With the Tokyo Olympics set to open a week from Friday, organizers hope outstanding athletic feats create a more lasting impression than the empty seats and other setbacks stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
Having decided earlier in the year to exclude spectators coming in from overseas, the organizers announced just weeks before the opening ceremony that the vast majority of the games will be held behind closed doors amid another COVID-19 state of emergency in Tokyo.
Concerns about the virus have also prompted the Japanese Olympic Committee to back away from its ambitious medal target and instead emphasize protecting the health of athletes.
JOC President Yasuhiro Yamashita said Japan’s target of a record 30 gold medals, a goal that was established before the coronavirus forced a one-year postponement of the games, is now less of a priority to the host nation.
“If I’m asked whether it’s important to achieve 30, I want to clearly say ‘no,'” Yamashita said at a recent news conference in Tokyo.
Japan recorded its largest-ever haul of 16 gold medals on home soil at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and later equaled the mark at the 2004 Athens Games. It won 41 total medals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, its highest tally ever, but only 12 were gold.
Whatever the final tally this summer, the country’s place on the medal table is likely to be underpinned by the performance of its judoka.
Japan’s judo depth was on display last December when reigning men’s 66-kilogram world champion Joshiro Maruyama missed out on the Olympics after losing a dramatic winner-take-all playoff against Hifumi Abe for the final spot on the team.
Abe and younger sister Uta, who will contest the women’s 52-kg class, are two of the most recognizable faces among a Japanese judo squad that will contend for medals in virtually every weight class.
Rio de Janeiro gold medalist Shohei Ono is favored to go back-to-back as men’s 73-kg champion, while Akira Sone will be the judoka to beat in the women’s over 78-kg heavyweight division.
Japan’s wrestlers are also predicted to feature prominently in the medal tally, with the women carrying much of the expectation after winning four out of six gold medals on offer in 2016.
Rio 63-kg champion Risako Kawai has moved down to 57 kg, making way for her younger sister Yukako to fight for Japan at 62 kg.
On the badminton court, world No. 1 and back-to-back world champion Kento Momota will enter the men’s singles as the hot favorite, while the world No. 1 pair of Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota will be expected to top the women’s doubles podium.
While the return to the pool of leukemia survivor Rikako Ikee will be headline material, Japan’s best hopes for gold at the Tokyo Aquatics Center are likely to be Daiya Seto in the men’s 400-meter individual medley and teenager Shoma Sato in the men’s 200 breaststroke.
Japan’s male gymnasts will try to defend their team gold medal minus two-time all-around individual champion “King Kohei” Uchimura, who will focus solely on the horizontal bar.
Set for her Olympic debut, four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka will let her tennis do the talking after being told she can opt out of news conferences in light of her recently revealed struggles with depression and anxiety.
Among newly introduced sports, world champion Tomoa Narasaki is in contention to win the inaugural gold medal in men’s sport climbing, while teen sensation Misugu Okamoto could become the first Olympic champion in women’s park skateboarding.
With karate debuting at the games, Japan is well positioned for multiple medals, while the hosts should also make strong bids for the first baseball and softball gold medals on offer since the 2008 Beijing Games.
The Japanese women’s and men’s soccer teams have stated their ambitions of reaching the top of the podium, but a challenging road lies ahead of both.
For Asako Takakura’s Nadeshiko Japan, the path to a gold medal will almost certainly run through a dominant United States outfit on a historic unbeaten streak and looking to regain the Olympic title they failed to win in Rio de Janeiro, the first time they missed out on gold since 2000.
As ever, Brazil will enter as a men’s soccer medal favorite, looking to reach the podium at a fourth straight games after finally getting over the hump and winning their first gold at home in 2016.
One other constant of recent games, sprint king Usain Bolt, has vacated his throne, meaning the men’s athletics 100- and 200-meter sprints will be won by someone other than the Jamaican for the first time since 2004.
American sprinter Trayvon Bromell ran 9.80 seconds at the U.S. Olympic trials, 0.03 off his world-leading time for 2021, to cement his position as 100 favorite, but his compatriots Ronnie Baker and Fred Kerley will feature. Canada’s Andre de Grasse and South Africa’s Akani Simbine are other names to watch.
Noah Lyles or Kenneth Bednarek of the U.S. look to be the ones to beat over 200, while two-time gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce will keep the Jamaican flag flying in the women’s sprint events.
The games’ new sports will provide an opportunity for some established stars to emerge in front of a new audience.
American skateboard superstar Nyjah Huston — a tattooed pioneer of the sport — will go head-to-head with clean-cut Japanese prodigy Yuto Horigome in men’s street.
Bleach-blonde Brazilian surf sensation Italo Ferreira is set to battle for gold with the likes of Hawaiian pipeline hero John John Florence and French veteran Jeremy Flores.
The best of the women — Australians Sally Fitzgibbons and Stephanie Gilmore, American Carissa Moore and France’s Johanne Defay — will entertain, if the waves off the Chiba Prefecture coast cooperate.
The weeks leading up to the games have not been kind to some, with a few big-name cyclists forced to withdraw after incidents at the ongoing Tour de France.
Three-time world champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia was injured in France and had to undergo surgery, while Australian Jack Haig broke his collarbone in a crash. The Tokyo Games’ uncharacteristically mountainous Olympic course meant the former was never likely to challenge for gold, but Haig was a big hope for his nation.
Also struggling unexpectedly is the American men’s basketball team, with the 2021 iteration of the usually untouchable Dream Team losing to Australia and Nigeria in exhibition warm-ups.
Whether they can right the ship to win their fourth straight Olympic title, and 16th in 20 games, may prove an interesting storyline. There is less jeopardy around the American women, as they look set to march to a seventh straight gold.
It may be the end of the Olympic road for Briton Andy Murray, who is looking for a third straight men’s singles tennis title as the 34-year-old comes off a lean 2021.
Novak Djokovic seems primed to take the title, soon after bagging his record-equaling 20th Grand Slam win in Wimbledon, with Russian Daniil Medvedev and Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas possible challengers.
One of the biggest questions is how the coronavirus may impact the outcome of events. While organizers, including Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government, have repeatedly stated Olympians and the Japanese public will be safe from infection, the possibility of athletes being sidelined due to the coronavirus remains.
With the organizers determined to keep the focus on the sporting arena and away from the pandemic, it is an outcome they will desperately hope to avoid.
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