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Previewing Every Sport at the Tokyo Olympics

A brief guide to every sport at the Summer Games, from the long-established, like wrestling and equestrian, to new events on the lineup, like surfing and skateboarding, and everything in between.

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Here’s a little something to get you ready for the Olympics as they fully begin: I previewed every sport. That’s as much of an intro as I can give, as there are already enough words below. I couldn’t go into too much detail on all of them, but I tried to give you an explanation of what’s going on, what’s new this year, a favorite to watch out for and/or something I just enjoy about watching the sport.

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Archery

Archery is one of those sports that I usually think I won’t be that into, but find myself rediscovering that it makes good TV (or streaming; whenever I reference TV, assume I mean either TV or streaming). The top competitors are accurate enough from 70 meters (76.5 yards) that there’s pressure on every shot. It’s a satisfying watch because they can show you the archers and then quickly cut to a zoom-in on the targets before the arrows arrive. There is just a tiny sliver of time before the arrow arrives when the anticipation is intense. They compete head-to-head in five-set matches, which also allows the drama to build. They’ll have men’s and women’s individual and team, and mixed team is new in the Olympics this year. American Brady Ellison has three Olympic medals (two team, one individual) but is still seeking his first gold. His world title in 2019 was the first for a U.S. man since 1985.

Artistic Gymnastics

Artistic gymnastics is the one you’re thinking of—beam, floor, uneven bars and vault for the women; floor, horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, rings and vault for the men. Simone Biles will not wear her rhinestone goat–adorned leotard in Tokyo, but with another performance like she had in Rio, she can wear it wherever she wants forever. After winning four golds and a bronze in 2016, she now seeks to become the first gymnast to repeat as all-around champion since Věra Čáslavská in 1968. Expect her medals, records and accolades to pile up. She will do moves that have never been done before and moves that are named after her. She will get as much media attention as any athlete in Tokyo, and if you only watch one athlete these next 16 days, you should probably pick her. Of course, she is not there by herself. Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum will also compete in the team event, as will Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner in individual events.

The men are led by Sam Mikulak, now in his third Olympics, and Brody Malone, who won back-to-back NCAA all-around titles at Stanford but is short on international experience. No U.S. man has won Olympic gold in any event since Paul Hamm won the all-around in 2004.

Artistic Swimming

Perhaps you are more familiar with the term synchronized swimming, but internationally, it’s typically known as artistic. This is a women’s-only event, in duet and teams, but the U.S. only qualified in duet. Russia wins every year, but the U.S. took a bronze in 2004. It doesn’t start until Day 10, so this sport can offer you a little pick-me-up if you’re going through swimming withdrawal.

Badminton

You probably didn’t hear as much about badminton in 2016 as you did in ’12, which, for the Badminton World Federation, was a very good thing. Remember that the badminton action in London was marred by a match-throwing controversy where teams were intentionally losing games, in hilarious fashion, to avoid certain opponents in the bracketed rounds. Some rule tweaks have made badminton better, though, I suppose that depends on your definition of what makes good TV. This is an underrated sport to watch, even when everyone is trying. They’ll play singles, doubles and mixed doubles. It is fast-paced and they hit the shuttlecocks very hard.

Baseball/Softball

These sports have been absent from the Olympics since 2008, but were combined into one joint bid and chosen for the Olympics by Japan. The host country will have great teams in both sports.

Baseball fans who enjoy the modern online tradition of “remembering some guys” will have a chance to do just that. Current MLB players won’t be in Tokyo, but Team USA’s roster includes familiar names like Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir and Todd Frazier. And former Yankee Masahiro Tanaka will pitch for Japan.

The U.S. softball team won three golds in 1996, 2000 and ’04, before losing the gold medal game to Japan in ’08. A rematch is expected. The U.S. is led by Cat Osterman, who was on the medal-winning teams in Athens and Beijing, and remains unhittable at age 38. The softball is being played on modified baseball fields, as you may have seen in the early opening games.

Basketball

Basketball is probably more interesting now than it was a few months ago. Team USA’s men lost back-to-back exhibition games to Nigeria and Australia, then lost several players from the roster shortly before flying to Tokyo. Three others played in the NBA Finals, which delayed their chance to join the team. The U.S. still goes in as the favorite (it still has Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, et al.), but it would not be shocking to see them lose.

The women are loaded up with legendary talent. They have won six straight gold medals, and have not lost an Olympic game since 1992. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi return for their fifth Olympics, plus the squad has younger stars like Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson. Plus more big names after that. They surprisingly lost an exhibition game to Australia like the men did, but still remain the favorite.

3x3 Basketball

I had predicted, when three-on-three was voted into the Olympic program back in 2017, that it would be the breakout star of the ’20 Games. I think people are going to love watching it—even if it takes a little while for it to feel like an Olympic sport—because people love watching the Olympics and love watching basketball. These games are half court, played by one- and two-pointers, and either 10 minutes or up to 21 points. And be aware: The powers that be have decided it should be pronounced three-ex-three.

My prediction took a big hit when the U.S. men failed to qualify. It feels like it’s inevitable (especially if the five-on-five guys lose and it starts a discussion about the rest of the world surpassing the Americans) that USA Basketball will eventually stock this team with players from the league—much like the women’s side has done. The U.S. women’s team took a hit with Katie Lou Samuelson’s COVID-19 diagnosis shortly before the Games, but will still have WNBA players Kelsey Plum, Stefanie Dolson, Allisha Gray and Jackie Young.

Beach Volleyball

A signature event of the Rio Olympics, given the popularity of the sport in our last host country, beach volleyball will still get its usual dose of attention. April Ross returns to the Olympics for Team USA at age 39. After winning silver with Jennifer Kessy in 2012 and bronze with Kerri Walsh Jennings in ’16, she’ll now pair with Alix Klineman for her third Olympics. The duo won silver at the ’19 world championships. In Rio, beach volleyball was on super late at night in front of raucous crowds, often as the last event of the day. The schedule this time around has many matches in the morning in Tokyo, keeping them in the evening in the U.S.

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One major concern is the heat in Japan right now. One of the few relatable experiences most of us share with Olympians is when the sand is too hot at the beach. Competitors have complained about how hot the sand is at the practice courts and they have been spraying it down between Games. This is one of several sports that can be significantly affected by the extreme heat currently in Japan.

Boxing

Olympic boxing is often an adventure. Few Olympic sports dole out the controversy as consistently. In 2019 the Aiba (International Boxing Association) was stripped of its right to oversee boxing at the Olympics, which is instead under the supervision of a task force headed by International Gymnastics Federation president Morinari Watanabe. Just totally normal stuff going on here. Per The Guardian, the IOC report also flagged up “ongoing legal, reputational and financial risks” due to Aiba’s president, Gafur Rakhimov, being identified as “a key member of the Brothers’ Circle, a ‘criminal group composed of leaders and senior members of several Eurasian criminal groups’ ” by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which also said he was “one of the leaders of Uzbek organised crime.” Rakhimov denies any wrongdoing.

The sport has evened up a bit from 10 men’s and three women’s weight classes in 2016 to eight men’s and five women’s this time. Unlike some of the other combat sports that compete entire weight classes in a single day, boxers’ matches are spaced out (which makes sense, as they are getting punched in the face!) so you will have advance notice if the U.S. is progressing through the bracket.

Canoe/Kayak

Canoe/kayak is an event made up of both canoeing and kayaking. (Go figure.) In the kayaks, they are seated with double-sided paddles; in the canoes, they are kneeling with one-sided paddles. Much of the paddling will take place on flat water (singles, doubles and four-person kayaks), but a personal favorite event of mine is the slalom. Athletes will paddle through man-made rapids, going with and against the current to maneuver through gates. I have previously compared this event to the American Ninja Warrior of the Summer Olympics, in that it’s the same course and you just watch competitors take two-minute turns going through it until an entire half hour of your life has evaporated, much like when I turn on an episode of Ninja Warrior. It’s great. All slaloming in 2020 will be singles. The men’s canoe doubles (C2) was replaced with a women’s C1 (joining women’s K1). You can still watch the men’s C2 slalom on YouTube, though.

Cycling

Cycling is one of those umbrella terms that includes an eclectic mix of events that are all very different, even though each involves, you know, riding a bike. There is the classic road race, plus the hillier mountain bike. BMX has been an event since 2008—that’s the one that looks like an X Games event, where riders are released at the top of a manmade ramp and ride down a course with more ramps, jumps and curves. This is wildly entertaining to watch, as they start in a tight pack and race to the finish line. New this year is BMX freestyle, in which riders will perform tricks like you’d see from snowboarders at the Winter Games. 19-year-old American Hannah Roberts is already a two-time world champ.

The rest of the cycling takes place on the velodrome, an indoor oval track with steep embankments along the curves. On the track, you’ll see some interesting races—sometimes working in teams, sometimes following a pacer bike—with what feel like quirky strategies. The two-person keirin heats are the ones where riders start the race by trying to go slowly so as not to be in front of their opponent, but then go all out in a frantic finish. It is fascinating, largely because it seems counterintuitive.

Diving

There are eight diving events: men’s and women’s, singles and synchronized doubles, 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform. On Wednesday I asked SI’s staff on the ground in Tokyo what Olympic event they’d be worst in. Stephanie Apstein said diving, and I think I’d say the same! Ten meters might not sound like a lot, but that’s 32 feet. You jump off a three-story building backward and do flips and twists in the air. No thanks. Diving is more regimented than you might realize. Each diver must do one dive from a group of six categories—forward, back, reverse, inward, twisting and armstand (platform only).

Michael Hixon won silver in synchronized springboard in 2016, but now has a new partner. Delaney Schnell won bronze in the platform at the ’19 world championships.

Equestrian

Equestrian got more attention in 2016 than I can ever remember thanks to Smooth Horse, the viral sensation of the Olympic Games. You remember Spanish dressage rider Severo Jurado and his horse dancing to “Smooth” by Santana featuring Rob Thomas, don’t you? I’ll never forget it. How can we top that rock-and-roll performance this time? How about Jessica Springsteen? Does that last name ring a bell? Yes, it’s Bruce’s daughter, who qualified on Team USA’s jumping team. She deserves to be judged on her own accomplishments, but of course, that last name comes with some added attention.

Fencing

There is a full slate of fencing, with both team and individual, men’s and women’s for épée, foil and sabre. There are distinctions not just in the weapons themselves, but in where and how you can hit opponents. You never know what you’re going to see in a fencing match. In Rio, France’s Enzo Lefort’s phone fell out of his pocket in the middle of a bout. The crowd then booed him as he picked it up and handed it to someone. All videos of the incident appear to be scrubbed from the internet, but please believe me.

Mariel Zagunis, the most decorated fencer in Team USA history, is back for her fifth Olympics. She won individual sabre gold in 2004 and ’08, and team bronze in ’08 and ’16. Eli Dershwitz was just 19 when he competed in Rio. He won individual silver in sabre at the ’18 world championships.

Field Hockey

Now here’s an underrated sport to watch. It’s 11-on-11, and subs are live like ice hockey line changes. Shots must come from in close, so there’s plenty of action in front of the goal. There are penalty corners, in which several defenders begin the play crammed into the goal with the goalie and then run out to attack the shooters. Penalty shootouts are great, because shooters can keep chasing their own rebounds (but those don’t start until the knockout stage).

Neither U.S. team qualified, which is why I’ve adopted teams in the Quadrathlon. Usually a huge contingent of the women’s team comes from Pennsylvania, so this was a bummer for me personally.

Golf

Golf returned to the Olympics in 2016 after a 112-year break. It will look a lot like a normal golf tournament. First, 60 men will compete in a four-day stroke-play event. Then, 60 women will do the same. There is a limit of four golfers per country in each event, with qualifying based on world rankings.

The headlines in Rio focused on who wasn’t there—notably the top four men’s players in the world at the time (Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson). Soon after Justin Rose won gold in what appeared to be a fun atmosphere, multiple top players expressed regret over not going. That, along with changes to the calendar like moving the PGA Championship to May and shortening the FedEx Cup Playoffs by a week, were designed to make Tokyo more enticing to the names we’re accustomed to seeing in the hunt on Sundays. It seems to have mostly worked. Johnson is again out, but the top four remaining U.S. men (British Open champ Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele and Bryson DeChambeau) are in. So is Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, representing the host country.

The top women mostly did show up in Rio, and will again in Tokyo. Nelly Korda (No. 1) and Danielle Kang (No. 6) are the top-ranked Americans.

Handball

Handball is a crowd-pleaser that has benefited greatly from the era of expanded TV coverage and livestreaming. Seemingly everyone loves it—and for good reason. It is fast, it is fun, it has a general concept that is easy to pick up and it shows off the athleticism of its players without making it seem like something you couldn’t do yourself in a rec league. It will once again be played without Team USA, setting off yet another debate about what things would look like in a hypothetical world where the top U.S. athletes were recruited to compete against the best teams from Europe.

Judo

Judo is one of several combat sports that has weight classes run through their entire tournament in one day. There is no judo chopping (Austin Powers was wrong). Judokas instead try to throw each other onto and over their backs. One fun thing about judo is that a match can end very suddenly. One great throw can result in an ippon, which ends the match immediately. Your entire Olympics can end in five seconds if you aren’t careful. Team USA has four competitors, but I’m most excited to watch French heavyweight Teddy Riner, who already has two Olympic gold medals (and a bronze) and a record 10 world championships.

Karate

Karate is new to the Olympics this year, and we already know it won’t be back in ’24. Men and women will compete in four events each. There are three weight classes in kumite (sparring against an opponent) and one competition in kata (an individually judged performance). Japan does very well in the world championships, so it’s no surprise the host nation has chosen to add an event that will help pad its own medal count. I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually watched competitive karate, so I will be learning more along with you. (And some of you clearly already know more than me.) If you have international karate experience, I would love to hear from you.

Modern Pentathlon

You should definitely commit the five events of the modern pentathlon to memory, because this is a bar trivia final question waiting to happen for the rest of your life. Don’t come crawling back to me if you forget it’s fencing (épée), freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, pistol shooting and cross-country running. The sport is not modern, by the way; it’s been in the Olympics since 1912. By far the best detail, to me, is that they have to ride an unfamiliar horse. You don’t get to train your own horse. You show up for the biggest event of your life and hop on whatever horse they give you. Go get ’em.

Rhythmic Gymnastics

This is the women’s-only event that involves continuous movement of a piece of equipment—this year it’s hoops, balls, clubs and ribbons. (No rope this time!) The gymnasts do jump, and show off their balance and flexibility, but there are fewer acrobatics than you’ll see in artistic gymnastics. It takes place on the final three days of the Olympics.

Rowing

There are 14 rowing events, with different numbers of rowers in the boats, but all of them compete on a 2000-meter course. The U.S. does very well here, most famously in the women’s eight. You may remember at the 2016 Olympics they continued a historic streak that had seen them win every Olympics and world championship since ’06. That streak has since been snapped, with an ’18 world championship sandwiched by a fourth-place finish in ’17 and a bronze in ’19. The races are exciting, especially given the typically narrow margins between winning times. And one delightful little charm is seeing all the teams with their nations’ flags on the faces of their oars going in and out of the water.

Rugby

Rugby made its return to the Olympics in Rio after a 92-year break, and I loved every minute of it. Which is easy to say because the games are short: Just two seven-minute halves with a quick halftime. Unlike in the 1924 Olympics, the new version is rugby sevens (meaning seven players per team), which means a lot of wide-open space and long runs with the ball. You can’t throw the ball forward, so stretches of the game look like when football kickoffs take place on the last play of the game and there are laterals and frequent attempts to reverse the field. There are scrums, fights for the ball and lineouts, in which players hoist teammates into the air. It’s easy to get hooked.

The U.S. women lost in the quarterfinals last time around, and the men didn’t make it out of group play. Both are medal contenders in Tokyo.

Sailing

Of the sports I attempt to talk about, sailing may be the one in which I am most over my head. What I think you need to know: Men and women will compete in 10 total divisions named after different types of boats. This includes sailboards, one- and two-person dinghies, skiffs and a multihull catamaran (though the specific names are more technical-sounding, like 49erFX and Nacra 17). The action is on mostly at 11 p.m. ET, so you can tune in at a relatively reasonable hour if you want to learn more than I can give you here. The U.S. has the most medals ever (though Great Britain has more golds), and you can expect Team USA to again be in the mix.

Shooting

There are three variations of Olympic shooting: rifle, pistol and shotgun. Unlike archery, rifle and pistol shooters will compete at multiple distances. Those events will be held indoors, with shooters aiming at bull’s-eyes on targets. The shotgun competition will be held outdoors, with shooters aiming at clay pigeons. Vincent Hancock is competing in his fourth Olympics for Team USA, having already won golds in shotgun skeet shooting in Beijing and London, plus world championships in 2018 and ’19.

Skateboarding

Here’s another new sport for 2020, but this one has been provisionally approved for ’24. Men and women will both compete in street and park. Both will have judges giving scores for competitors running through a series of tricks. In the street competition, there will be stairs, railings, benches and other objects for the skaters to use for maneuvers. The park event will feature a large concrete bowl that skaters will ride, with the goal of achieving maximum height. The Games will be a new platform for some X Games champions. And the name I have heard most in the run-up to these Games is Brighton Zeuner, a 16-year-old American. She will compete against Great Britain’s Sky Brown, who will be 13 years and 11 days old when the Olympics begin. In case you didn’t feel old enough already.

Soccer

It’s soccer! You know soccer. The key thing to remember is that the women’s tournament is a much bigger deal. The countries actually field all their best players, so the USWNT features many of the big-name players you’ve come to know from their recent run of success (Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Julie Ertz, Alex Morgan, Rose Lavelle and others.) The U.S. seeks to be the first team to win the World Cup and then win Olympic gold, though the delayed Olympics means a longer turnaround time. And then the team started in a hole by dropping the first game 3–0 to Sweden. The U.S. and Japan met in the finals of the 2011 World Cup, ’12 Olympics and ’15 World Cup.