Month: August 2016

Rio 2016 Olympic Preview (IV): Athletics’ Finals to watch

The Rio de Janeiro Olympics have been in full swing for almost a week and it’s time for the stars of track and field to join the parade. From August 12 to August 21, the João Havelange Olympic Stadium, with an expanded capacity of 60,000 for the Games, will host the vast majority of the 47 events that comprise the Athletics’ program, with the exception being the marathon, scheduled to end at the Sambodrome, and the race walks that will take place at Pontal beach.

From the climatic sprint events to the long-distance races, the field events or the road runs, some 2000 athletes will compete in the sport of athletics, the biggest slice of Olympic populace. Every country is limited to three representatives per individual discipline and six for the relays, with 24 events planned for the men and 23 for the women, who skip the extraordinarily taxing 50 km race walk

In comparison with previous editions, the main innovation at these Games is the scheduling of eight finals in the six morning sessions (kicking off at 9:30 am local time, 13:30 BST), split evenly between men’s and women’s and spread across all days, something not seen since Seoul 1988. Naturally, the five road races (both marathons and the three race walks: 20km W, 20km M, 50km M) will also be contested in the early hours, as usual. Meanwhile, the night sessions will commence around 8:30pm local time (00:30am BST) and end, at worst, by 11pm – a much more reasonable compromise than the swimming sessions arranged in Rio -accommodating a larger percentage of fans looking to follow the proceedings across the Atlantic Ocean and cheer on Usain Bolt and company.

The Jamaican icon will say goodbye to the Olympics while looking to become the first man to win three gold medals in a trio of consecutive editions, and his alluring personality and showmanship will be deeply needed to deflect aside the dark clouds hanging over a sport plagued by claims of corruption at the highest levels and widespread doping allegations. The rampant state-run program that cost all Russian athletes the chance to compete in Rio turned away an heavyweight that won 16 medals in the sport at London 2016, but more nations are under suspicion, including long-distance powerhouse Kenya.

Usain Bolt, a global superstar summoned to rescue a sport flailing on the eye of the hurricane.

The field of candidates in some disciplines will be slightly depleted as a result of the absences, but a flurry of magnificent performances is still expected in Rio. Thus, in this article, I tried to shed some light on some of the most tension-packed events that may be carried out over the next 9 days. From the 47 sets of medals in the balance, I handpicked seven disciplines that should provide ample entertainment to the audiences and expanded on the names apt to contend for victory or honourable positions. Later, a few quick considerations were added regarding another dozen of events, which for a variety of reasons can also be considered appointment viewing for athletics’ enthusiasts.

All starting times from here onwards are BST (Rio +4)

Men’s 100m, 2:25am, August 14

Oh right, the “most electrifying 10 seconds in sports”. Where else could we start.

Usain Bolt will chase history, trying to become the first runner to win the same individual event three consecutive times, but the polarizing Justin Gatlin will again play the role of the devil, trying to squash another meeting with history. The 34-year-old American, who served a four-year doping ban from 2006 to 2010, already knows the taste of Olympic gold in the 100m – he triumphed in Athens 2004 – but his experience wasn’t enough to repel the nerves at the World Championship final last year, getting pipped by Bolt despite leaving the blocks as the favourite. Similarly to 2015, Gatlin is the fastest man in the World entering the grand stage, recording 9.80s and 9.83s this season, but Bolt has shown time and time again that he owns the big moments and battling time constraints to recover his best form –his preparation has been disrupted by a hamstring tear- isn’t anything new for him. In 2012, Yohan Blake seemed on top but Bolt charged ahead to renew his honours, and the Jamaican doesn’t get rattled that people are once again favouring another man.

Bolt’s 9.88s rank him just fourth this season, with another American, Trayvon Bromell, appearing right after Gatlin with the 9.84s posted at the US Trials. The 21-year-old Bromell, who stands at just 175 cm, held his coming out party in Beijing last season, winning bronze alongside Canada´s Andre de Grasse, who’s yet to match the 9.92s of last summer but likewise has time on his side. Yohan Blake was once Bolt’s main foe but since 2012 he has slid into the background due to several injuries, arriving in Rio settled on the second row of contenders with the 9.94s dispatched in Kingston last June, exactly the same time as teammate Nickel Ashmeade, another man looking for a final berth.

USA’s Trayvon Bromell and Canada’s Andre de Grasse have been hailed as the leaders of the generation of sprinters that will take over after Bolt and Gatlin

South Africa’s Akani Simbine (9.89s) and Qatar’s Femi Ogunude (9.91s) clocked eye-popping times this season and are definitely two names to keep under consideration, while France’s Jimmy Vicault tied the European record of 9.86s for the second consecutive year. However, the 24-year-old sprinter disappointed at the European Championships, leaving Amsterdam only with bronze (10.08) after getting edged by Dutch veteran Churandy Martina (10.07). Former World Championship medallists Asafa Powell (Jamaica) and Tyson Gay (USA) couldn’t qualify during their nations’ trials, while Saint Kitts and Nevis’ eternal speedster, Kim Collins, is still running below 10 seconds  – 9.93s in 2016 – at age 40 (!), two decades after his Olympic debut.

Men’s 400 m, 2:00am, August 14

Some years ago, Usain Bolt vented the possibility of making an attempt to add the 400m to his repertoire, but the Jamaican never actually raced the event at a major international meeting despite some promising returns in early 2015. His presence in Rio would have transformed what should be an explosive matchup into a full-blown supernova, but pitting the two most recent Olympic Champions and the reigning World Champion is more than enough for a lot of fireworks. In Beijing, LaShawn Merritt, Kirani James and Wayde van Niekerk broke 44 seconds, something that had never been done before in a single race by three athletes, and much of the same is expected in Rio, with Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old World record (43.18s) serving as an inspiring mirage.

With 43.48s, the fourth best mark of all-time, the South African van Niekerk took gold on that occasion and the rising superstar kept impressing this season, becoming the first sprinter to post sub-10 (100 meters), sub-20 (200 meters) and sub-44-second races in history. The 23-year-old is the favourite but the only man below 44s this season is Merritt (43.97), who has medalled in this race on the last five World Championships. The defending Olympic Champion, Grenada’s Kirani James, clocked 44.08 this season and is eager to regain the leading position he enjoyed in 2011 and 2012, when he was still a teenager.

Wayde van Niekerk beat Olympic Champion Kirani James in Beijing. Can a do over be in the cards at Rio?

Behind the Big Three, the field is stocked with young talent, from 20-year-old Machel Cedenio from Trinidad and Tobago – 44.36 last season – to Botswana’s Babolocki Thebe, the 19-year-old African Champion that has run 44.22 in altitude in 2016. Dominican Republic’s Luguelín Santos (22 years old) clocked 44.11 at Beijing to come fourth on the 2015 World final, and was the runner up to James in London 2012. From the fifteen fastest man this season, are also heading to Rio de Janeiro Bralon Taplin (23 years-old, Grenada), Steven Gardiner (22, Bahamas), Nery Brenes (Costa Rica), Gil Roberts (USA), Lalonde Gordon (Trinidad, bronze in 2012) and Javone Francis (22, Jamaica), while Europe’s finest are conspicuously missing.

Only Rabah Yousig (Great Britain, but born in Sudan) represented the continent in the 2015 final, and they can be completely shut out at Rio, even if two-time European Champion Martyn Rooney, fellow Brit Matthew Hudson-Smith, Czech Republic’s Pavel Maslák and Belgium’s Jonathan and Kévin Borlée can sneak in if they approach their personal bests.

Men’s Pole Vault, 00:35h, August 15

Rénaud Lavillenie has dominated the men’s pole vault since 2009, collecting Diamond League titles and leading the World Rankings, but he’s had a tough time extending that to most major competitions, with the Olympic title in London operating as the crucial exception. The 29-year-old French – also the WR holder since 2014 with 6.16m indoors – failed again spectacularly at the European Championships last month, declining to start before the bar was set at 5.75m, which he failed to clear. However, crucial blunders aside, the four-time World Championship medallist still wins much more than he loses, and will arrive in Rio as the clear-cut favourite, with a bevy of opponents expecting to feast if he again withers under pressure.

The reigning World Champion, Canada’s Shawnacy Barber, is one of those, having become this season the youngest ever to clear 6m. He did it indoors, but the 5.91m outdoors this summer are nothing to sneeze at, while American Champion Sam Hendricks, 23, posted a career-best 5.92m this season, placing alongside the Frenchman at the indoor World Championships podium in Portland. Brazilian Thiago Braz da Silva, 23, is yet to compete in the final of a major Championship, but the 5.93m he cleared in February are an indication that he can thrill the home crowd.

Canada’s Shawn Barber is looking to upset Renaud Lavillenie for the second consecutive summer

As for the rest of the European contingent, the main threats for Lavillenie come from the German-Polish axis. Germany’s Raphael Holzdeppe, bronze medallist in London 2012, pipped Lavillenie in the 2013 World Championships and came second last year in Beijing, but has seen his preparation hampered by an ankle injury. Nonetheless, someone with his resume can never be dismissed. The German trio is completed with National Champion Tobias Scherbarth and Karsten Dilla, while the Polish team signed up Piotr Lisek, bronze medallist in the 2015 Worlds shortly after clearing 5.90m indoors, and Paweł Wojciechowski, who tied Lisek and Lavillenie in Beijing with 5.80 m, and is a former World Champion with a career mark of 5.91m dating from 2011. The other Polish in the competition is the 2016 European Champion Robert Sobera, who claims a personal best of 5.80m outdoors, while Czech Jan Kudlica is an outsider having cleared 5.83m this season. Kévin Menaldo, Lavillenie’s teammate, jumped 5.81m last year and is one of the candidates to reach the final and eventually soar a little higher.

Rénaud Lavillenie may be the only man in the World capable of passing the 6m barrier regularly – despite having yet to do so outdoors this season – but in a potential firebrand event like this, the bar might be raised to heights he hasn’t experienced before.

Men’s Triple Jump, 13:50pm, August 16

The suspense behind this event doesn’t particularly rest on stiff competition for gold, but on the potential for a new World Record. In 1995, Great Britain’s Jonathan Edwards jumped an outstanding 18.29m in Göteborg, and since then few have even toed the 18m barrier, much else impend the mark. However, in 2015, two men posted 18+ jumps and the American Christian Taylor came within 8cm of the WR at the World Championships, returning 12 months later ready to replicate his Olympic title and take another crack at the history books.

Defending Olympic Champion Christian Taylor is eyeing a shot at the triple jump world record

Taylor’s season best is 17.78m, a bit far from the target, but the major competition environment promises to power up his attempts, something he’d probably need anyway just to solve his closest challengers. His compatriot Will Claye landed at 17.65m this season and dreams of bettering the outcome of London, when he collected silver. He also boasts bronze medals from the 2011 and 2013 World Championships, and can surely expect to surpass a personal-best of 17.75m (2014). The American pair can provide a tense finish, but Cuba’s Pedro Pablo Pichardo might join them as he seems due for an encore from last year’s breakthrough, when he led the World final until the final round. Doubling down on the 17.73m of Beijing should merit a medal, but he’s shown to be capable of more, delivering a thunderous 18.08 mark in May 2015, the fourth best jump of all-time. Pichardo has been off the grid this season but is obviously someone to keep an eye on.

The 2013 World Champion, France’s Teddy Tamgho, will be absent with a fractured leg, and the event will miss the supremely talented 27-year-old with a personal best of 18.04m, yet the depth of the field (41 men did the 16.85m necessary to qualify) guarantees that the battle for premium positions will be vibrant. The third best triple jumper this season is India’s newcomer Renjith Maheswary (17.30m), who is followed by China’s Bin Dong (17.24m) – the 2016 indoor World Champion – and the third American, Chris Bernard (17.21m). Meanwhile, Germany’s Max Heß was recently crowned European Champion with 17.20m.

The dark horses for podium positions are two men that have yet to fly past the 17m this season, the 2008 Olympic Champion Nélson Évora (Portugal), third last year at the World Championships with 17.52m, and Cuba’s Alexis Copello, a former World bronze medallist with a personal best of 17.68m from 2011.

Women’s 100m, 2:35am, 13th August

Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce’s success has naturally been overshadowed by her compatriot’s heroics, but Jamaica’s “Pocket Rocket” is also angling for a third consecutive Olympic title in the 100m, which similarly hasn’t happened in any women’s individual event in Athletics’ Olympic history. Fraser-Pryce has dominated the field in this race over the last eight years, adding three World Championship titles, but her ascendancy may be on the tail end, as became evident at the Jamaican trials where she was outperformed by compatriot Elaine Thompson.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s 100m Olympic crown will be under fire in Rio

A 24-year-old sprinter that broke through spectacularly last season with the 200m silver medal at the World Championships, Thompson didn’t compete in the 100m at the time, but blitzed to 10.70s in July to tie the national record and set the world lead, in the process climbing to the top of the pile on this event. Jamaica boasts two leading candidates for the 100m, but the USA banks an equally impressive pool hoping to recapture a title that has escaped since 1996, showcasing three athletes that have run below 10.80 this season. Tori Bowie, bronze medallist in Beijing, put 10.78 at the American trials in Eugene, but that wasn’t enough to win or even settle for silver by her own, since English Gardner crossed the line in 10.74, and Tianna Bartoletta, the reigning long jump World Champion, tied Bowie for second.

Cote d’Ivoire’s Murielle Ahouré is the other woman that has posted in the 10.7s range this season, and at age 28 seems more than capable of snatching the first medal on major international competitions. However, on the pre-race pecking order, she’s also squarely behind Fraser-Pryce – 10.93s as season best while bothered by persistent toe pain – and Dafne Schippers, the surprising silver medallist in Beijing. The Dutch (10.83 in 2016) sprinter skipped this event at the European Championships to focus on the 200m, but will be on the blocks at Rio, looking to be a thorn on the Jamaica-USA Cold War as soon as she reaches top speed.

Daphne Schippers (L) and Elaine Thompson (R) are two women expected to make some on the 100m in Rio

The three medals should be allotted to some combination of the seven women referred, but if the race isn’t as fast as expected, a few more faces can butt in, including Trinidad and Tobago’s Kelly Ann-Baptiste (bronze in the 2011 Worlds) and Michelle-Lee-Ahye (10.96s in 2016), Ahouré’s teammate Marie-Josee Ta Lou (10.96s), and Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare, a former Olympic medallist in the long jump (Beijing, 2008). The veteran Veronica Campbell-Brown, the two time 200m Olympic Champion (2004, 2008) and twice bronze medallist in the 100m (2004, 2012), missed out on a 100m spot during Jamaica’s trials.

The 2012 London Final saw first and last separated at the finish line by 0.26 seconds, and in Rio things could get even tighter.

Women’s Heptathlon, August 12 and 13*

*First event (100m hurdles) at 13:35 on the inaugural day of the meeting, the last heat of the final event (800m) starts at 3:18 am on the following day

The competition that crowns the more well-rounded female (track and field) athlete was a highly-prized showdown heading into the Beijing World Championships, but it ended up well short of expectations. The three ”double-barrelled” contenders are back in the fold and Rio can finally feature a two-day bloodbath for gold between Great Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, and Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton.

Ennis-Hill returns to the Olympic stage four year after charming her way to the title as the poster girl of the London Olympics, and in that period she gave birth and regained form in time to stun Theisen-Eaton at the 2015 Worlds. Now 30 years old, Ennis-Hill recently achieved a personal-best on the long-jump, an indication that she’s still improving even if matching the 6995 points of London can prove tricky. The Sheffield-native posted 6669 to win in Beijing and has already improved to 6733 in 2016, yet those marks have been bested by Theisen-Eaton over both seasons. However, the Canadian finished just second at the Worlds and will have to cope better with the pressure to seize her first major international triumph, emulating her husband, USA’s Ashton Eaton, the prohibitive favourite to win the decathlon in Rio.

Great Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill is poised to take a run at a second Olympic title

The 23-year-old Katarina Johnson-Thompson possesses the raw potential to aspire victory, but inconsistency and an inability to stay fit has ruined some of her opportunities. In Beijing, she was right in the tick of the action before three fouls on the long jump – by far her best event – ended her chances. She has already improved several personal records this season, and if Johnson-Thompson can put it all together in Rio, watch out.

Latvia’s Laura Ikauniece-Admidina, who secured bronze in Beijing, has already posted a personal best of 6622 this season and may again leave with some silverware, while Netherland’s Anouk Vetter amassed 6626 points to triumph at the European Championships, her first major result. Fellow Dutch Nadine Broersen was fourth at the 2015 Worlds coming within a whisker of 6500 points, a barrier Germany’s Carolin Schäfer cleared last May. The 21-year-old Nafissatou Thiam, of Belgium, is a youngster poised for a breakout, while the 2013 World Champion, Ukraine’s Hanna Melnychenko, has been toiling away in the last couple of years.  France’s Antoinette Nana Djimou was fifth in London 2012 and boasts two European titles in her résumé, thus she’s expected to fight for a top eight position.

Women’s 800m, 1:15am, August 20

An event expected to deliver a mesmerizing one-woman show is indelibly coated with a storyline impossible to ignore: Caster Semenya’s controversial return to the spotlight.

The South African rose to prominence in 2009 after taking the 800m at the World Championships as an 18-year-old, and that victory attracted a whirlwind of questions about her genre, which ultimately forced the IAAF to command testing to determine her sex. The outcome is well-documented, with Semenya’s body found responsible for producing high levels of testosterone, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport responded by mandating that she needed to undergo regular hormonal therapy to adjust her levels back to “normal”.

Semenya’s performances suffered after the verdict, especially following the 2012 Olympics where she took silver, but last summer the “female hyperandrogenism” policy was suspended and his form shot up, with the 25-year-old breaking her personal best  – without even unleashing her blazing closing speed – to become the 12th best of all-time (1:55.33) on the 800m. She became virtually invincible in international meetings and at the South African Nationals Semenya actually bagged the 400m, 800m and 1500m in a single afternoon.  She ditched the other events ahead of the Olympics to focus on the two-lap race in Rio, but there’s no doubt she’s in the shape of her life.

Caster Semenya’s imperious form is about to make resurface old naysayers.

Semenya’s languishing times may be a thing of the past, but her recent renaissance is bound to ruffle some feathers as she’s expected to claim the 800m title in imposing fashion, possibly smashing the 33-year-old World Record to boot. Many in the Athletics world believe she benefits from an unfair advantage, and controversy will once again break in full force when she dazzles at the Olympic stage.

With all eyes cropped on Semenya, the fight for the lower podium positions is spearheaded by Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, the only other woman to run sub -1:57 this season. Four years after finishing sixth in London, the 23-year-old is widely regarded to become his country’s maiden female Olympic medallist in any sport,.

Kenya’s Eunice Sum, the 2013 World Champion, is the fourth fastest woman this season, with her teammate Margaret Wambui, just 20 years old, placing right behind. The reigning World Champion, Belarus’ Maryna Arzamasava, should also contend, while Canada´s Melissa Bishop, silver in Beijing, posted a career-best 1:57.43 last month to ascend to third in the World Rankings. Nataliya Pryshchepa, the 2016 European Champion, is one to watch as she navigates her first senior world competition, while the British and American delegations can use the strength in numbers to disturb strategies and define the rhythm of the competition.

 

The best of the rest:

Usain Bolt’s path for a triple three-peat will be equally tortuous on his favourite race, the Men’s 200m (August 18, 02:30am), despite his ambition to go out with a new World Record in the 18 seconds range. Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin will also compete on this race but don’t sleep on LaShawn Merritt (a WL PB of 19:74 this season) and 21-year-old Miguel Francis (19.88) of Antigua and Barbuda.

Bolt’s last Olympic appearance is scheduled to be on the Men’s 4 x 100m relay (August 19, 02:35am), where the USA and Jamaica (who took gold in 2008 and 2012) will renew hostilities if the American’s manage to keep hold of the baton and not bomb out. Both teams clocked 37.3 seconds last year and look evenly matched, therefore it may all come down to the Bolt-Gatlin (Bromell) final dash.  Great Britain has the two best times this season at around 37.8, but is also known to regularly drop out of contention.

On Usain Bolt’s era, Jamaica’s 4x100m relay has pounded rivals USA

On the Women’s 4 x 100m relay (August 19, 02:15am), the USA ladies are the defending Champions and favoured to repeat, but a group with Elaine Thompson, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell-Brown won’t surrender easily. Trinidad and Tobago, Great Britain and a Dutch squad anchored by Dafne Schippers should contend for bronze.

Before that, the Netherland’s difference-maker will try to add the Olympic title to her World crown in the Women’s 200m (August 17, 02:30am). Schippers has edged her rivals so far this season with a WL 21.93s, but can’t rest against the American trio headlined by Tori Bowie (21.99s) and the Jamaicans Thompson and Campbell-Brown.

Allyson Felix edged Bahamas’ Shaunae Miller at the 2015 World Championships

Allyson Felix, the reigning 200m Olympic Champion, missed out on a spot for that race and will have to settle for the Women’s 400m (August 15, 02:45am), where she’ll try to become the first woman in athletics history to win five Olympic gold medals. However, Felix will be pushed to the brink by Bahamas’ Shaunae Miller, the world leader in 49.55s, with Phyllis Francis and Natasha Hastings also threatening her compatriot.

The always volatile Women’s 100m hurdles (August 17, 02:55am) will miss the last two Olympic Champions (Australia’s Sally Pearson and USA’s Dawn Harper Nelson), the reigning World Champion Danielle Williams (Jamaica) and the new World record (12.20) holder, Kendra Harrison (USA), who shattered the mark just days after being supplanted at the US trials. The Americans could comfortably fill the eight final spots  – the seven fastest women this season hail from the USA – but are limited to three participants, with Brianna Rollins (12.34) as the athlete to beat.

On the mid-distance races deserve recognition the Men’s 800m (August 15, 02:25am) and the women’s 1500m (August 16, 02:30am), where two WR holders are seemingly in danger of being upstaged. Genzebe Dibaba (Ethiopia), the 1500m World Champion, is nursing a toe injury and has been overshadowed by Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon, the world leader who’s yet to be defeated this season. Meanwhile, David Rudisha (Kenya), who authored a masterpiece on the 800m at the London Games, is being pressured like never before by compatriots Alfred Kipketer and Ferguson Rotich, 1-2 at the National trials in front of Rudisha. Botswana’s Nijel Amos, silver in 2012, is also a contender.

Four years after lighting up the Olympic stadium in London, Mo Farah is widely expected to collect another double triumph in the Men’s 10 000m (August 13, 01:27am) and  Men’s 5000m (August 20, 01:30am), something only the “Flying Finn” Lasse Viren manage to complete in consecutive editions (1972 and 1976). Farah also picked up both victories at the 2013 and 2015 World Championships, and his rivals should be growing beyond annoyed of having to witness his mighty final sprint followed up by the iconic “Mobot” celebration. The prole of Ethiopians and Kenyans getting used to aspirate the sole of Farah’s shoes has the word once again.

Mo Farah leaving his rivals in the dust. An image replicated a lot since London 2012

Amongst the bevy of throw events, the major attentions befall on both shot put contests. On the Women’s Shot Put (August 12, 02:00am), New Zealand’s Valerie Adams is charging for an unmatched third consecutive individual title. However, her once unimpeachable place on top of the pedestal is a thing of the past, with reigning World Champion Christina Schwanitz (Germany) and world leader Gong Lijiao posing serious challenges. On the Men’s Shot Put (August 18, 00:30am), the 2015 World Champion Joe Kovacs is the front-runner, having consistently thrown above 22 meters, but he will be pushed by fellow American Ryan Crouser, Germany’s David Storl, a consistent top-2 performer in major competitions, and the trio of Polish heavyweights: 2008 and 2012 Olympic champion Tomasz Majewski, 19-year-old phenomenon Konrad Bukowiecki and 24-year-old Michal Haratyk.

The Men’s discus throw (August 13, 14:50) is one of the most unpredictable events in the calendar, with defending champion Robert Harting (Germany) fighting to regain the supremacy.  The world leader is the reigning World champion Piotr Malachowski (Poland) and the younger Harting brother, Christoph, comes next, with the two other podium finishers from Beijing, Philip Milanov (Belgium) and Robert Urbanek (Poland), also craving an Olympic medal.

The last event of the Athletics Olympic program, the Men’s Marathon (August 21, 13:30pm) is known to deliver surprising winners, with the defending Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich (Uganda) functioning has a ready-made example. Kiprotich isn´t expected to repeat in Rio since world-leader (2:03:05) – and London Marathon winner – Eliud Kipchoge and fellow Kenyan Stanley Biwott appear on the pole position. On the contrary, Dennis Kimetto, the world record holder (2:02:57) since Berlin 2014, was left out of the Kenyan squad.

 

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Rio 2016 Olympic Preview (III): Guide to Swimming’s must-watch events

The premier sport of the Summer Olympics’ first week will once again be a fruitful field pool for outstanding storylines and unforgettable memories.  From August 6 to the 13th, the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Aquatics Stadium will receive some of the World’s shiniest sportsmen and sportswomen, including the greatest Olympian of all-time, the 18-time gold medallist Michael Phelps, whose schedule will be much lighter (three individual events  – 100,200m butterfly and 200m medley – plus up to three relays) than in previous iterations. From the USA hails also one of the major candidates to become the perpetual face of the 2016 Games, 19-year-old Katie Ledecky, along with a bunch of other stars fans that don’t follow the sport regularly will pick up on.

The Swimming calendar is composed of a total of 32 events, six of them relays (three in each genre). In comparison with the World Championships, contested every two years, the program is slightly watered down, with the 50m races in the breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly styles (the 50m freestyle races are kept) getting shelved alongside the (usually) monotonous women’s 1500m freestyle and men’s 800m freestyle, meaning both genres contest one instead of two long-distance events.

Michael Phelps will swim for the final time on the Olympic stage

The qualifying heats are scheduled for the morning sessions, starting at 13 pm local time (17 pm BST), with the finals and semi-finals occurring from 22 pm up to midnight in Rio, way later than swimmers are used to.

Besides being disputed on the wee hours of the morning (in Europe), following 32 medal events – in chunks of four or five per journey – is a tough, time consuming endeavour for most fans, thus I jumped at the opportunity to single out the most relevant in the calendar and preview what may happen (spoiler alert: I wasn’t that successful trimming the fat).

Swimming is a sport especially conducive to tight, dramatic finishes and mouth-gaping surprises, while allowing florescent talents to thrive and amass multiple victories in a single meet, maximizing their media repercussion (see Phelps, Michael at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics). The mix of these components guided my selection – by the way, blame the convergence of star power on my decision to place (almost) every women’s freestyle event as a must-watch – and I additionally decided to scribe in my own medal predictions so that you can appreciate how flawed is my understanding of this sport.

So, in (mostly) chronological order (all hours in BST, four more than in Rio):

Men’s 100m Breaststroke, 2:53 am, August 7 

One of Brazil’s best hopes of securing a medal is the men’s 100m breaststroke, with the duo of Filipe Silva and João Gomes having positioned themselves as valid podium contenders with low-59s performances earlier this season. Gomes is third in the World rankings behind the World Champion Adam Peaty and the best American in the discipline, Kevin Cordes, but there are more challengers worth respecting.

21-year-old Adam Peaty is the World’s leading breaststroke sprinter

Adam Peaty, the world record holder since last year as the only man to swim below 58s, has shown to be in fine form to target the Olympic title currently belonging to South Africa’s Cameron Van der Burgh, who he beat at the 2015 Worlds. The debutant Cordes posted the American record at the trials, but his teammate Colin Miller came right behind, positioning also as a podium hopeful. Meanwhile Peaty’s colleague, Great Britain’s Ross Murdoch, took bronze in Kazan at last year’s Worlds and can produce a surprise if he can replicate the 59.09 of that race. Lithuania’s Giedrius Titenius is a darkhorse after breaking the 59s barrier last year before succumbing in the World Championship final.

Prediction: 1. Adam Peaty (Great Britain), 2. Cameron Van der Burgh (South Africa), 3. Kevin Cordes (USA)

Women’s 400m Freestyle, 3:01 am, August 7 / Women’s 800m Freestyle, 2:20 am, August 12

Katie Ledecky’s smashing parade of otherworldly performances will peak at these two individual events, where everything but two new World Records would be a surprise. The only woman besides Federica Pellegrini (in 2009, during the high-technology suits era) to swim the 400m in less than 4 minutes, Ledecky will dominated this race and the major question is by how much can she erase her best of 3:58.37 (2014), conquering her first Olympic title in the event  to succeed the late Camille Muffat. However, after Ledecky, there’s a crowded field of candidates for the podium, with her compatriot Leah Smith, who clocked 4:00.65 in the American trials, looking as the frontrunner. Hungary’s Boglarka Kapas, Canada’s Brittany MacLellan, France’s Coralie Balmy and Australia’s Jessica Ashwood have all raced 4:03 this season, while New Zealand’s Lauren Boyle did it last year. Netherland’s Sharon von Rouwendaal (silver last year at the WC’s) may lack the finishing chops with her sights set on the 10km open water competition.

Usually when Katie Ledecky starts celebrating, her opponents are still in the finishing meters

In the 800m, the competition that put Ledecky on the spotlight after the exceptional triumph as a 15-year-old in London, there’s even less of a competition. The American’s best is over ten seconds (!!) faster than everyone else and she may continue to approach the elusive 8 minute barrier after taking almost 8 seconds from the pre-Ledecky World Record (from 8:14 to the current 8:06:68). A truly magical performance may be in the cards here, with the rest of the pack scrapping a half-pool behind. Jessica Ashwood, with 8:18 this season – the only other below 8:20 in 2016 – is a strong contender for silver alongside Lauren Boyle and Leah Smith, with Kapas and MacLellan as the up-and-coming treats. Jazz Carlin (Great Britain) and Lotte Friis (Denmark) are also in the mix.

Prediction (400m): 1. Katie Ledecky (USA)… , 2. Leah Smith (USA), 3. Brittany MacLellan (Canada)

Prediction (800m): 1. Katie Ledecky (USA)… time for quick nap…., 2. Jessica Ashwood (Australia), 3. Lauren Boyle (New Zealand)

Men’s 4 X 100m Freestyle, 3:54 am, August 7

Cameron McEvoy, “The Professor”, is Australia’s ace on their quest for the 4 X 100m free relay title

On a race that has delivered memorable moments in the past – with Jason Lezak’s unbelievable anchor split to stun France in 2008 right at the forefront  – the prospect of a thrilling three-horse finish is mouth-watering. France and the USA should once again square off, but Australia is on the pole-position due to Cameron McEvoy’s prowess, as the 22-year-old is the fastest man in history (47.04) after the suits were banned. The Aussies are deep after McEvoy and if James Magnusson (who failed to qualify for individual events) can somehow manage to close on his 2012 shape, they may even become inaccessible.

The USA’s main dog is Nathan Adrian, the second best in the 100m this season and a proven commodity as the anchor man, while Michael Phelps’s presence – he raced the event in 2008 and 2012 – would provide a moral boost. The defending World and Olympic Champions, France, have the usual balanced group, even without 2012 hero Yannick Agnel, with Jeremy Stravius,  Florent Manaudou and Clement Mignon all posting under 48:01 this season on the 100m.

However, the aforementioned trio shouldn’t sleep on the rest of the field, namely Brazil – which has medal aspirations on home soil despite missing César Cielo – Russia, whose ambitions took a blow with Vladimir Morozov’s absence; China, powered by the 100m World Champion Ning Zetao; and the always dangerous Italians, third last year after the USA and Australia strikingly fell in the preliminaries.

Prediction: 1. Australia, 2.France, 3.USA

Men’s 200m Freestyle, 2:22 am, August 8

The men’s 200m free is probably the most wide-open race of the entire swimming program at the Olympics, with a good dozen of candidates for the three podium positions. The World leader is Sun Yang (1:44:82), China’s massive 6’6’’ star which is the only man to pace in sub-1:45 this season, but he arrives in Rio as the current runner up in both Olympic and World competitions. In 2012, Sun Yang was pipped by France’s Yannick Agnel, but the 24-year-old couldn’t even qualify on his national trials this time, lucking out with a drop out to be able to be in Rio. Agnel barely threw down a sub-1:46 last year and is far from the 1:43 of London, thus wouldn’t be a surprise to see him miss the final altogether. Meanwhile, at the 2015 Worlds, Yang’s tormentor was Great Britain’s James Guy, winner in 1:45:14, which shouldn’t be enough to take gold this time but places him right after the Chinese.

China’s Sun Yang won two gold medals in London 2012 and is expected to add more silverware in Rio

World record holder Paul Biederman (1:42:00 from the suits-happy 2009 Worlds) was third last year with his best time since 2011, but he’ll be in tough to repeat at the Olympics, with 27-year-old Connor Dwyer – the best American in this race on the post Phelps and Lochte era -closing in. The Dutch Sebastiaan Verschuren and Serbia’s Velimir Stjepanovic, the two best at the European Championships, can surprise if they reach the final, while Japanese Kosuke Hagino will balance his ambitions with the medley events. South Korea’s veteran Park Tae-Hwan, who tied for 2nd with Sun Yang in 2012, is back after a doping suspension, and is a candidate to come “out of nowhere” and medal.

Prediction: 1. Sun Yang (China), 2. James Guy (Great Britain), 3. Kozuke Hagino (Japan)

Women’s 200m Freestyle, 2:19 am, August 9

A clash of giants outside of their flagship events can make this race an extremely compelling one, with a long-distance maven, Katie Ledecky, taking on a buttefly (and freestyle) sprint specialist, Sarah Sjöström. The American became World Champion in this event for the first time in Kazan and further extended her range of domination, but her mid 1:54 career-best is right in line with Sjöström’s personal best, set this season after not competing in the event at the Worlds. In the Olympics, with the race not conflicting too much with their other commitments, they’re in for a battle of styles that can push down their times, approaching the mark of Allison Schmidt in 2012 (1:53:31) and maybe the World record (1:52:98) from 2009.

Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström is the woman better equipped to stop the Ledecky train

The American-Swedish confront is enticing but the woman that swam under 1:53 seven years ago is still rolling, recently posting a career-best in the 100m and catching up with her rivals finest times in the 200m. Italy’s Federica Pellegrini may have been dethroned as swimming’s darling but her experience can put a dent on the expected duopoly.

Emma McKeon is the other participant to clear 1:54 this season and is certainly eager for a medal as Australia’s leader in this race, while Missy Franklin, third in Kazan, may not have the recent marks to be a clear podium threat but certainly possesses the talent. The reigning Olympic Champion, Allison Schimdt, didn’t qualify due to Ledecky and Franklin, while Sjöström’s compatriot, Michelle Coleman, should reach the final but her speed will be of much better use playing second-fiddle on Sweden’s relay team.

Prediction: 1. Katie Ledecky (USA),  2. Sarah Sjöström (Sweden), 3. Emma McKeon (Australia)

Men’s 200m Butterfly final, 2:28h, August 9 / Men’s 100m Butterfly, 2:12 am, August 12

Four years ago, a fresh-faced Chad Le Clos snatched the 200m title from the myth Michael Phelps and effusively celebrated one of the biggest shocks of the London Games. The most decorated Olympian of all-time would return the blow in the 100m a few days later, but one of swimming’s best rivalries was already brewing, even if Phelps tumultuous times off the pool have limited their head-to-head battles. Still, while apart, they’ve thrown smack at each other, with the South African taunting his former idol after becoming the 100m World Champion last year, only to see the absent Phelps best his blistering time (50,56s) later in the same day at the US Nationals.

Chad Le Clos and Michael Phelps, two Champions on the verge of a final battle

The next chapter is scheduled for Rio in double dose, yet neither has pinned the 2016 world-leading times both in the 100m (50,86s) and 200m (1:52,91, more than 1 second better than anyone else). This merit belongs to Hungarian László Cseh, reigning World Champion in the 200m and a man that has long been under the shade of Phelps in major competitions, even if he holds the distinction as the only swimmer to medal in seven World Championships. An epic three-way battle is thus in the cards, with the American, world-record holder in both events, looking to set into the sunset with an unprecedented fourth consecutive win in the 100m, something no swimmer has ever achieved in any race.

In the 200m, the second and third best times of the season belong to Japan’s Daiya Seto and Masato Sakai but they would need to race (well) below 1:54m to unseat any of the big three, which doesn’t appear likely (only Phelps, Le Clos and Cseh have done it since 2012). However, in the 100m there’s a bit more room for a podium intromission. Singapore’s Joseph Schooling was bronze medallist in Kazan – picking up his country’s first ever medal in the Worlds – and if he can once again clear the 51s mark anything can happen, while the likes of Poland’s Konrad Czerniak, France’s Mehdy Metella and USA’s Tom Shields have personal bests bordering 51,20s. A step forward can place them in podium territory, with the same holding true for precocious 17-year-old Li Zhuhao, already the Chinese Champion with 51.24s.

Prediction (100m): 1. Michael Phelps (USA), 2. Chad Le Clos (South Africa), 3. László Cseh (Hungary)

Prediction (200m): 1. László Cseh (Hungary), 2. Chad Le Clos (South Africa), 3. Michael Phelps (United States)

Women’s 200m Medley, 3:29 am, August 9

Katinka Hosszu has won many medals but never at the Olympics. It would shocking to see her wave goodbye to Rio without a few on the baggage

Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, the Iron Lady of Swimming for her gruelling schedules at each meet, will probably sweep the IM (individual medley) events on the women’s side, but the competition in the 200m figures to, at least, keep her in the sight. The reigning World Champion snuffed the all-time best last year in Kazan and has an excellence chance of improving it in Rio, while also exerting revenge on the 8th place obtained in London. The medley distances in 2012 were taken in sublime fashion by China’s youngster Ye Shiwen, but the now 20-year-old was significantly slowed down by injuries since then, having announced her swimming withdrawal after Rio.

She’s not expected to medal this time, which means silver and bronze are up for grabs some two seconds after Hosszu touches the wall. The American Maya DiRado gave signs of her excellent form at the US Trials by winning three events, and is one the main candidates due to her strong freestyle slip, with teammate Melanie Margalis also earning a spot in favour of 2012 bronze medallist Caitlin Leverenz. Great Britain’s Siobhan-Marie O’Connor posted the second best time of the season and would be disappointed to leave emptyhanded, while Spain’s Mireia Belmonte, another multi-race competitor in the Hosszu mold, will have slimmer chances since the final of the event is raced just a few minutes after the semi-finals of the 200m butterfly, where she (and Hosszu) will participate. Great Britain’s Hannah Miley, a regular on this event finals’, Australia’s Alicia Couts, silver medallist in 2012 but past her prime, and newcomers Viktoriya Andreeva, of Russia, and Miho Teramura, of Japan, are also expected to have a say in the outcome.

Prediction: 1. Katinka Hosszu (Hungary), 2. Maya DiRado (USA), 3. Siobhan-Marie O’Connor (Great Britain)

Women’s 4 X 200m Freestyle, 3:55 am, August 10

The 4X100m free relay can close the first day of the swimming schedule with a bang, as Australia figures to beat their own world record by way of the Campbell sisters and Emma McKeown (4th best in the World this season but left behind due to the country limit of two swimmers), but the 200m relay takes the cake because of Ledecky’s presence.

The American unit of 4 X 200m free is the favourite to take gold in Rio

The USA are the World and Olympic Champions but the world record belongs to China since 2009, a sovereignty that should end in Rio. One day after (probably) securing victory on the individual race, Ledecky should anchor the American relay that will also consist of Missy Franklin, Allison Schmidt and Leah Smith, who came close to snatching Franklin’s spot on the individual event. This is a group capable of beating the 7:42.08 mark from the suits era and that may benefit from the challenge of a Sarah Sjöström-led Sweden, a young China team, and an Australian foursome where Emma McKeown will have the chance to shine. Italy, silver in the 2015 Worlds following a huge split by Federica Pellegrini, is also in contention, and the rising Canadian team may surprise, while Hungary is too dependent on Katinka Hosszu.

Prediction: 1. USA, 2. Australia, 3. Italy

Men’s 200m Medley, 3:01 am, August 11

Going back to 2003, the winner of the 200m IM at the World Championships or the Olympic Games has been one of two men: the Americans Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Combined, they’ve set the race’s last ten world records and Rio provides the final episode for both men on their glorious careers and healthy rivalry. Phelps collected the last three gold medals on this event, also going here for an historic four-peat, but Lochte is the reigning World Champion and the world record holder (1:54,00, 2011 Worlds), with this event being the only individual discipline he’ll partake in at Rio (he should also feature on the 4X200m freestyle relay).

Team USA teammates’ Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps should share the Olympic podium one last time in the 200m IM

Phelps and Lochte are on the wrong side of the 30’s but their main challenger is a decade younger and necessarily hungry and determined to crash the vets’ farewell party. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, the fastest man this season who missed last year’s Worlds due to a bicycle accident, has been on the verge of breaking the 1:55 barrier and his versatility allows him to keep pace with two monsters, as he’s the favourite on the 400m IM – Lochte and Phelps aren’t on the starting list -, can medal in the 200m free and displays consistent backstroke skills.

Dreaming of breaking into the podium are Brazilians Thiago Pereira and Henrique Rodrigues. Rodrigues is a recent arrival to the world’s elite on the 200m IM while Pereira, a silver medallist in Kazan behind Lochte, goes into his fourth Olympics, having long stood in the second tier of candidates on medley events behind the Americans. At age 30, grabbing a medal in front of the home crowd to add to his silver on 2012’s 400m IM would give a special shine to his list of accomplishments.

Prediction: 1. Michael Phelps (USA), 2. Ryan Lochte (USA) 3. Kosuke Hagino (Japan)

Women’s 100m Freestyle, 3:18 am, August 11 / Women’s 50m Freestyle, 2:03 am, August 13

With some of the best regarded men out of contention, the women’s sprint events figure to become some of the most exciting races in the program, with a plethora of exceptional individuals squaring off. Leading the pack are Australian sisters Cate and Bronte Campbell, with the older sibling holding the world lead in both races after being upstaged by Bronte in last year’s World Championships. Cate Campbell’s sparkling 52.06s mark in early July set a new 100m World Record and she wasn’t far from doubling the feat on the 50m in the National Championships, putting Britta Stefan’s record from the 2009 Worlds (a remnant of the now banished suits) in serious peril. Bronte, the surprising sprint queen last season, comes right after and a distinctive Aussie 1-2 double is a realistic scenario, even if the Europeans are waiting to crash the party.

Reigning Olympic Champion in the 50m and 100m free, Ranomi Kromowidjojo is up to crash the Aussie’s party

Netherland’s Ranomi Kromowidjojo, the reigning Olympic Champion in both races, is still a formidable opponent and, especially on the 50m, can come out on top, while Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström will have her hands full with both butterfly events and the 200m freestyle, but is still tremendously dangerous. Great Britain’s Francesca Halsall has the fourth best time in the 50m and has shown the ability to approach the low-24s, the probable range for medal contention, while the other Dutch, Femke Heemskerk, has an outside change in the 100m if she can swim in the mid-52s.

The 50m silver medallist in 2012, Belarus’ Aliaksandra Herasimenia, is back after a two-year doping suspension but just reaching the final should be considered a victory this time. The 200m World record holder, Italy’s Federica Pellegrini, should feature in the 100m final even if her chances of adding to her Olympic medal collection don’t look promising. Team USA’s Simone Manuel and Abbey Weitzeil, two debutants, snatched their nation’s spots on both races, but should leave the Americans emptyhanded here.

Prediction (50m): 1. Cate Campbell (Australia), 2. Ranomi Kromowidjojo (Netherlands), 3. Bronte Campbell (Australia)

Prediction (100m): 1. Cate Campbell (Australia), 2. Bronte Campbell (Australia), 3. Sarah Sjöström (Sweden),

Women’s 200m Backstroke, 2:03 am, August 12

With Missy Franklin’s stunning failure to qualify for the 100m back, where she would be defending her title, the path for Australia’s Emily Seebohm became much easier. However, in the 200m back, the bubbly American will be on the blocks to defend her crown and the world record holder won’t relish her credentials easily.

Australia’s Emily Seebohm is the female backstroker to watch in Rio

Franklin’s time of 2:04:06 from London 2012 doesn’t appear vulnerable, with Seebohm clocking a high 2:05 to triumph in the 2015 Worlds, yet the Aussie is still the major favourite despite the fact that her compatriot Belinda Hocking out-touched her in the Australian trials. Seebohm and Hocking, a silver medallist in the 2013 Worlds, hold the two best times this season, with Hungary’s Kathinka Hosszu coming next. The Iron Lady will be racing the last of her five individual events, and fatigue could factor in a race she’s been perfecting over the last years, taking bronze in Kazan at the Worlds. This trio puts Franklin in line, but the 21-year-old has another opponent lurking on his teammate Maya DiRado, who holds the 4th time of the season after winning the US trials to add the race to his 200m and 400m IM bookings. Running a much lighter schedule than usual, Franklin can focus on his specialty, but the path to get back to the top will be extremely tough.

Prediction: 1.Emily Seebohm (Australia), 2. Katinka Hosszu (Hungary), 3. Missy Franklin (USA)

Men’s 4 X 100m Medley, 3:04 am, August 13

The medley relays are some of my favourite races as they showcase almost all of swimming’s elite while rewarding the countries that enjoy more depth over the four different disciplines. Without surprise, on the men’s side, the USA have wholly dominated the race since it was first introduced, boasting every Olympic title and a horde of World Championships interrupted by occasional disqualifications. In Rio, the American unit should boast three of the men that narrowly secured the World title last year in Kazan, with Michael Phelps, on his last Olympic race, expected to fill in on buttefly. Backstroker Ryan Murphy (or David Plummer), breaststroker Kevin Cordes and freestyler Nathan Adrian are all serious medal contenders on the respective 100m individual events, and only a mishap can aid the win towards Australia, the nation better positioned for silver.

The Aussies have their star performers opening (Mitch Larkin, World Champion on the 100m backstroke) and closing (Cameron McEvoy, leading candidate on the 100m freestyle) the relay, but should accumulate significant deficit in the intermediate legs, hindering McEvoy’s ability to close down on Adrian, something he almost pulled off in Kazan.

Cameron McEvoy (Australia, right) and Nathan Adrian (USA, left) should deliver a gripping finale to the Swimming program at the 2016 Olympic Games

A cluster of teams is in contention for the final podium position, similarly to what happened in the 2015 Worlds, where 0.6s separated third and sixth. The French lead-off with Camille Lacourt is strong, but their breaststroker is a serious Achilles’ heel that can submerge the legs of Jeremy Stravius (fly), a clutch relay swimmer, and Florent Manaudou (free). The British, on the contrary, will count on Adam Peaty’s superiority in breast, which should be followed up nicely by James Guy in fly, but that may not be enough for a below-average freestyle sprinter. The Russians, without freestyler Vladimir Morozov, figure to be in contention despite lacking prominent names, while China can surprise with Ning Zetao anchoring a relay also containing backstroker Xu Jiayu and the emerging butterfly talent Li Zhuhao. The final’s eight-lane quota may also encompass some combination of South Africa (Chad Le Clos and Cameron van der Burgh), Hungary (László Cseh and Daniel Gyurta), the always unpredictable Japanese, and the hosts Brazil, which can punch above their weight if everything goes their way.

Prediction: 1. USA, 2. Australia, 3. France

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Rio 2016 Olympic Preview (II): Major events to book on your schedule

With 306 medal events on the Rio 2016 Olympic calendar, it´s impossible to follow all the action coming in droves from Brazil over the next fortnight. Daily, there will be multiple alternatives that cater to every profile of sports fan, but a few selected competitions stand above the rest, either from the magnitude of the sides in battle, the significance of the potential victors on the broader heritage left from this specific edition, or the traditional media coverage expected. With these criteria in mind, I tried to mine some of the most relevant events that are on the program, and adjusted to collect Brazil’s best chances of producing riveting displays for the hollering native audiences on site.

I’m obviously spitballing on the athletes or teams that will reach the decisive encounters on these events, and undoubtedly my own predilections guided a few of the choices, but I believe the list below is sensible enough to pass the sniffing test.

Team competitions are in vast majority in this article as they are easier to pinpoint (for example, if you don’t follow fencing on a regular basis, it’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff on a program containing dozen of events,) but keep in mind that on the final two parts of this preview I’ll dive into the must-watch events of the Olympics’ two blue-ribbon sports, Swimming and Athletics.

So, in chronological order (all hours in BST, four more than in Rio):

Cycling Men’s road race, 1.30 pm, August 6

The major event of day 1 of the Olympics will see the world’s best road cyclists compete on a 256.4km course that passes through Rio de Janeiro’s landmarks. With two circuits that include cobble sections and a total of 10 climbs, counting a 8.5km ascension that is run three times, there’s an excellent chance the historically chaotic race is decided by a highly selective group of riders equipped to power in the hilly parkour. The 20km flat run-in to the finish may prove too much for Chris Froome, who dreams of becoming the first man to complete a Tour de France-Olympic Gold medal double, but other Grand Tour contenders have a major opportunity, including Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who always seems to be the bridesmaid when wearing his national colours, or Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali.

Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov took top honours in London 2012

The reigning World Champion, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, will be absent to focus on the mountain bike competition, but one-day specialists like Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet and Phillipe Gilbert or France’s Julian Alaphilippe can pose major threats if they’re not eliminated uphill. With the traditional powerhouses Spain, France, Italy and Belgium (plus Great Britain) possessing a pair of team leaders, the dark horses come from the loaded rosters of Colombia and Netherlands, where every man can legitimately envision succeeding Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov, the winner in London 2012.

Gymnastics Women’s team final, 8 pm, August 9

In one of the tent-pole events of every Olympics, the USA’s girls want to repeat as Olympic Champions, something they’ve never been able to do. After dominating the team competition in the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, the Americans are the clear frontrunners possessing a unit highlighted by  Simone Biles, the brightest gymnast of the last few seasons, and the returning pair of Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, two multiple medallists in London.

The USA, which took five of the last seven world titles, edged Russia four years ago and the successors of the Soviet Union, an historic powerhouse, are once again a strong contender, while Romania, bronze medallists in 2012 and podium-bound in every Olympics since 1976, did not qualify this time. A prominent position is thus opened for China and Great Britain, respectively second and third at the 2015 Worlds.

The United States are hoping to rehash this image in Rio de Janeiro

Tennis Men’s Singles Final, 4 pm, August 14

For a competition that prematurely lost half of the top ten players in the ATP rankings largely due to concerns about the Zika virus, a tournament-saving Final pitting Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray would be a welcome sight for tennis officials looking to save face. With Roger Federer out injured, the Serbian’s quest for a career-crowning Olympic gold medal is the storyline the game needs, and nothing looks better than a potential five-set thriller against the defending Champion.

Anything else, except for an unforeseen run by a homeland boy, would put the event squarely on the backburner in the middle of the Olympic festivities, and cast doubt over the sport’s future inclusion in light of the masses of players evidently disregarding the competition.

Beach Volleyball Women’s Final, 4 am, August 17

Brazil’s Larissa Franca came back from retirement to take another shot at Olympic Gold

With the majestic backdrop of Copacabana Beach, this midnight fest may turn into an absolute classic if the Brazilian pair that has dominated international competition makes the final. Larissa Franca, maybe the best beach volleyball player of all-time, has won everything except for the Olympic title, and halted retirement in 2014 to join forces with Talita Antunes in route to Rio. The pair amassed 61-straight victories topping in the 2015 World Tour Finals title, and reaches the Olympics as the prohibitive favourites, determined to give Brazil the first gold medal in this event since 1996.

Larissa was a bronze medallist in London behind two American pairs, with Kerri Walsh Jennings collecting his third consecutive title alongside Misty May-Treanor by defeating April Ross and Jen Kessy. With May-Treanor’s abandon, Jennings partnered with Ross and they appear poised to become the main challengers to Franca and Antunes. The Brazilians hold a 5-1 head-to-head record and will count on the rowdy home crowd, but don’t discount the experience of Jennings, going into her fifth Olympic Games.

Football Women’s Final, 9:30 pm, August 19

In five previous Olympic tournaments, never the reigning World Champions were able to add the Olympic title the following season. The USA will try to do just that and since they’ve won the last three editions and four of five, the odds seem to be in their favour.

With a roster slightly retooled and revitalized from the squad that triumphed in the 2015 World Cup, the Americans’ more dangerous opponents are the hosts, silver medallist in 2008, Germany, the three-time bronze medallists and twice World Champions, and France, an enormously talented ensemble that has mind-bogglingly failed to reach the podium in successive international competitions. Japan, the finalists in 2012, are shockingly absent after being surpassed by Australia and China on Asia’s qualifying tournament.

Carli Lloyd (#10), the 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year, was on target twice at the 2012 Olympic Final

Football Men’s Final, 9:30 pm, August 20

The future of men’s soccer in the Olympics (at least in the current stripped-down configuration) may well depend on a long run from the hosts, with Brazil desperate to complete their mantle adding an elusive gold medal that escaped four years ago at Wembley. With a side once again led by Neymar but significantly less potent than in 2012, the hosts will be on a mission to exorcise the demons of the humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat on home soil during the 2014 World Cup.

Incidentally, Germany may cross their path in the SF should both teams win their respective groups, and a possible rematch with Mexico or a derby with Argentina might coalesce in the final. Either way, its gold or bust for Brazil and the home boys missing the Final would significantly decrease the relevancy of the match to be contested at the iconic Maracanã Stadium.

Volleyball Men’s Final, 17:15 pm, August 21

One of the hottest tickets in the Olympics is the Volleyball men’s event, where the hosts have a great chance to reclaim the title after the gold medals of 1992 and 2004, and the silver medals of 1984, 2008 and 2012.

The Russian’s soared above Brazil at the 2012 Men’s Volleyball Final

A powerhouse boasting several World Cup, World League and World Championship triumphs since the turn of the century, Brazil will nonetheless face stiff competition from the likes of Russia, the reigning Olympic Champions, the USA, winners in 2008 and the current World Cup Champions, Poland, the World Championship holders, and Italy, bronze medallists in London 2012.

Men’s basketball Final, 19:45 pm, August 21

The last event to complete at the Olympic Games should once again affirm USA’s basketball domination, with the complement of NBA stars massively favourite to collect a sixth title in seven editions since the “Dream Team” shook the 1992 Games held in Barcelona. Despite missing a plethora of the World’s finest players, the Americans – unbeaten internationally since 2006 – should cruise through the competition much like they did in the last two Olympics, where they defeated Spain in the final. With the eternal Paul Gasol still leading the way, the Iberian side may once again reach the decisive game despite some important absences (NBA All-Stars Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka).

Can Spain (or any other team) halt USA’s rise to the top of the men’s basketball podium?

However, other teams are vying to outdo the European Champions, from their continental counterparts France, Serbia, Croatia and Lithuania to South America’s Argentina, Champions in 2004, and Brazil, which obtained their last medal in 1964.

 

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Rio 2016 Olympic preview (I): A (personal) list of athletes to follow

The world’s quadrennial sports smörgåsbord is about to get underway in Rio de Janeiro – well, technically as I write this, it has already started – as over 10 000 athletes have descended on the first South American host city looking to extol the virtues of four years (or a lifetime) of intense, unappreciated preparation. Seven years after the so-called “Cidade Maravilhosa” was selected to welcome the world’s fittest individuals, the novel tradition of derogatory buzz about the conditions waiting the delegations is already surfacing in every media outlet, yet (hopefully) just a few hours remain for everyone to focus on the spirit of this incomparable event.

The Olympics. A communal celebration of the World we live in, its outstanding diversity and history, but also an expression of global unity as representations from 206 countries /nations converge to compete for eternal glory and national pride through the pursuit of athletic excellence, expressed on one of Humanity’s most powerful drivers, sports. Or simply, borrowing the London 2012 motto: The Olympics. Inspire a Generation (too corny?).

During 19 days of competition, not only 306 new Olympic Champions will be crowned, but countless stories will arise, get shared, debated and imprinted on the collective memory, iconic images and heroes will be shot and etched, humans will sense unbridled joy and despair, succumb to sadness and anger or soar to touch the paradise. The Olympic Games should be about this for a fortnight and not the financial, social and political hardships of the hosts, the environmental missteps, the administrative shortcomings, the health concerns that significantly depleted the field of competitors on disciplines like tennis and golf, Russia’s appalling doping issues or even the undercurrent allegations of corruption and fraud that plague the Olympic movement.

For a few weeks every four years, exceptional individuals get to showcase their abilities in front of a global audience that reaches 3 650 million, and we get a front row seat into their life, to experience their victories and the crushing weight of their failures. Heck, at the opening ceremony, entering the Olympic Stadium shortly after the legendary Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, will be 10 athletes with refugee status, courageous men and women who will compete in Rio under the Olympic flag, a redeeming story with so much of unique and inspirational and that still shouldn’t have ever come to life.

This time Brazilian athletes will be the last to touch the Olympic Stadium

Anyway, time to drop the babbles of someone way-too-excited and finally getting to the gist of this article, the first part of the Olympic preview, which will focus on the athletes I’ll keep my eye on during the Olympic Games.

With 42 sport disciplines represented in the Games, it goes without saying that it’s impossible to grasp and highlight every notable athlete (well, they are all notable, actually, since they got to this distinctive stage) while getting a clear picture of what they represent to their sport. Yet, tapping into my knowledge and a bit of research, I compiled a list of eight names (or seven plus a team) that I’m keen to see perform at Rio de Janeiro, based on factors like the personal stakes in the game, the relevancy of their performances at the national level, the worldwide visibility of their results, or simply my own preferences, quirks and interests.

In short, if you’re expecting weightlifters, wrestlers, boxers (sensing a theme here?), diving competitors, synchronized swimmers, rhythmic gymnasts or guys that stroll mounted on horses, you’re out of luck.

Some of the names on the list already enjoy worldwide popularity, others may be on their way and in some cases that won’t ever happen, but all of them have the chance to leave Rio with silverware. I found a way to balance the genres and the athletes compete in different sports, but in terms of nationality wasn’t as successful. Meanwhile, keep in mind that in the next posts I’ll have the opportunity to sift through a bunch of other remarkable athletes.

Without further ado, here is my batch of eight.

Kevin Durant (USA, Basketball)

The main figure of the 2016 summer in USA’s sports landscape arrives in Rio with something to prove after leaving his own Ducat in Oklahoma City and taking his talents to the behemoth Golden State Warriors. An Olympic Champion in 2012, when he was still an emerging superstar fresh of an NBA Final appearance, the career of Durant peaked in 2014 with an MVP award before things sizzled due to nagging injuries.

Kevin Durant will have a chip on his shoulder in Rio

From a contender to LeBron James’ crown as the Planet’s premium basketball player, he became a second-row spectator on James’s show and surplus of Steph Curry’s meteoric rise. The decision to join Curry’s band of brothers will always be a paradigm shifting move on his life, but the start of that new chapter will only come after an attention-grabbing tournament where he’s the main lure.

Despite still being the mightiest group, the American roster in Rio will be missing so much primetime talent (LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, James Harden, Anthony Davis…) that it can quickly become Durant’s team, for better or worse. He’ll be the fulcrum of the media, the man tasked with the money balls (if they even occur) and his relationship with future teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will be scrutinized before he even enters their own club’s locker room. The 27-year-old better make good use of his closing days as the alfa dog.

Dafne Schippers (Netherlands, Athletics)

For a long time, the sprint events at international competitions have been subjugated by athletes hailing from North and Central America – with Africans sprinkled in – but this blonde phenomenon from the Netherlands has recently pestered their safe heaven.

The 24-year-old Schippers broke into the world stage as a heptathlon competitor, even meriting the third place at the 2013 World Championships, but in 2014 decided to focus on the burgeoning sprinting chops she had been displaying since adolescence. Winning the 100m and 200m in the European Championships was just the first step on a ladder that continued with the furious late charge to take the 200m World title a year later on a national and continental record time of 21.63s, the third best mark of all-time. Additionally, in the 100m, the Utrecht-native was second despite a slow start, and thus jumped to the vanguard of contenders on both races ahead of these Olympics.

It’s entirely possible that a tall, white woman with acne marks dotted on her face will stand on top of the podium in Rio de Janeiro as the Sprint Queen, and that is really cool, no matter the callous, unproven allegations her swift ascension has brought forward.

Neymar (Brazil, football)

A 20-year-old Neymar reacts during the 2012 Olympic Final

Hailed as the poster boy of the Olympics at age 24, the Barcelona superstar is the trump card his country will play to end the chase for a gold medal in the national sport, but it’s about more than that for him. The intrepid winger has personal history to erase, from the loss to Mexico at the 2012 Final to the disappointment of being forced to the sidelines while a catastrophe submerged the “Canarinha” at the 2014 World Cup. Extremely productive for his national team (46 goals in 70 caps), no other football player competing in Rio is even remotely at the same level – the second best in Rio may be South Korea’s overaged forward Heung-min Son and some staunch football fans would be pressed to name his current club – as the third place finisher in last year’s FIFA Ballon d’Or election.

Brazil pretty much punted the 2016 Copa America to get him here and with that comes the burden of carrying the hopes of a nation of 200M, something he’s experienced before. He’ll deliver, mark it in ink (or don’t).

Simone Biles (USA, Gymnastics)

The history of the Olympic Games, whether you particularly enjoy Gymnastics or not, has been written on several occasions by the superb displays of grace, agility and balance paraded by the athletes of this sport. Nadia Comaneci is one of the most recognized Olympians of all-time and every four years female gymnasts carry on with her legacy, delighting worldwide audiences that seldom watch the sport. Some of those gymnasts have turned into fleeting darlings that never again touch the Olympic stage, but it would be a shame if that’s the destiny of Simone Biles.

The 19-year-old Simone Biles is Gymnastics undisputed Queen

The diminutive (145cm high) gymnast will make her Olympic debut after absolutely crushing her competition since 2013. A three-time all-around World Champion, Biles has already collected the most gold medals (10) of any female in World Championships history, adding multiple all-around, team, balance beam and floor triumphs due to her unmatched power and creativity. At age 19, she’s the building block on the USA’s challenge for a second consecutive team triumph, and the Texas-native can leave Rio with up to four gold medals, consolidating her case as one of the best gymnasts of all-time. Look for her face to be plastered on Rio 2016 memorabilia.

Roger Federer / Martina Hingis (Switzerland, Tennis)

Damnit. The charmed reunion of two of the craftiest players to ever grace the tennis courts – who have combined for 39 total Grand Slam wins – is not happening in Rio..or ever, for that matter. Shame. Moving on.

Mark Cavendish (Great Britain, Cycling (track))

Despite growing up as a track racer, the Manx Missile’s illustrious career has been erected on his impressive skills as a pacey finisher on the road, having amassed a plethora of stage wins in all three Grand Tours, a Monument victory in the 2009 Milan-San Remo, and the title of World Champion in 2011. All of this definitely wouldn’t have been possible without putting behind the ambitions indoors, which happened following a disappointing 2008 Olympics, but destiny has given him another opportunity.

Great Britain’s Mark Cavendish will be looking for his maiden Olympic medal

In Beijing, he and partner Bradley Wiggins, the reigning World Champions in Madison, were only ninth despite holding justified medal hopes, and Cav promised to never come back to the track. Then, in 2012, his Olympic dreams were once again ruined as the home boys fought tirelessly on the road to force a sprint finish, but were ultimately unable to control a wild competition. At age 31, the Rio de Janeiro Games presented a last chance, but the design of the course outside proved too tough for Cavendish to handle, facilitating the decision to take his word back. Having returned to the track competitions last year, he was able to narrowly obtain the passport to Rio, where he’ll compete in the omnium and the team pursuit.

If the third time’s the charm and he can add Olympic silverware to a résumé that includes an outstanding total of 30 stage wins at the Tour de France, Cavendish may force the Queen’s hand. He would surely relish the title of “Sir”, joining fellow cyclists and (multiple Olympic medallists) Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy.

Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming)

While watching a 15-year-old Katie Ledecky triumph in the gruelling 800m freestyle race of the London Olympics, one couldn’t help to feel excited for what would be coming ahead. Four years later, the unassuming youngster from Washington-DC is the leading face of her entire sport, the one where a certain Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time, is still active.

Katie Ledecky, perhaps the greatest athlete in the World at the moment. Would you believe it?

This would only be possible because Ledecky is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, even if absolutely no one would believe it looking at her physique, distant from the broad torso, long-limbed freaks that ruled the pools before her. She doesn’t need that to demolish world record after world record, to finish race after race with ungodly advantages, to blow away the audience (and her rivals) with efficient strokes, sheer pace and unmatched stamina.

Ledecky will probably sweep the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle races in Rio de Janeiro, and if the 1500m were part of the women’s calendar, she would win that one too, regardless of the need to get in the water three or four times per day to race heats and finals of individual and relay events. Her unprecedented range at elite level is something to behold, and every sports fan should jump at the chance to watch history. After all, she’s “better at swimming than anyone else is at anything”.

Fiji Rugby Seven’s National Team (Fiji Islands, Rugby)

Since first debuting at the Olympics in 1956, the athletes that have represented Fiji, a Pacific Ocean country of 0.9M citizens, haven’t been able to collect a single medal to warm the heart of the nation. However, at Rio de Janeiro, history can be just around the corner, as the national rugby seven’s team is the favourite to take the inaugural Olympic title.

The rugby seven’s Fiji National Team, a group hoping to reach the Olympic pinnacle and make proud an entire nation once again

On a sport that returns to the Games for the first time since 1924, this time on the quicker, more wide-open version of seven-men aside, Fiji is able to regularly beat the usual heavyweights of the rugby of 15, where they rank 10 in the World. Nations like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are still forces to be reckoned with, but the last two HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series titles were conquered by the Fijians, who due to their consummate speed, skill and flair thrive on a full-sized field over two short seven-minute halves.

Some of the alluring members of the team already ply their trade abroad for the best European Teams, but nothing compares to the potential happy ending with Fiji standing on their maiden Olympic podium. The pursuit of glory by the Pacific minnows boasts every ingredient to develop into the feel-good story of the Olympic Games.

Majlinda Kelmendi (Kosovo, Judo)

The Olympic Committee of Kosovo was the 205th organization to become a full member of the International Olympic Committee, having joined in December 2014, thus the Rio Olympics symbolize the first opportunity for Kosovar athletes to compete under their nation’s flag. Carrying the banner on the opening ceremony will be Kelmendi, a two-time World Champion in the -52kg category, and the country’s best medal hope amongst an eight-people delegation.

Majlinda Kelmendi will return to the place of her international breakthrough

The 25-year-old Judoka represented Albania in the 2012 Olympic Games, going out in the second round, and since then has transformed into his discipline’s most feared combatant, leading the World rankings over the last while. In 2013, incidentally at Rio de Janeiro, Kelmendi beat the home favourite Erika Miranda to claim her first World title, and she repeated the feat in 2014 at Chelyabinsk, also adding two European Championships in 2014 and 2016. The weight of the expectations of 2M people hardened by the war, and still awaiting full-independence ratification, will stand on Kelmendi’s powerful shoulders, and you only need to check her “game face” to understand she’s more than ready for it.

Her aggressive, ferocious, resolute style on the tatami channels her personality, and nothing less is expected from someone born on a town, Peja, decimated during the Kosovo War in 1999.

 

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