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One year from now, the flame will be lit in Tokyo, the XXXII Olympic Summer Games will begin, and Americans will set aside their differences for at least 30 seconds before pushing each other into the fire. This is where we are, America. We have a year to decide if it’s where we want to be.

The Olympics, to some degree, are inherently political, and they occasionally become the backdrop for protest, such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s podium demonstration against racism in 1968. But nowadays nobody sticks to sports anymore, it seems, and so the event that used to (more or less) unite us faces an odd challenge. Will American athletes make it political? If they do, will you hold it against them? If they don’t, will you hold it against them?

The last Summer Olympics, in Rio in 2016, took place three months before the election of President Donald Trump. Partisan tensions have risen considerably since then, even in sports. The recent Women’s World Cup was a prime example: The triumphant Americans are surely more popular among liberals than conservatives. This is not the prism through which we viewed Michael Phelps or Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The 2020 Olympics could be the ugliest American visit to Tokyo since former President George H.W. Bush vomited in the lap of Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa. Las Vegas sports books should set an over/under of how many American athletes the President will trash in the middle of the Olympics. After all, he frequently targets immigrants, and nearly 50 foreign-born Americans competed for Team USA in ’16.

How many athletes will use their visibility to criticize Trump? The U.S. men’s basketball coach, Gregg Popovich, has been one of his most vocal critics in sports. Still, athletes do not become the best in the world so they can tell people whether they plan to visit the White House. But that question is fair, and it’s coming. Let’s hope it doesn’t overwhelm the event.

The Games always deliver, despite myriad scandals. (Drugs and money are as much a part of the Olympics as the rings.) There will be unpredictable triumphs and heartwarming stories, brutal defeats and affirming acts of sportsmanship.

Simone Biles’s performance in 2016 was mesmerizing; what she does in ’20, after her courageous admission that she was sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar, will be inspiring, no matter where she finishes.

Katie Ledecky may win so easily that she’ll be able to read a book while the other swimmers finish. Noah Lyles will try to become the first American man since Carl Lewis to win the 100- and 200-meter sprints, but teammate Christian Coleman might get in his way, though hopefully not literally. 

There will be quirky developments and seemingly random events. The IOC added three-on-three basketball; the favorites are the U.S. team of James Harden, his agent and his personal chef. For the first time, all six fencing team events are on the docket, a relief to all the men’s team-saber enthusiasts who were disconsolate watching the Rio Games. Skateboarding could become the summer version of slopestyle skiing—the wildly entertaining sport we didn’t know we needed.

Baseball will be back, and while America does not need more televised baseball games, Japanese fans will make the event a spectacle. The return of softball is more welcome. We are indifferent about the addition of karate but do not plan to say that to anybody who competes in karate. 

Grammarians will applaud the lack of a hyphen in sport climbing; competitors will climb walls­—not another sport. Sport climbing includes three disciplines (speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing, but you knew that), and if it is a hit, the Tough Mudder lobby will be at IOC headquarters with a briefcase of cash.

One small prediction: The most popular new sport will be surfing. It will appeal to surfing experts, climate scientists, attractive-body enthusiasts and fans who pretend to understand the scoring system.

Mostly, though, there will be swimming, and there will be wrestling; there will be track, and there will be field; there will be records set, and there will be tears spilled. The Olympics move us because they are a break from the sports we hear about all year round. We will find out if these Olympics are a break from our divisive political discourse, too.
—Michael Rosenberg

Scroll down for detailed previews on Tokyo 2020's major sports, including storylines and athletes to watch, key dates and more.

TRACK AND FIELD

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FAMILIAR NAMES LIKELY COMING BACK

• Justin Gatlin

• Mo Farah

• Emma Coburn

It’s often difficult to pick U.S. stars who will be at the next Summer Games because the U.S. Olympic Trials can often lead to upsets and wild finishes that leave some top athletes watching from home on their televisions. But for Olympics fans, these are three of the most recognizable names in track and field that we should see again in Tokyo.

Justin Gatlin has been around forever, winning the 100m dash all the way back in 2004 in Athens, and is also well-known for serving a four-year doping ban from 2006-2010. He finished second in the 100m to Usain Bolt in 2016, then beat Bolt at the 2017 world championships. He took 2018 to rest and despite being 37 years old, he's run a season's best of 9.87 in 2019. He could still contend for an individual 100m spot in Tokyo but will almost certainly be part of a relay.

Great Britain’s Mo Farah capped the “double double” in Rio and became the first runner to win the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters at consecutive Olympics since Finland's Lasse Viren at the 1972 Munich and 1976 Montreal Olympics. He competed in both events at the 2017 world championship in front of a home crowd in London but had to settle for silver in the 5,000 meters. It snapped hopes of a third consecutive “double double” at worlds but shifted his focus to the roads and the marathon. He won the 2018 Chicago Marathon and has lowered his personal best to 2:05:39 as he looks to try to claim gold in the marathon in 2020.

Emma Coburn, the 2016 steeplechase bronze medalist, made history by becoming the first American woman to win world championship gold in the steeplechase. She's since become more of a household name, appearing in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue, landing ninth on SI's Fittest 50 list for 2019 and serving as a vocal advocate for clean sport by calling out suspected drug cheats.

Plenty of other American medalists from Rio have great shots to return to the Olympics. Among them:

Ryan Crouser (2016 shot put gold medalist) is nearly a lock to compete in Rio barring any injury or unforeseen circumstances. Christian Taylor (2016 triple jump gold medalist) has won gold at the last two world championships. Evan Jager (2016 steeplechase silver medalist) remains the top U.S. steeplechaser and added a bronze medal at the 2017 world championships. Clayton Murphy (2016 800m bronze medalist) is just 24 years old and remains one of the best U.S. middle distance runners. Paul Chelimo (2016 5,000m silver medalist) has become the United States’ best 5,000 meter runner with a bronze medal at the 2017 world championships. Jenny Simpson (2016 1,500m bronze medalist) remains one of the two best 1,500 meter runners for the U.S. and will be going for her third Summer Games. Courtney Frerichs took silver to Emma Coburn in the steeplechase at the world championships, then later beat Coburns’s American record. Sandi Morris (2016 pole vault silver medalist) added a silver medal at the 2017 world championships. Michelle Carter (2016 shot put gold medalist) added a bronze medal at the 2017 world championships.

And two more international stars who wowed in the 2016 Olympics that may be back in 2020:

Wayde Van Niekerk provided one of the best moments on the track in Rio, breaking Michael Johnson’s 400-meter world record, which had stood since 1999.

And in the final athletics event contest at the Olympics, the men’s marathon, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge will likely be vying to become the first man since 1976 to successfully defend his Olympic gold medal. Since his win in Rio, Kipchoge cemented his legacy as the greatest marathoner of all-time by attempting to break the two-hour barrier under optimized race conditions in an exhibition marathon put on by Nike in May 2017. He ended up covering the 26.2-mile distance in a remarkable 2 hours and 25 seconds but it did not count toward a world record due to Nike’s use of alternating pacers. However, he finally nabbed the world record in September 2018 with his 2:01:39 win at the Berlin Marathon—which took 78 seconds off the previous best. A loss in Tokyo would be a tremendous upset since Kipchoge has not lost a marathon since 2013.

FAMILIAR NAMES NOT COMING BACK 

• Usain Bolt

• Ashton Eaton

• David Rudisha

From 2008 to 2016, the world was captivated watching Usain Bolt win and sometimes break records with ease at the Olympics. The Jamaican sprinter was one of the biggest stars of the Summer Olympics, and next year’s Games in Tokyo will mark the first Olympics without him since 2000. Despite the presence of many others who are stars already or will soon become stars, Bolt’s absence will certainly be felt. He is practically irreplaceable, with regard to both his pure talent and the show that he provided on the Olympic stage.

Ashton Eaton accomplished everything he needed to in the sport. He won back-to-back Olympic gold medals (2012/2016) and back-to-back world titles (2013/2015), three world indoor titles and the two best decathlon scores at the time of his retirement in 2017. David Rudisha ran the most beautiful race to win the 2012 800-meter Olympic title in world record fashion, then ran his fastest time since the London victory to defend his Olympic title in 2016.

KEY DATES BETWEEN NOW AND TOKYO 2020

• IAAF World Championships: September 28- October 6, 2019 in Doha, Qatar

• U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials: February 29, 2020 in Atlanta

• U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials: June 19-28 in Eugene, Oregon

In order to compete at the 2020 Olympics, an athlete will need to finish within the top three of their respective events at the trials and meet the Olympic standards set by the IAAF.

STORYLINES TO WATCH

The next generation is here

Tokyo could be a proving ground for many rising stars and medal contenders.

In Rio, Sydney McLaughlin was the youngest athlete on the U.S. track team as a 400-hurdler. Since then, she graduated high school, attended Kentucky for a year to break the NCAA record in the event and claimed an individual national title. The 400-meter hurdles is one of the United States’ deepest events but if she can make the Olympic team, she will be in the medal conversation.

Noah Lyles has done a great job of replacing Bolt in regards to pre- and post-race antics. The 21-year-old gets creative with funky-patterned socks for his races and celebrates with the latest dance crazes or cartwheels. He can do that because he backs up his act with stunning sprint performances. In 2018, he went undefeated in the 200 meters.

Christian Coleman went from being a 4x100-meter relay runner for Team USA at the 2016 Olympics to claiming a silver medal behind Gatlin and ahead of Bolt at the 2017 world championships’ 100-meter final. He decided to bypass his senior year at Tennessee to turn pro for 2018.

If injuries continue to hamper Van Niekerk and he’s unable to return to 2016 form, Michael Norman should be the 400-meter favorite. He shattered the NCAA record for the 400 in his sophomore year before turning pro.

Lyles, Coleman and Norman could put together the first U.S. men’s gold medal sprint sweep since Gatlin, Shawn Crawford and Jeremy Wariner took gold in the 100, 200 and 400 at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Shelby Houlihan made the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in the 5,000 meters and then finished 11th in the Olympic final. Last year she won national titles at the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters before setting the American record for the latter distance.

Will Caster Semenya be able to defend her title?

It remains uncertain whether Caster Semenya will be able to defend her world championship and Olympic gold medals as she fights the IAAF in court on new rules that would limit female runners’ testosterone levels. The South African star has been the most dominant 800-meter runner since 2016.

Doping bans

Russian track and field athletes were not eligible to compete in Rio, and the nation remains banned from international competition due to continued cases of widespread doping. In June, 33 Russian athletes were hit with doping allegations of using banned substances and treatment from a doctor. Kenya also continues to have doping issues, which were underscored by 2016 Olympic marathon gold medalist Jemima Sumgong testing positive for EPO and then being banned for eight years for lying to investigators.

More corruption

Former IAAF President Lamine Diack will stand trial in France for corruption charges. 

Chris Chavez

SWIMMING

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FAMILIAR NAMES LIKELY COMING BACK

• Katie Ledecky

• Simone Manuel

• Nathan Adrian

• Lilly King

• Ryan Murphy

All five won gold medals in individual events in Rio de Janeiro. And those are just five names from a typically impressive, deep U.S. team. It may just not seem that way because…

FAMILIAR NAMES NOT COMING BACK​

• Michael Phelps

• Ryan Lochte

• Missy Franklin

• Connor Jaeger

• Maya DiRado

That Phelps guy: Perhaps you’ve heard of him. This will be the first Olympics since 1996 without Phelps, and the first since 2000 in which he is not the biggest American star. The Americans will miss Lochte less, especially out of the pool, where he managed to create (or fabricate) an international incident last time. Franklin starred in London but not in Rio.

KEY DATES BETWEEN NOW AND TOKYO 2020

• World Championships: July 12-28, 2019

• U.S. Olympic trials: June 21-28, 2020

STORYLINES TO WATCH

Filling a Phelps-sized hole

Swimming is the major story and major television attraction for the first week of the Olympics, and it usually gets the U.S. rolling in the medal count.  Americans have become accustomed to dominating the swimming events, partly because the U.S. had the best swimmer ever. Without Phelps—who won five golds in Rio—the U.S. may cede a little ground in the medal count, but swimming remains an American strength.

To understand how long Phelps reigned: He made his Olympic debut in 2000 in Sydney. One candidate to be a breakout star for the U.S. in Tokyo, Regan Smith, was not even born until 2002. Smith is just one of several names you probably don’t know now but will next summer.

Caeleb Dressel won seven events at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, and might win eight at the currently ongoing 2018 event. He will be 23 at the Tokyo Olympics. He won two golds in Rio, but both were in relays. With individual success in Tokyo, Dressel can become perhaps the biggest American star in Tokyo.

Rio’s breakout star keeps dominating

Then there is Ledecky, whose Q score has not quite matched her dominance in the pool, for reasons that are not entirely clear. She won three individual golds, a team gold and a team silver in Rio. She is universally admired. The trick with Ledecky is creating suspense. She won the 800 freestyle by more than 11 seconds, which is a lifetime in swimming, and the 400 free by nearly five. She also won the 200 free. Ledecky was, stunningly, upset in 400 free at the World Championships this week. She finished second to Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, her first time losing the event at a major international meet in six years. She then withdrew from two other events, citing an illness.

The IOC has added a women’s 1500 freestyle for Tokyo; it might as well have included, “Katie Ledecky will win the gold medal” in the press release. At the 2018 Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis, Ledecky took almost five seconds off her world-record 1500 time and finished almost 50 seconds ahead of everybody else. In the 1500 free in Tokyo, Ledecky can become the first swimmer to win gold, then grab a microphone and do play-by-play of everybody else in the race.

Best of the rest

If Ledecky’s dominance bores you, this is not her fault, and also: Go hang out with Lilly King for a while. King called out Russia’s Yulia Efimova in Rio for “drug cheating” and has taken shots at China’s Sun Yang as well.

King may make you feel righteous anger. Nathan Adrian might make you cry. Since Rio, Adrian has been diagnosed with testicular cancer. He has gamely kept training and recently posted a 48.50 time in the 100 freestyle. That’s almost a second off the gold-winning time in Rio, but it’s a sign that Adrian will contend for a medal again.

And if you just love to watch extremely tight races, then keep an eye on Simone Manuel and Canada’s Penny Oleksiak. They tied for gold in the 100 free in Rio, and one must admit: If they somehow tie for gold again, theirs would be one of the great rivalries in sports history.

Michael Rosenberg

GYMNASTICS

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FAMILIAR NAMES DEFINITELY COMING BACK

• Simone Biles

• Sam Mikulak

The International Gymnastics Federation voted to confirm a proposal in 2015 to change the size of Olympic gymnastics teams from five athletes to four, and the change will be enacted for the first time in Tokyo 2020. Presumably this means somebody will miss out, whether that’s an established veteran or an up-and-comer. But what we can definitively say is that the U.S. women will be led by four-time world champion Simone Biles, who has said this will be her last Olympics. Two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak will lead the men’s side.

FAMILIAR NAMES UNLIKELY TO COME BACK

• Aly Raisman