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.

 

Athletes to watchMarquee eventsSwimming GuideAthletics Guide

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