Let the Games Begin: The Olympic Athletes You Need to Know in Tokyo
Olympic viewing can be a sport in itself, so knowing some of the key competitors can be an automatic advantage.
With the Summer Games about to get rolling with tonight’s Opening Ceremony in Tokyo, sports fans around the globe will be catching their favorite events at all hours via smartphones, tablets or TVs. More than 16 months have passed since the International Olympic Committee put the Summer Games on ice due to coronavirus concerns. While it is safe to say that most, if not all, would not want to repeat the past year, the athletic extravaganza is officially known as Tokyo 2020.
Hosting the Olympics is estimated to cost $15.4 billion, making it the priciest Summer Games to date. Sponsors are reportedly shelling out $200 million in additional contributions due to contract extensions caused by the delay. Even as controversy continues to swirl around the Games, polls in Japan show that many citizens there are against them being held and several major Japanese sponsors like Toyota are not airing their ads in the domestic market, sponsors are still aiming for a worldwide reach of hundreds of millions of impressions collectively.
Spectators at the Games’ 339 events will be scarce per order of the Japanese Olympic Committee. With much of Japan under a state of emergency and COVID-19 cases spiking in Tokyo and certain regions internationally, there is heightened apprehension among fans and athletes alike. Seventy-plus people associated with the Games have tested positive, which has prompted some to call for a cancellation. Contrary to IOC president Thomas Bach’s remarks that cancellation was never an option, the head of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee Toshiro Muto said that was still a possibility.
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Most of the action will span 17 days of competition, save for softball and a few other sports that started before the official opening. Given the 11,000-plus athletes representing 200 countries, there is a lot to keep track of.
And while U.S. stars like Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky are bound to soak up a lot of attention and air time, there are stars in lower-profile sports who are also worth keeping an eye on. Here, a WWD primer on some names to watch during the XXXII Olympiad.
Sky Brown during park skateboard practice at an Olympic qualifying skateboarding event at Lauridsen Skatepark in Des Moines, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/AP
Sky Brown, England, Skateboarding
The 13-year-old Anglo-Japanese skateboarder Sky Brown will be Britain’s youngest summer Olympian. She is also the youngest professional skateboarder in the world and Nike’s youngest sponsored athlete. Like surfing, rafting, sport climbing and karate, skateboarding will be included in the Olympics for the first time, bringing the sport to millions. With a British father and a Japanese mother, Brown calls California home. Having recently told The Guardian newspaper that she is not nervous about Tokyo, Brown explained, “I’m just excited to show the world what skateboarding is really like.”
Ranked third in the world, Brown has been described by skateboarding’s legend Tony Hawk as “one of the best female skaters ever, if not one of the best well-rounded skaters ever, regardless of gender.” Last month she struck gold at the X Games in the Women’s Skateboard Park event by dropping a frontside 540 — the first woman to land it and the only woman who does that trick in competition. With that win in her back pocket, Brown is a strong contender heading into the Olympics. Her skills have reeled in other sponsors like Almost Skateboards and Skateistan. Her dancing skills have led to other rewards, having won “Dancing with the Stars: Juniors” in 2018.
Jordan Chiles trains on the vault for the artistic gymnastics at Ariake Gymnastics Centre venue. Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Jordan Chiles, Team USA, Gymnastics
“Am I dreaming…” is how Jordan Chiles described being in the Olympic Village with her close friend Biles. The nine-time U.S. National team member is very likely going into the Games with more intel than most rookies, thanks to her ties to Biles, a five-time Olympic medalist. The 20-year-old Chiles trains with Biles in Spring, Tex., under Cecile and Laurent Landi. Chiles is a standout in the all-around, vault, uneven bars and balance beam.
Named for the Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan, Chiles became the first all-around Winter Cup champion earlier this year. In June, she finished third in the all-around at the U.S. National Gymnastics Championships behind Biles and Sunisa Lee. While many call Chiles by her nickname “Chick,” Biles sees her as a “little sister.” Chiles said as a child, her parents could not keep her from cartwheeling down the aisle of any open space or walking on her hands instead of her feet. Out of the gym, she is studying zoology at UCLA, loves to shop and likes listening to gospel and all kinds of music. Being around her friends is one of the perks of gymnastics and another is “being able to do things that other people can’t…like fly.”
Kyra Condie climbs during women’s boulder qualification at the climbing World Cup. Rick Bowmer/AP
Kyra Condie, Team USA, Climbing
At 25, professional climber Kyra Condie will be testing her mettle among the first group of international athletes to compete in the sport at an Olympics. She is one of four American sport climbers who have qualified for Tokyo. Mountain Hardwear, Ocún, Penguin Fingers, Tempo and Rise Brewing Co. are some of her sponsors.
A University of Minnesota graduate, the athlete discovered the sport at the age of 10. Eleven years ago, Condie needed a spinal fusion surgery to correct a 70-degree curvature. “This competition season and its preparation especially has forced me to come face-to-face with a lot of weaknesses that feel really hard to surmount, because I’m never going to regain the mobility I’ve lost in my back.”
Known to be quick and aggressive in her climbing style (her flying braided pigtails are testimony to that,) she uses strength training to help compensate for somewhat limited bending. Condie has spoken about how being a good role model involves showing “what it means to be strong, proud and confident.” The athlete, who aspires to become a small animal veterinarian, once said, “I’d like to help motivate the younger generation and show that it is OK to not fit the societal normal for femininity.”
Tyler Downs at the U.S. Olympic Diving Trials at Indiana University Natatorium. Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images
Tyler Downs, Team USA, Diving
Team USA teenage diver Tyler Downs has made as much of a splash on TikTok as he has in the swimming pool with nearly 553,000 followers. Accustomed to training six to eight hours a day, six to seven days a week, Downs works out in the pool, dry land and in the weight room. But the hardest part of the training is the early-morning wake-up due to the 80-minute commute to get to practice. When not competing, Chick-fil-A is his restaurant of choice.
Had the Baldwin, Mo., athlete not been a diver, he would play soccer as he used to, albeit professionally. The youngest of seven children, the 17-year-old started diving at age five. “I love winning. I’m very competitive. I love the feeling that everyone’s watching you,” he told the Indianapolis Star last month.
With high school behind him, Downs, a Barstool athlete, will attend Purdue University in the fall.
Caleb Dressel at the International swimming league at College Park, Md. Gian Mattia D'Alberto/AP
Caeleb Dressel, Team USA, Swimming
Caeleb Dressel has been anointed by Sports Illustrated as the next Michael Phelps and is expected to take the swimming world by storm when he hits the water in Tokyo. With his cover-boy looks, full-sleeved tattoos and washboard abs, Caeleb Dressel is also making a mark outside the pool as one of the featured athletes in NBC’s promotions for the Games and in commercials for Toyota. He’s attracted the attention of other high-profile sponsors, too, including Coca-Cola, Speedo and Hershey’s, the fruits of which helped him buy a 10-acre property outside of Gainesville, Fla.
The 6-foot, 2-inch, 24-year-old sprint specialist from Florida has already won two gold medals in the 2016 Games in the 4×100 freestyle — where he raced with Phelps — and the 4 x 100 medley, and this time will take on the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly. Without Phelps to contend with, Dressel is expected to medal in all these events.
Now a married man — he and fellow swimmer Meghan Haila tied the knot in February — Dressel also has a strong social media presence. He started a YouTube channel in 2011 deconstructing his swims, and his black Labrador Jane, the Water Dog, has become a star in her own right on Instagram. But despite all his success in the sport, Dressel has also come forward with the anxiety he experiences before races and his discomfort with media coverage of him and his place in the sport.
Nevin Harrison trains near Lake Lanier Olympic Park. Brynn Anderson/AP
Nevin Harrison, Team USA, Canoe Sprint
Forget curling — how about canoe sprint, a sport, sometime called flat-water racing, in which athletes race canoes or kayaks on calm water.
Nevin Harrison, a 19-year-old from Seattle, will be among those taking in the event in its Olympics debut — and it will also mark the first time the U.S. will be sending the same number of female athletes to the Games as men, thanks to the addition of women’s canoe, which only became a world championship event in 2010. She actually snagged the 200-meter world title at just 17 years of age, setting her up as the gold medal favorite in Tokyo in a sport usually dominated by the Europeans.
Her journey to the top of the sport started on a lark when hip dysplasia kept her from participating in her first love, track and field. But in a summer camp outside Seattle, a counselor suggested she try racing a canoe. Once she learned how to stay in the boat, it became clear that she was a natural. And while she has admitted that her win in Hungary in the world championships three years ago was a shock, she’s eager to show the world that U.S. women have a place in the sport as well.
Once she’s participated in Tokyo, Harrison said she plans to pursue a career in medicine.
Jrue Holiday during the first half of Game 4 of basketball’s NBA Finals. Aaron Gash/AP
Jrue Holiday, Team USA, Basketball
Having just helped the Milwaukee Bucks clinch the NBA Playoffs, Jrue Holiday will be joining some of his NBA competitors like the Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant, Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo and San Antonio Spurs’ Keldon Johnson on Team USA.
Helping to win Milwaukee’s first NBA title since 1971 resulted in a reported $1 million bonus for Holiday and a luxury tax for the franchise. Holiday, a point guard and shooting guard, grew up in an athletic household. His parents Shawn and Toya Holiday played college basketball at Arizona State University. His younger sister Lauren played basketball for UCLA. The NBA star is also married to an Olympian, two-time gold medalist soccer player and FIFA women’s World Cup champion Lauren Cheney.
The NBA player was onto the sneakers as collectibles years ago, having created a shoe library in 2013 to house all his kicks. All about defense and rebounding, Holiday will no doubt be keeping Olympic rivals on their feet.
Quan Hongchan Courtesy Photo
Quan Hongchan, China, Diving
Just 14 years old, Quan Hongchan is the youngest athlete China is sending to Tokyo to compete in the 10-meter platform dive event. She’s the only person on the 10-person-strong Chinese diving team that has not yet been a world champion. But she does have a gold medal from nationals. At that event, she stunned the arena with a second dive that netted four perfect 10 out of 10 scores. Originally from Guangdong, Quan began the sport at the age of eight.
This is the first time that she’ll be taking part in a large competition, her coach said, adding that her mission this time is to do her best and show her skill level. When not training, Quan likes to play video games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Honor of Kings. But she laughed that she only gets to play an hour at most every session, which is not enough for her liking.
Ma Long plays in the Sweden in the men’s singles final at the world table tennis championships in Budapest. KYDPL KYODO/AP
Ma Long, China, Table Tennis
The 32-year-old Chinese table tennis captain Ma Long is seen as one of the greatest, akin to being the Roger Federer of his sport. Ma, whose name means “dragon,” holds the current World and Olympic titles. During his career, he has been ranked number-one in the world for longer than any other male player — 64 months.
At the Rio Games in 2016, he served up a thrilling rally against Japan’s Jun Mizutani in the semifinals, showing off his famous right-handed forehand before finally taking home the gold in the men’s singles. People can expect to see a tough challenge from the Japanese in a rematch on their home turf. However, China is dominant in the sport — it has won 28 of the 32 gold medals awarded at the Olympics since table tennis was introduced in 1988. In 2016, with the help of Ma Long, China swept all four tennis table titles — winning men’s and women’s team events and in the men’s and women’s singles.
Gabriel Martinelli at the Premier League match at Selhurst Park, London. Facundo Arrizabalaga/AP
Gabriel Martinelli, Brazil, Soccer
Competing in his first Olympics, Gabriel Martinelli will be trying to help his teammates defend Brazil’s gold medal for men’s soccer. While millions of fans will be screaming for veteran players like Richarlison and Douglas Luiz, many will be doing the same for the 20-year-old newcomer.
The fast-moving forward joined Arsenal two years ago. After posting a head shot of himself wearing Brazil’s team colors Wednesday on Twitter, Martinelli garnered nearly 11,000 likes in three hours. With dual Brazilian and Italian citizenship, the dark-haired athlete has international appeal. He recently had some social media followers questioning future moves after posting a sand-timer on Instagram.
Carissa Moore rides a wave during a practice session at Tsurigasaki beach. David Goldman/AP
Carissa Moore, Team USA, Surfing
As a four-time World Champion, Carissa Moore has experienced the heat of international completion and excelled. Raised and based in Honolulu, she started surfing at the age of five with her father on Waikiki Beach. She finished at the head of her class at Punahou High, former U.S. president Barack Obama’s alma mater. The 28-year-old will be among the first surfers to usher in their sport as an Olympic one. Six months of the year Moore is on the road chasing waves and the rest of the time she can be found in Honolulu with her husband Luke and their two dogs Maya and Tuffy. When not surfing, Moore enjoys scrapbooking, visiting family, training and taking naps. Last year Hurley extended its multiyear partnership with Moore. The surfer also works with Leus, Banan, Lost Surfboards, Damien, RedBull, Subaru Hi, SunBum, Deloitte, Gillette, Venus, Visa and Xfinity.
Known for her positivity, Moore once said, “Winning a contest is great, but the feeling is only temporary. On my journey, what stands out the most are all the moments in between…the belly-aching laughs, breathtaking sunsets, yummy meals shared with friends and incredible adventures. To me happiness and success aren’t defined by the trophies or accolades but by the small victories and simple joys every day.”
Naomi Osaka practices ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics at Ariake Tennis Center in Tokyo. Kiichiro Sato/AP
Naomi Osaka, Japan, Tennis
As much as Olympians want media coverage to be all about their performances, Naomi Osaka’s appearance at the Summer Games will inevitably resurface the question of the media’s impact on athletes’ mental health. Two months ago the 23-year-old announced that she would not be doing post-match press conferences at the French Open and later retreated from the event, as well as Wimbledon, citing mental health issues. Her declaration that press conferences between journalists and athletes is out of date kicked off a worldwide debate beyond sports media.
Representing Japan at the Olympics, the four-time Grand Slam winner and social activist will be back in the spotlight when the 64-player draw gets underway at Ariake Tennis Park. Earlier this month Osaka made headlines for being featured on one of the covers for the new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. While TV reporter Megyn Kelly and others criticized that, the shoot was done in December, months before Osaka spoke publicly about anxiety and depression.
Off the court, Osaka is an enterprising individual. A Nike-sponsored athlete, she is a Louis Vuitton global brand ambassador and will be among the co-chairs at this fall’s Met Gala. She also started her own skin care line, Kinlo, and is the subject of a new three-part Netflix documentary series that LeBron James is a co-executive producer of. Osaka will have some serious competition in Tokyo, including this year’s Wimbledon singles champion, Ashleigh Bart of Australia.
Heimana Reynolds performs en route to winning the men’s final at the Park World Skateboarding Championships in São Paulo. KYDPL KYODO/AP
Heimana Reynolds, Team USA, Skateboarding
As far back as 2009, the Honolulu-born Heimana Reynolds had his sights set on becoming a professional skateboarder and competing in the Olympics. Now the 22-year-old will get his chance.
The sport runs in the family — his father Matt taught him to skate and surf as a child and his family owns a skate school and shop called Proper Riseshop in Honolulu and runs the only indoor skatepark on the island, which doubles as his private training facility and a place to teach other kids the sport. His father continues to be his coach.
His earliest memory of skateboarding was when his dad got tickets to the X Games and he was able to see Shaun White, Bucky Lasek and other legends of the sport in person. He recalls how he watched White practice the same run over and over and get increasingly frustrated at not being able to land it — until the final event where he aced the run and took home the gold. “Seeing his hard work and dedication…really motivated me to want to put my head down and work for something like that and see myself at that level one day,” he said.
In Tokyo, Reynolds will take on the park discipline, which uses elements such as bowls and ramps to launch skaters into the air to do tricks.
Although he’ll be launched onto a public stage on his skateboard, Reynolds is never far away from the surf, either. He said his favorite workout is rock running, where he submerges himself on the bottom of the ocean without a tank and holds a rock heavy enough to allow him to walk on the seafloor. “That one is really good for mental strength and endurance,” he said.
Dina Asher-Smith celebrates after winning the women’s 100-meter final during day two of the Muller British Athletics Championships at Manchester Regional Arena. Martin Rickett/AP
Dina Asher-Smith, England, Track and Field
Sprinter Dina Asher-Smith is not only the fastest British woman in history, but she is also a rising star in fashion. Her face is on the digital cover of British Vogue’s August issue. She can rock a sexy Nensi Dojaka dress as easily as she runs across the finish line first.
The sprinter holds the national record for both the 100 meters and 200 meters with times of 10.83 seconds and 21.88 seconds, respectively. Asher-Smith will be returning to the Olympics as a competitor for the second time, having competed in Rio in 2016 and earned a bronze medal. The runner was inspired to take athletics seriously when acting as a kit carrier at the 2012 London Games.
In Tokyo, she will be battling for a 200-meter win against Bahamian Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, which is expected to be one of the highlights of the Summer Games. In a 2018 Ted Talk, Asher-Smith said she was motivated by fear, explaining, “OK, ‘motivated’ isn’t a strong enough word to express how I feel. It’s more like an allergy to me — an itching, nagging feeling deep inside of me that gives me the inability to be complacent about anything.”
She is also an activist, championing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Katie Zaferes of Team USA crosses the finish line during ITU World Triathlon Elite Women in Yokohama City, Kanagawa. Masahiro Sugimoto/AP
Katie Zaferes, Team USA, Triathlon
Katie Zaferes has some big shoes to fill: At the 2016 Games, Gwen Jorgensen sprinted past Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig to win gold in the women’s triathlon and bring the sport national recognition. Since then Jorgensen retired from triathlon to focus on running alone, leaving Zaferes as the U.S.’ top medal contender in the event, which consists of a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike and a 10-kilometer run.
The 32-year-old from Maryland started her sports career running track and field and discovered triathlon in high school, where a recruiter quickly recognized her skills in the three sports. She made the 2016 Olympic team, finishing 18th, and in the past five years has steadily risen through the ranks to the point where she is seen as a top prospect to bring the gold back to the U.S. for a second time.
In an Instagram post after she was selected for the team, Zafares wrote: “My biggest goal for the Olympics has been, and continues to be, to use all that I learned from Rio 2016. All the work and lessons that have accumulated over time, with every experience preparing me for this moment. I look forward to standing on the start line ready to go and be the best version of myself. Swim hard, bike hard, run hard and most of all have fun and honor those that helped me get there.”
If she wins a medal, she may also be ready to settle down and buy a bigger home. Zaferes and her husband, Tommy, gained fame when their 370-square-foot home was featured on the reality show “Tiny House Nation.”
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