HomeSportsTokyo Olympics: Athletes to Watch This Summer

Tokyo Olympics: Athletes to Watch This Summer

No list of Olympic athletes could encompass all the stories of human achievement on display at the Summer Games. But if you’re looking for some names to root for (or against) in Tokyo, here are a few to start with. (Note that some still need to qualify to compete this year.)

GymnasticsSimone Biles, United States

Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history, has set the bar so high for her competitors in Tokyo that perhaps no one can beat her. Her gravity-defying moves, coupled with her tremendous speed and power, set her apart from everyone else — by miles. At the 2016 Rio Games, Biles won four golds: in the all-around, the team event, the vault and the floor exercise. Expect the same, or more, from her in Tokyo, where she could be the first woman in 53 years to defend an Olympic all-around title.

Sunisa Lee, United States

In 2019, her first year as a senior-level gymnast, Lee made her mark as one of the favorites to make the U.S. team and win a medal at the Tokyo Games. And if not for the phenomenon that is Simone Biles, she might be the star of the U.S. team right now. Lee, 18, proved her fortitude at nationals in 2019, winning a gold medal on the uneven bars just days after her father sustained a spinal cord injury in a fall from a ladder. At the world championships that year, she won a team gold medal and two individual medals: a silver on the floor exercise and a bronze on the uneven bars.

Serena Williams, United States

This is very likely the last Olympic go-round for Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam champion. Williams, 39, is among the greatest tennis players of all time, but she has not won a major tournament since giving birth to her first daughter in 2017. She loves the Olympics and would relish one more gold medal to go with the four she has already won.

Naomi Osaka, Japan

Osaka, who grew up in the United States but is a Japanese citizen, is arguably her country’s biggest sports star right now, a megawatt celebrity whose every move is tracked. In addition to her sublime tennis skills, she represents a new vision of Japan that embraces multiculturalism.

SwimmingSimone Manuel, United States

When Manuel won the 100-meter freestyle at the Rio Games, it wasn’t just an exciting race that ended in a dead heat in a fast time. It was also a slice of history, as she became the first African American woman to win an individual swimming event. She polished her credentials as the world’s fastest swimmer with two 100 freestyle wins and one 50 freestyle win at the last two world championships. In Tokyo, she could win golds in three relay events as well.

Katie Ledecky, United States

Ledecky, 24, is a five-time Olympic gold medalist who is the two-time defending Olympic champion in the 800-meter freestyle and the reigning champion in the 200 and 400 freestyles. She owns nine of the world’s top 10 performances in the 400 freestyle, the 23 fastest times in the 800 freestyle and the 10 fastest swims in the 1,500 freestyle, an event that will make its Olympic debut for the women in Tokyo.

Lilly King, United States

King, 24, is the defending Olympic champion in the 100-meter breaststroke, an event in which she owns five of the world’s top 15 performances, including the world record. She distinguished herself at the 2016 Olympics out of the pool, too, criticizing the appearance at the Games of her chief rival, Yulia Efimova of Russia, who had been suspended twice for banned substances. She could again face Efimova, who is training for a fourth Olympics.

Caeleb Dressel, United States

Dressel, 24, will be aiming for his first individual Olympic gold medal in Tokyo and could swim as many as seven events, including four relays. In 2016, he led off the victorious 4×100-meter freestyle relay, directly ahead of Michael Phelps, whose huge Olympic flippers the United States will now be looking to Dressel to fill. Dressel, a sprint freestyler and butterflyer, could become the third man to win three individual golds at a single Olympics, after Mark Spitz and Phelps.

Track and fieldAllyson Felix, United States

Long a shy and quiet champion, Felix has transformed into a fighter for women’s equality since giving birth to her first child in 2018. She almost single-handedly shamed Nike into treating female athletes better when she broke confidentiality clauses and spoke about how the company cut her pay and pushed for a quick return to competition after she became a mother. She has won nine Olympic medals, including six golds, making her one of the most decorated sprinters ever.

Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya

Kipchoge is the best marathoner ever, the only man to run a marathon in under two hours, and he has basically become a distance running Yoda who speaks in parables about sport and life: “Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and your passions.” He is also the defending champion in the Olympic marathon, proving that he can win on courses that put a premium on racing rather than simply speed.

Justin Gatlin, United States

Gatlin, a five-time Olympic medalist who has twice served suspensions for doping, has long been seen as a villain in his sport, fairly or not. And yet, at 39, he continues to win races and refuses to exit the stage. He took the silver medal in the 100 meters at the 2019 world championships and quite literally has shown little evidence of slowing down.

Caster Semenya, South Africa

Semenya, a two-time gold medalist at 800 meters, has little chance of winning another medal, but just making it to Tokyo is a triumph. World Athletics has banned Semenya and other female athletes with elevated testosterone levels from competing in events from 400 to 1,500 meters unless they take medication to bring those hormone levels closer to the female norm. Semenya, who has said she is not sick and therefore does not need drugs, qualified for the Tokyo Games at a far longer distance, 5,000 meters.

Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad, United States

Considered one of track and field’s rising stars since she was a high school prodigy in New Jersey, McLaughlin established herself on the international stage in 2019, when, at age 20, she placed second at the world championships in the 400-meter hurdles. Muhammad, the reigning Olympic champion, needed to break her own world record to defeat McLaughlin in that race. Many expect the next chapter of their rivalry to unfold in Tokyo.

Noah Lyles, United States

Lyles is supposed to be one of the next big American stars. He was just 22 when he became the 200-meter world champion in 2019. Given his age and his personal best in the 200 meters, 19.50, he might be within shouting distance of Usain Bolt’s world record of 19.19.

Shaunae Miller-Uibo, the Bahamas

Miller-Uibo was the Bahamian flag-bearer at the 2016 Olympic Games, then went out and won the 400 meters by diving across the line to edge Allyson Felix. Rather than defend her gold in the 400, Miller-Uibo has decided to focus on winning the 200 this summer in Tokyo.

Sha’Carri Richardson, United States

Richardson, 21, is primed to be the it-girl of American track and field if she fulfills the promise that she has shown in just a few short years of elite competition. She ran a 10.72 in the 100 meters in April, the sixth-fastest time in history. She wears her fingernails long, just like the last female sprinting megastar, Florence Griffith Joyner, and talks big. “I am who you all think I am, and I am who I say I am,” she declared after her attention-grabbing performance this spring.

SoccerAlex Morgan, United States

Had the Olympics taken place as scheduled, Morgan would almost certainly have had to sit them out: She gave birth to her first child in May 2020 and was rushing that summer to regain her fitness. But the postponement has reopened the door for Morgan, who has scored 109 goals in 175 international games, to help spearhead the American attack at the Summer Games and continue her run as one of the most prolific strikers in women’s soccer history.

Megan Rapinoe, United States

Few athletes can command a spotlight, and then thrive in it, quite like Rapinoe. An artful winger, she has become the biggest name in women’s soccer for both her rousing play on the field and her willingness to speak cogently, and often hilariously, on any number of social issues. Rapinoe has said she isn’t thinking about retirement just yet, but she is 35, so the Tokyo Games could be her last time playing the game on a truly global stage.

Beach volleyballAlix Klineman and April Ross, United States

Klineman has big shoes to fill. Her partner, Ross, teamed up at the Rio Games with Kerri Walsh Jennings, the three-time Olympic gold medalist. After excelling for years indoors, Klineman is a newcomer to the beach version of her sport. No matter. She and Ross have quickly emerged as one of the top duos in the world.

Sport climbingAdam Ondra, Czech Republic

The world’s best rock climbers generally agree: Ondra is the best of them all. But can he win a gold medal? Ondra splits his time between the fake-wall competition circuit, where he has won many world championships, and the real-rock big walls that make him legendary among outdoor climbers. He may be handicapped by the odd format of climbing’s Olympic debut. With only one Olympic medal for men and one for women, scores from three distinct events — boulder, lead and speed — will be combined.

Janja Garnbret, Slovenia

Garnbret is the best women’s competitive climber in the world, winning a slew of major contests the past few years in the boulder and lead disciplines. But the three-discipline format might reward an all-around climber, not a dominant one. Like Ondra, can Garnbret perform well enough in the quirky speed contest to collect a gold medal?

Stephanie Gilmore, Australia, and Carissa Moore, United States

While Gilmore, 33, and Moore, 28, are separated by only five years, Moore has long been considered the future of surfing. Moore, who was born in Hawaii, won her first World Surf League title in 2011, interrupting Gilmore’s four-year streak as world champion. The two have traded positions at the top of the sport since: Gilmore took the crown in 2012, 2014 and 2018, and Moore in 2013, 2015 and 2019. The rivalry is sure to play out in the waves off Chiba, Japan, as surfing makes its Olympic debut.

SkateboardingNyjah Huston, United States

There is no bigger star in competitive skateboarding than Huston. Once a child star of the sport, now a 26-year-old veteran with millions of social media followers around the world, Huston has been performing in the sport’s biggest contests for most of his life. He hopes his experience leads him to a victory in the sport’s Olympic debut.

Yuto Horigome, Japan

As the biggest obstacle to Huston’s gold medal ambitions in skateboarding’s street competition, Horigome, 22, has a chance to be one of Japan’s biggest breakout stars in the Olympics.

Leticia Bufoni, Pamela Rosa and Rayssa Leal, Brazil

Like surfing, skateboarding is making its long-anticipated Olympic debut four years after the 2016 Rio Olympics, too late for Brazil to celebrate medals at home. But Brazil may dominate the women’s street competition behind Bufoni, 28; Rosa, 21; and Leal, 13.

Sky Brown, Britain, and Misugu Okamoto, Japan

With no age restrictions on competitors, skateboarding promises to infuse the Summer Olympics with a youthful vibe — no more than in the women’s park contest, in which 12-year-old Sky Brown of Britain and 14-year-old Misugu Okamoto of Japan are favorites for the gold medal. Okamoto has a chance to popularize skateboarding among countless Japanese girls. Brown, too, will get local attention: She is the daughter of a Japanese mother and a British father, and splits her time mostly between Japan and the United States, where she sometimes trains with Tony Hawk.

BMXHannah Roberts, United States

Roberts earned her ticket to Tokyo long ago, becoming the first American to qualify for BMX freestyle in February 2020. At 19, she is one of two Americans competing in the sport’s Olympic debut, and is a favorite for the event’s first gold medal. In 2019, Roberts had a perfect World Cup season, winning all three events and the world championship.

BasketballA’ja Wilson, United States

Wilson led South Carolina to its first N.C.A.A. title in 2017, became the W.N.B.A.’s No. 1 draft pick and eventual Rookie of the Year winner in 2018, and claimed the Most Valuable Player prize in 2020. Might a gold medal in Tokyo represent the logical next stage in the steep upward trajectory of her career? The American women have won the gold medal at every Games since 1996, and the 24-year-old forward could play a starring role in their quest to claim another this summer.

Baseball and softballMasahiro Tanaka, Japan

After completing his seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees, Tanaka, a right-handed pitcher, returned to his native Japan and his old team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. A benefit of not being on a Major League Baseball roster: Tanaka, 32, is eligible for the Olympics. At 19, he was part of the 2008 Olympics, the last time baseball was in the Summer Games, and Japan failed to win a medal. This year’s 10th anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan — and specifically the Sendai area, where the Eagles play — is not lost on him.

Cat Osterman, United States, and Yukiko Ueno, Japan

Like baseball, softball is back in the Olympics for the first time since 2008, and a lot of new standouts have emerged since then. But two of the sport’s best-known pitchers are expected to return. Osterman, 38, who helped lead the United States to a gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens, came out of retirement to compete in the 2020 Olympics, only to see it postponed a year. Ueno, 38, won a bronze medal with Japan in 2004, but four years later she outdueled Osterman in a 3-1 victory in the gold medal game in Beijing, ending the Americans’ run of three consecutive golds.

GolfShanshan Feng, China

Feng, 31, is the first Chinese woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association, the first Chinese winner of a major and the first from her country to reach the women’s world No. 1. She is also one of the most colorful personalities in the women’s game. When golf made its modern-era Olympic debut in 2016, Feng won bronze, earning her a face-to-face meeting with the Chinese president Xi Jinping, on whom she made a standout first impression by blurting out, “President, you’re so handsome.”

Xander Schauffele, United States

Schauffele, 27, a four-time PGA Tour winner who has contended at multiple majors, is an American golfer with ties to Japan through his mother, Ping-Yi Chen, who was born in Taiwan but raised in Japan. Schauffele played his first pro event on the Japan Tour in 2015.

CanoeingNevin Harrison, United States

Canoeing and kayaking mostly haven’t been boom sports for the United States. So it opened plenty of eyes when Harrison won gold at the 2019 world championships at age 17. The great news for Harrison is that her event, women’s canoe, is being added to the Olympic program for Tokyo. Her 200-meter sprint event will begin and end in about 50 seconds. In a flash, she could be the first American woman to win an Olympic canoeing or kayaking gold medal.

RowingSanita Puspure, Ireland

In rowing, the eight-oared boats get most of the headlines. But in the boathouses and on the docks, there is no more revered figure than the single sculler, who takes on exhausting races with no teammates to help. Right now the world’s best is Puspure, who has won the last two world championships. Latvian born, she races for Ireland. She was eliminated in the Olympic quarterfinals in 2012 and 2016, but now the burden of expectations is on her to bring home Ireland’s first rowing gold medal. Hanna Prakhatsen of Russia is the up-and-comer hoping to knock her off.

Table tennisTomokazu Harimoto, Japan

Harimoto was 14 years old in 2017 when he became the youngest winner of an International Table Tennis Federation World Tour men’s singles title. And it wasn’t a fluke: A year and a half later, at 15, he became the youngest player to win the World Tour Grand Finals. Harimoto is the son of two former table tennis pros from China, who moved to Japan before he was born. His parents’ home country has won 13 of the 18 medals in men’s singles table tennis since 1996. Could the prodigy puncture that run of dominance?

Team handballNiklas Landin Jacobsen, Denmark

Watching a team handball game, it’s hard not to be impressed by the athletic leaps of the attackers, hurling the ball toward the goal while eluding defenders. Then there’s the guy who stands in the net and waves his arms trying to stop them. Landin Jacobsen does that so well that last year he became the first goalkeeper to be named world player of the year in a decade. At 32, he will be seeking a second consecutive gold medal for Denmark. His younger brother Magnus will be on the team as a left wing.

VolleyballWilfredo Leon, Poland

Poland has never been volleyball royalty, but then it has never had a player like Leon. Born in Cuba, Leon is known as the Cristiano Ronaldo of volleyball. When he rises for a spike, his knees appear even with the bottom of the net. His decision to immigrate to Poland has turned its national team into one of the world’s best.

John Branch, Scott Cacciola, Karen Crouse, Matthew Futterman, Andrew Keh, Juliet Macur, Victor Mather, Talya Minsberg and James Wagner contributed reporting.


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