My New Year's Wishes for Tokyo 2020
Along with millions of Olympic and sports fans, I'm wishing for a successful, smooth, and healthy Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. After this year's postponement, there are still serious lingering concerns on participant and spectator Covid-19 protocol, which likely won't be answered until the springtime at the earliest. But we do need a "beacon of hope" to help frame a pandemic recovery. And, today, I choose to look at the glass half-full to start off the year.
That said, my fandom doesn't mean that I don't have some recommendations. So, in honor of the new year, here are Games and Rings' top ten wishes for the Olympics in 2021.
Let me know what your own wishes are in the comments.
Run, Caster, Run
Middle-distance runner Caster Semenya has one more appeal up her sleeve, to the European Court of Human Rights. Double Olympic champion in the 800 meters, Semenya is currently blocked from defending her title unless she takes testosterone-inhibiting measures, under somewhat arbitrary and selectively exclusionary new World Athletics rules.
As argued a few months ago, World Athletics is on the wrong side of history's trajectory toward human rights in this case. Semenya was born female and is female. She - like some others - is just a female with elevated - but natural - testosterone, and who happened to win the genetics lottery suited for a career in athletics. Why should she be punished for that? Let her run.
Protest for Change
Team USA recently announced not only that "It is a human right to peacefully call upon racial and social injustices during the...Games" but also that "denying the right of respectful demonstrations...runs counter to the Olympic...values."
Wow. This doesn't just run counter to Team USA's own recent actions - just ask fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry for their thoughts - it runs against the International Olympic Committee's own Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which bans any political protest, including kneeling or even wearing an armband. The IOC even issued its Rule 50 guidelines at the start of the year.
But a year filled with Black Lives Matter activism and increased racial awareness sure can change perspective. World Athletics, representing track & field, issued a President's Award to Mexico City 1968 protestors Tommie Smith and John Carlos (and fellow medalist Peter Norman), a surprising indication that maybe the organization will support its own athletes' Olympic protests.
For its part, the IOC did give a tepid "we'll look into it" response to Team USA's recommendations. Of course, determining "appropriate" allowable protest and over what issue would be problematic on a global stage like the Olympics, with the wide variety of national interests and backgrounds. But isn't the Olympic stage built on inspiration and striving for better-ness? Will we see a meaningful gesture that spurs conversation toward greater social good? Will the IOC act supportively? Yes, I'm anxious to see it.
A Russian Comeuppance
In its bid to dominate its home Games of Sochi 2014, Russia undertook a doping system that provided its athletes with performance-enhancement and an elaborate coverup. That this was a state-level scheme is no longer in dispute.
What has been the punishment? Four years later, at Pyeongchang 2018, "Russia" was banned but Russian athletes were allowed to compete under an "Olympic Athletes from Russia" moniker. Huh? Essentially, Russian officials were absent, as was the Russian flag and anthem, but otherwise, the team carried on. Really, "Russia" still participated...their flag was honored and their anthem sung.
In 2016, the IOC declined to ban Russia outright despite recommendations by the World Anti-Doping Agency to do just that and following confirmation of deeper state-level manipulation. World Athletics took matters into its own hands and heavily restricted Russian presence in track & field, but elsewhere across the Games, Russia flourished.
Now, after an appeal of a stronger WADA ban, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has reduced penalties and restored possible Russian participation at the Games. This will likely again come under a "neutral" banner. The upcoming World Men's Handball Championship next month offers a template, with Team Russia becoming Team "Russian Handball Federation", while still wearing team colors. To paraphrase, if it looks like Russia and carries the name "Russian", it is Russia.
Not much of a punishment for carrying out the largest doping affront against the Olympics, state-sponsored no less. Russia's actions in Sochi disrespected the Games, and its role as host, to say the least. And, so far, Russia has, as U.S. Anti-Doping Agency head Travis Tygart said in response to the recent CAS reduction, "once again escape(d) a meaningful consequence proportional to the crimes...".
What can be done? A repeat of 2018's "Olympic Athletes from Russia" team seems on the way, which has shown to not be much of a deterrence. Although they didn't in 2016, perhaps individual federations should take World Athletics' lead in restricting participation within their own sports. In the meantime, I'm wishing for a subdued Russian presence...maybe somehow there's a team-wide demoralization that affects performance. That's unlikely, but something needs to shake Russia into sincere compliance. Fair, and trusted Olympic-spirit competition needs it.
A Full-Strength Basketball Tournament
The Covid-19 pandemic has upended the sporting calendar in 2020, with ripple effects across next year and beyond as all sports negotiate the Olympic behemoth planted now in 2021. At this stage, many rescheduled dates have been set, and one potential high-profile conflict has emerged over the last few weeks.
The National Basketball Association's modified 2019-20 season, which should have ended in June 2020, finished in October. This pushed their 2020-21 season to start later than normal, in December, which then pushed the potential NBA Finals end to July 22. That's one day ahead of the Opening Ceremony for Tokyo 2020. This means a significant number of potential Olympians would not be available, or interested, in Tokyo participation given the tight turnaround between the NBA season and the Games, particularly for those that will be making deep post-season runs.
U.S. stars are not the only ones affected. Spain's team usually features NBA-ers Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Nikola Mirotic. Rudy Gobert plays for France, while Patty Mills, Ben Simmons, and Matthew Dellavedova feature for Australia.
Olympic qualification is massively affected, too. Usually, the final Olympic Qualifying Tournaments are held in the NBA off-season. But now in 2021, the qualifiers are set for late June, which would mean in the middle of the NBA post-season play. Would-be stars for the teams trying to qualify in these tournaments include Slovenia's Luka Doncic and Goran Dragic, Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Serbia's Nikola Jokic...not having them available would carry serious implications for their national teams' Olympic dreams.
Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich is well aware of the timing conundrum, and he's in a tight turnaround, too, as an active NBA coach. Having an NBA-star-studded Olympic tournament has been a highlight of the Games since Barcelona 1992, and I'm hoping that Tokyo's version will also feature the world's best. I'm not sure how this will happen...it's unlikely a significant number of star players will miss the NBA playoffs and not be too tired to play on, but we'll see how it plays out. I also fear that, if NBA-ers pass on the Games en masse, it will set a precedent on not appearing at the Games, allowing the NBA to further push their World Cup at the expense of the Olympics.
Boxing is a classic Olympic sport, with global appeal and participation. Unfortunately, the sport is on the wrong side of competent governance and trusted integrity.
Except for Stockholm 1912, boxing has been on the official Olympic program since St. Louis 1904. Boxing attracts a wide swath of nations at the Games - entrants from Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Mauritius, and Brazil have won medals across the last three Games, for example. And, supporting the IOC's goal of gender equality, women's events have been included since London 2012, with a targeted increase of equality at Paris 2024.
But trusting boxing to be a fair sport has been an on-going, frustrating issue. Just some of the outrageous decisions include Evander Holyfield's loss to Kevin Barry in 1984, Park Si-Hum's victory over Roy Jones, Jr. at Seoul 1988, Eric Griffin's loss to Rafael Lozano at Barcelona 1992, Floyd Mayweather, Jr.'s loss to Serafim Todorov at Atlanta 1996, Satoshi Shimizu's loss to Magomed Abdulhamidov at London 2012, and Michael Conlan's loss to Vladimir Nikitin at Rio 2016.
These aren't just examples of contested upset losses / wins - they're egregious examples of, at best questionable or, at worst, rigged judging. It seems there is more of a story when there isn't a controversy at an Olympics.
Boxing's governing body hasn't done the sport any favors, either. Its governance and financial problems have forced the extraordinary step of the IOC taking over Olympic qualifiers. The recent election of a new International Boxing Federation president didn't stop the IOC from restricting boxing at Paris 2024 to fewer athletes than at 2020 and not allowing a full program of weight classes. That is a move that many see as punishment for the sport's continued mess.
Can boxing have a smooth, non-controversial program in Tokyo? It'll have to in order to secure confidence and relevance beyond 2024.
Speaking of trust, weightlifting is another sport on the precipice. It was on the original agenda at Athens 1896, and except for three early Games editions, it's been on the Olympic program ever since. Like boxing, it's a truly global sport, and with a bounty of spectator appeal.
Unfortunately, it's an Olympic sport dogged by doping. 16 medalists and four would-be medalists from Beijing 2008 have been stripped of their placements due to retroactive drug testing. Worse, London 2012 has disqualified 32 (!) weightlifters (and counting!), decimating the original medal table. Multiple recent infractions by specific nations means that many are facing total or partial restrictions at Tokyo 2020, including Russia, Egypt, Thailand, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, India, amongst others.
Worse, the International Weightlifting Federation has been beset by misgovernment and corruption, causing a complete lack of confidence by the IOC, which put a humiliating reduction on the sport in place for 2024.
If the sport is to get its act together, it needs to showcase itself well - and cleanly - in Tokyo. Weightlifting has given us fans so many favorite moments - let's hope there are more.
Success for Modern Pentathlon
I have a soft spot for the quirky sport of modern pentathlon. Despite its rather contrived origins ahead of Stockholm 1912, the sport nevertheless is a lasting testament to the modern Games' founder Baron de Coubertin and his respect for the ancient Olympic pentathlon event. It has grown into a sport enjoyed across the world, with a World Championship held annually since 1949.
It's also a sport perpetually subject to IOC scrutiny and questioning when looking to reduce or alter the Games' agenda. It traditionally has struggled for visibility, as its not a television-friendly event, and had usually required multiple venues, neither of which helps when the IOC increasingly preaches downsizing and feasibility.
But the sport's been flexible: moving from a five-day event to a single day at Atlanta 1996, combining the running and shooting portions at London 2012, and narrowing to a single venue for next year's event. And, in a bid to remain IOC-relevant, will be even further condensed to a 90-minute format at Paris 2024.
I, for one, am looking for the sport to put on a show at Tokyo 2020. Enough to finally secure more respect and confidence from the IOC, and perhaps even expand the sport to include a mixed relay event, which has been at the World Championships since 2010 and at three Youth Olympics to success.
Traditionally, the best decathlete in track & field has been dubbed the "world's greatest athlete", but perhaps we should look at modern pentathletes for that moniker. After all, with excellence across five very different sports - fencing, equestrian, swimming, running, and shooting - these competitors must deserve applause for perseverance.
Michael Phelps has been the dominant name in Olympic swimming for the last four Games, from Athens 2004 through Rio 2016, winning a total of 28 medals along the way. and becoming the focal point in the pool coverage. With his retirement after Rio, the air is clear for new swimming names to take center stage.
Who will be the swimming standard-bearer? Caeleb Dressel is the obvious Phelps-in-waiting, already a star in swimming circles. Maybe Adam Peaty, or Katie Ledecky, or even a newcomer - and feel-good story - like Rikako Ikee can make enough of an impact to take center stage. My wish? It's that we find multiple stars and multiple swimmers to champion. Let's spread the attention around and get to know the many, many athletes worthy of attention.
It's good to have new names to cycle in. Not all past heroes need to stick around.
A U.S. Gymnastics Team of Merit
When Bela and Martha Karolyi were in charge of Team USA's women's gymnastics, they implemented a very subjective - and rather secretive - process to select the Olympic team. The Karolyis' Olympic trials were a marketing spectacle. A made-for-tv event separate from the annual national championships, the team makeup always seemed to carry a sense of marketing - a selection of not just who are the best athletes, but of who would be a good marketing mix. The fact that selection decisions were made behind closed doors only exacerbated the sense of potential unfairness at the expense of potentially deserving athletes. The men's team was similarly selected, and similarly drew skeptical concerns of unfairness.
Cut to 2019, when USA Gymnastics (USAG) reckons with a Larry Nasser scandal that upends the governing body's structure and the destruction of public trust. In June last year, USAG announced a revamp of its team selection, promising "more transparency, defined discretionary criteria", in addition to other measures. With the smaller team sizes - now four members only - for Tokyo 2020, team selection will be even more precious and scrutinized than before.
So...let's hope that the four women and four men selected for the U.S. will be the strongest and most deserving out of the trials. It's time.
The Last Gymnastics Gala?
Speaking of gymnastics, there is traditionally a gala that takes place after the artistic competition that features medal-winning and/or popular gymnasts in a non-judged showcase. Rumor is, this will return at Tokyo 2020. I hope it will be the last. It's a shameless outreach to television audiences and extra fan attendance, and the only non-competitive "official" event on the sports calendar of the Summer Games.
Certainly, dropping this exhibition wouldn't hinder the athletic spectacle of the sport, and would help clear the calendar for more (real) gymnastics competition. Rhythmic gymnasts currently lack apparatus-specific medal competition at the Games, and acrobatics has long been an official International Gymnastics Federation discipline, yet to appear at a Games.
What do you want to see happen at Tokyo 2020?