when it starts to get better, it gets worse.
With eight of the 12 teams making it out of the group stage in Tokyo, the Americans will surely advance to the knockout round, so who might challenge them for gold? The host Japanese squad will have players whose club teams have stellar names like SeaHorses Mikawa, Nagoya Diamond Dolphins, and Washington Wizards, but they aren’t contenders. And while there are a few mammoth names on international squads, such as the Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic and three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert of France, the team that comes closest to matching the Americans’ depth is perennial power Spain.
And boy, would Spain love to defeat the Yanks. La Roja have never won gold, and in each of the past four Olympics, the U.S. has sent them home, including in the semifinals in 2016 and the finals in 2012 and 2008. Their Tokyo roster—experienced but aging, with half the players at least 32—include slick point guard Ricky Rubio, three-time All-Star Marc Gasol, and his older brother, 41-year-old Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant’s former running mate who won a Spanish league title this season with Barcelona.
In their final warmup before heading to Tokyo, the U.S. beat Spain, but only by 7; that could be a portent. With three Team USA players wrapping up the NBA Finals days before the Games, Spain will have an edge in rest and cohesion. However, those three players will help increase America’s edge in skill, as their talents were key to making the NBA Finals.
2. Women’s individual all-around gymnastics
Look, when you put a sparkly goat on your leotard because you’re the greatest of all time, and not a single gymnast objects, you could easily suck a lot of the drama out of the competition. With Simone Biles, though, the drama is always there, because watching to see how hard she can push herself is as thrilling as sports get.
Biles didn’t have to perform at these Olympics. She could’ve retired two years ago and still been remembered as the best gymnast in history. The thing is, the GOAT debate always pops up again—Larisa Latynina was the best, until Olga Korbut was the best, until Nadia Comaneci was the best, and so on. What Biles will try to do in Tokyo is seal that debate in a time capsule as an antiquated relic, so when a once-in-a-generation talent comes along in 20 years, people will say, “Yes, she’s incredible, but she’s no Simone Biles.”
A non-Biles nugget: special shoutout to Uzbekistan’s Oksana Chusovitina, who is competing in her eighth(!!) Olympics at the age of 46(!!!!), making her the oldest Olympic gymnast ever.
1. Women’s soccer
How is soccer, which has its biggest event in a different venue—the World Cup—atop a list for an event that hosts the apex of competition for dynamic, iconic sports like gymnastics, track and field, swimming, and international basketball? Well, the rankings are about this Olympics, and this women’s soccer tournament. Unlike the men’s event, the women’s tournament really matters to the players: Every nation sends its best—including the United States. And for this astonishing group of players, the Tokyo Olympics may look a lot like one last run at glory.
As with every tournament, the U.S. is favored yet in no way guaranteed to take home gold. If you need evidence, just look at the last Olympics, when the USWNT was bounced in the quarterfinals. Seventeen of the 22 players on this year’s squad were also on the team that took home the 2019 World Cup, but with experience comes age, and this team is old. Half the players, including most of the starters, are at least 30, and while Rose Lavelle will likely be the youngest starter at 26, Megan Rapinoe and captain Becky Sauerbrunn are 36, goalie Alyssa Naeher is 33, and Alex Morgan is 32.
Fortunately for the U.S., the second- and third-ranked teams in the world, Germany and France, missed out on the Olympics. Among those in contention are the Netherlands, which has much younger stars (Lieke Martens is 28 and Vivianne Miedema is 25) who were on the team that lost to the Americans in the 2019 World Cup final; Great Britain, whose defense anchored by Lucy Bronze and Millie Bright is the best in the world; and Sweden, who would love to knock the U.S. out of the Olympics like they did five years ago.
About 18,000 words ago, I said the Olympics started Friday … but for softball and soccer, they actually started on Wednesday. In the opening match of Group G, Sweden beat the U.S. 3–0, already putting the USWNT in a huge hole. They’ll likely need to beat New Zealand and at least tie Australia just to reach the knockout stage.
We could be looking at the swan song for Rapinoe, Morgan, Sauerbrunn, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, and Christen Press. The USWNT wants to win now, because the 2023 World Cup might be too far in the future, but an opening-game loss means there are far more questions than answers. Everyone else would love to take down the champs, and they’re not waiting for 2023, either.
The era of dominance for U.S. women’s soccer will soon come to an end—it might in the next couple of weeks—but the American megastars want to prove, one last time, that they’re still the queens of the sport.