The 2020 Olympics: 7 Sports We’re Watching

Posted by on July 23, 2021 5:25 pm
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That legendary flame is lit. The 2020 Olympics opened a year late in Tokyo, kicking off with a somber and strange ceremony that spoke to this upsetting moment in history. Below, seven writers and editors catch you up on the sports they plan to watch in the coming weeks of competition.

Women’s gymnastics

Artistic gymnasts compete both as a team and as individuals—so the women representing the United States in Tokyo will be both teammates and rivals. As they fly and flip and leap and twist and generally defy gravity, they’ll be scored based on two factors: the difficulty of the skills they perform and the execution of those skills (their artistry and overall technique). But don’t watch the judges. These Games will likely be your last opportunity to see Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast and quite possibly the greatest athlete of all time, perform on every apparatus. Biles’s degree of difficulty is so much higher than her fellow gymnasts’ that she could fall in competition—as she did during her beam routine at the U.S. Olympic trials last month—and still come out with a win.

— Megan Garber, staff writer covering culture

When to watch: Now through August 3 (full schedule)  

Women’s soccer

This morning’s Olympic opening ceremony marked day 868 of the U.S. women’s national team’s equal-pay lawsuit against its employer, U.S. Soccer. The USWNT is also—as tends to be the case around major tournaments—at the center of debate about what it means to represent the United States. The team’s emphatic defeat by Sweden in its tournament opener on Wednesday will be a tough mental test to overcome, but if history tells us anything, it’s that this team will ultimately find fuel in that pressure: The USWNT lives for big moments like these. That DNA, combined with the fact that this particular squad has otherwise been playing some of the team’s most clinical, creative soccer in recent memory, still makes it a strong favorite to win gold this year.

— Kelsey J. Waite, copy editor

When to watch: The U.S. next plays New Zealand tomorrow, July 24, at 7:30 a.m. ET. (full schedule)

Swimming

This year’s U.S. Olympic swim team is a story of seasoned veterans and new faces. When the team begins competition on July 24, it will be the first time since 1996 that Michael Phelps—a 28-time Olympic medalist—won’t be swimming. Still, the team has plenty of experienced Olympians, like the five-time gold medalist Katie Ledecky and co-captain Simone Manuel, who has been outspoken about the need for support for people of color in and out of the pool. Joining them are 11 teenagers, including 15-year-old Katie Grimes, the team’s youngest member, and 17-year-old Michael Andrew, who will compete despite his decision not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. topped the swimming-medal count in 2016, but the team faces stiff competition this year from Australia.

— Kate Guarino, assistant editor

When to watch: July 24 through July 31 (full schedule)

Women’s running

At the end of the 400-meter finals at last month’s U.S. track-and-field trials, first-place finisher Quanera Hayes and second-place finisher Allyson Felix—who has spoken out against the lack of maternity protections in many athletes’ contracts—celebrated together with their toddlers. In distance running, meanwhile, Aliphine Tuliamuk won last year’s marathon trial, then took advantage of the postponement to have a daughter, whom she fought to bring with her under Japan’s strict COVID-19 protocols for the Games. Any or all of these women could medal—Felix won silver in her event in Rio—but just as notable for fans at home, and for the sport, is the way they are giving the lie to the long-held assumption that professional women’s running is incompatible with motherhood.

— Karen Ostergren, deputy copy chief

When to watch: The women’s 400-meter races kick off on Monday, August 2, and continue through that Friday; the women’s marathon is on Friday, August 6.

Women’s hammer

The first thing you need to know about women’s hammer throwing is that it is extremely intense: Competitors spin around in a circle to gain speed, before whipping a nine-pound ball as far as they can, which is usually hundreds of feet. The second thing you need to know about women’s hammer is that it’s the site of a debate about political speech in elite sports, and a dispute between the national and international Olympic committees. Team USA’s Gwen Berry—one of the best female hammer throwers in history—turned her back on the flag during trials last month, saying, “The anthem doesn’t speak for me. It never has.” Berry has indicated that she may protest again in Tokyo. This isn’t against the U.S. Olympic Committee’s rules—but it is against the international rules, and the two bodies haven’t reached a consensus about how to handle protests, if they happen.

— Ellen Cushing, special projects editor

When to watch: July 31 (qualifiers) and August 3 (finals)

Sport climbing

Most Olympic sports leave little room for error; in climbing, which is making its Games debut, the margins are minuscule. As you watch the bouldering and lead-climbing competitions, know that each delicately placed finger or heel balances on it the full weight of the gold. And then there’s a third category, speed climbing, a zany and enthralling 10-second leap up a 15-foot wall. In order to take home the sport’s first-ever medals, climbers will need to compete in all three events—a controversial combined-scoring choice that one competitor likened to asking a marathon runner to do hurdles. The speed portion could trip up the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra, the obvious favorite for the men’s gold (as explained in this mesmerizing New York Times infographic). On the women’s side, Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret is the one to beat.

— Caroline Mimbs Nyce, senior associate editor (and Daily newsletter writer)

When to watch: August 3 through August 6 (full schedule)

Skateboarding

When skateboarding appears in the Olympics for the first time this summer, the Games will be injected with both a jolt of newness and a sense of familiarity. When I was growing up in L.A., skateboarding was constantly in the background of my adolescence: My classmates would skate to school or in the parking lot during lunch. A couple of years ago, I even tried to teach myself how to skate (tried being the key word there). Although I’m certainly hoping that the U.S. skaters win gold this year, the way they’ve talked about the sport has already made them stand out. Athletes such as Alana Smith, Mariah Duran, and Nyjah Huston have emphasized the freedom, friendship, and fun of skating, making it more about community than competition. Plus, have you seen the uniforms?

— Tori Latham, copy editor

When to watch: July 24 through July 25 and August 3 through August 4 (full schedule)

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