15 Athletes To Watch During The Tokyo Olympics

The Tokyo Olympics are fast approaching, and as the world is gearing up for the most glorious congregation of athletes there is, it’s high time to remind yourself of the sheer scale of the event. As Olympics Venue tells us, the absolute best competitors out there will duke it out in no less than 339 events, spread over 34 different sports. Per Associated Press, there will be around 11,000 athletes competing for that precious, precious Olympic glory.

Though the Olympics give almost any given athlete more visibility than any other competition in their sport of choice, the sheer number of participants means that it can be incredibly easy to lose track of some of the most interesting folks in the mix. Because of this, we’ve compiled a handy guide of some of the most fascinating Olympians in Tokyo. Let’s take a look at the 15 athletes to watch during the Tokyo Olympics. 

Noah Lyles

One of the most interesting track stars at the Tokyo Olympics is Noah Lyles, who has been running multiple fastest 200-meter sprint times in the world since the Rio Olympics in 2016 (via People). Lyles didn’t quite qualify for Rio but is heading to Tokyo as one of the clearest gold medal favorites. In fact, as the Guardian notes, many see him as the most likely successor for none other than the running superstar Usain Bolt. 

Apart from his undeniable athletic prowess, Lyles’ story is nothing short of inspirational. He comes from a poor Washington, D.C. suburb, and has been open about his struggles with things like ADD and depression … and the way he’s nevertheless chasing his dream of becoming a star athlete and a role model. “I want to be known as a person who changed the sport,” he has said. “Going out there, being a showman, I love being a showman, I want to encourage other people to say you don’t have to be super aggressive when you go out there for a 100 or a 200.”

Lyles will compete at both 100- and 200-meter sprints, and seems all but guaranteed to become one of the most engaging athletes at the Tokyo Olympics.

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Simone Biles

As Sports Illustrated notes, the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team is full of talent, and every single member has cleared a whole bunch of obstacles to represent their country. Still, there’s no question which member of the team shines the brightest. Per Team USA, Simone Biles‘ medal haul at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 was no less than four gold medals and one bronze. As The Atlantic points out, there’s a fair chance that she’s the very best athlete in the world right now … regardless of the sport. 

The reigning Olympic champion in gymnastics is now 24, and as Today notes, many of her team members are much younger. In fact, Bustle tells us that gymnasts have been known to retire far younger than Biles is now. Unless she turns out to be one of the rare gymnasts who still compete in their 30s or 40s, Tokyo might be the last chance to see her at the top of her Olympics game. Luckily, Biles should be extremely motivated. She has an array of 30 different Olympic and World Championship medals, and hauling home four more medals would make her the single most decorated gymnast in history. Considering her sheer level of quality and an array of tricks that few others would even dare to attempt, history might very well be in the making. 

Novak Djokovic

As one of the absolute best tennis players on the planet, Novak Djokovic is always worth watching, but as Forbes notes, the year 2021 will be especially exciting for the Serbian ace. His success and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics give him a chance to become the first male tennis player to accomplish a so-called Golden Slam as a singles player — that is, four major tournament victories and an Olympic gold. 

It’s still very much up in the air whether Djokovic will be able to join Steffi Graf as the second-ever member of the Golden Slam club, but even “just” an Olympic victory would no doubt be a delicious treat for him. Per Tennishead, Djokovic’s three last Olympics have only yielded one Bronze medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and he’s made it pretty clear that he intends to rectify the situation. “I always try to be there for Serbia and Serbian tennis,” the player has said. “The Olympic Games is next to the Grand Slams this year as my highest goals, and I’ve said that at the beginning of the season.”

With some of the biggest names in men’s tennis considering whether to compete in the Olympics, struggling with form, or skipping the event altogether, this might very well be Djokovic’s big year. 

Janja Garnbret

The Tokyo Olympics mark the debut of a number of new Olympic sports, and with them, a whole host of new superstar athletes get a chance to shine on the Olympic stage (via the BBC). One of these newcomers is sport climbing, which has been building a solid foundation in recent years. The Olympic climbing competition will involve a combination of speed climbing, lead climbing, and bouldering, but as CNN Sports tells us, one thing is clear: All eyes will be on Janja Garnbret. The 22-year-old Slovenian climbing superstar has been dominating international competitions for a while now. Per Red Bull, she’s already the reigning World Champion in difficulty climbing and bouldering, and was named the Slovenian Athlete of the Year in 2018. 

Garnbret is obviously highly motivated to take home the gold, but she says she’s most interested in promoting the sport. “I definitely feel responsible for our sport,” she says. “I just want to represent climbing as a fun sport, that it’s always fun, you have to just climb up and enjoy yourself.” As someone who spends her time doing things like climbing the tallest chimney in Europe, she certainly practices what she preaches. 

Pat McCormack

When the Olympics’ official website specifically mentions an athlete’s name as the shining beacon of their particular sport, said competitor is probably worth keeping in mind. Such is the case with British welterweight boxer Pat McCormack, who’s the only name in his weight class the site mentions in its article about the Tokyo Olympics’ boxing scene. 

Per Team GB, McCormack competed as a light welterweight at the Rio Olympics in 2016, placing ninth. However, after he started boxing as a welterweight, he has risen to the very top of the division (per Boxrec), and per Eurosport, he heads to Tokyo as a freshly-crowned European gold medalist. What’s more, Boxing News Online notes that the win came over the man who beat him for the World Championship in 2019, Russia’s Andrey Zamkovoy. Getting this victory so close to the Olympics has quite naturally given the Brit a massive confidence boost. “I’m feeling great, European Champion going to go to the Olympics, probably with the number one seed,” McCormack said. “I’ve just beaten the World Champion, who beat me in the final of the Worlds and cut me in Russia as well, so it’s been on my mind a lot. I got the win, and put it on him at the end and made sure. I’m just over the moon.” 

With a mindset and accolades like that, McCormack has all the ingredients for a huge Olympic success story.  

Pita Taufatofua

Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua might not take home the gold in taekwondo, but if the last two Olympics are any indication, he’ll still be one of the most talked-about athletes in the competition (via The Guardian). He competes in both winter and summer sports: he has represented his nation in cross-country skiing at the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018, and in taekwondo at Rio 2016 (per the BBC). However, you might best remember him from the opening ceremonies of the latter Olympics as the oiled-up viral sensation who carried his nation’s flag shirtless. However, that’s not all there is to Taufatofua. He’s conquered grievous injuries to become an Olympian, and his story of learning to ski well enough to make it to PyeongChang could be compared to the Jamaican bobsled team that inspired the Disney movie “Cool Runnings” (per Business Insider).

As CNN notes, Taufatofua is back for the Tokyo Olympics — though it remains to be seen whether he repeats his shirtless appearance. The Tongan’s original aim was to qualify for both taekwondo and kayaking, but a nasty rib injury foiled his chances at the latter, and his quest to become the first Olympian to compete in three entirely unrelated sports remains unfulfilled. Despite this, and despite the fact that his Olympic track record indicates that he’s unlikely to spin-kick his way to the podium, the athlete seems destined to draw attention once again.

Ariarne Titmus

Katie Ledecky won her first Olympic gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012, and has gone on to become a dominant force in distance swimming (per Associated Press). However, as Sports Illustrated notes, the reigning gold medalist of the 200-and-400-meter freestyle swimming might find it difficult to hold on to her throne, thanks to the meteoric rise of Ariarne Titmus. The 20-year-old Australian swimmer has been extremely close to breaking the American’s 400-meter world record from the Rio Olympics, and while Ledecky has dominated Stateside Olympic trials, she has been markedly slower than the young challenger. 

Titmus clearly knows that the Tokyo Olympics are her chance to take over the throne, and while she has nothing but good things to say about Ledecky, her comments to Sydney Morning Herald have made it clear that she’s ready for the challenge. “Well, she’s not going to have it all her own way,” she said of Ledecky. “I can’t control what she does, if I do the best I can and put myself in the position to win a gold medal, it’s going to be a tough race.” 

It’s worth noting that Titmus reportedly swam her excellent 400 meters with an injured shoulder, so there’s no telling what happens when she and Ledecky go head-to-head in the Tokyo Olympic pool. She might not be the only young Aussie swimmer to find Olympic success, either, seeing as Kaylee McKeown recently broke the world record in 100-meter backstroke.

Abdulrashid Sadulaev

If you remember the hulking Abdulrashid Sadulaev from the 2016 Rio Olympics, in which the wrestler took home the gold medal in the 86-kilogram (189-pound) division, prepare to be even more impressed (per Reuters). The Russian is now throwing his opponents around at 97 kilograms (213 pounds), and is heading toward Tokyo with 131 wins and only two losses under his belt. The 25-year-old Sadulaev is a pretty obvious candidate for Olympic glory, and as United World Wrestling notes, some are already seeing him as a potential successor to wrestling legends like the three-time Olympic champ Alexander Karelin. 

Interestingly enough, though, there just might be one obstacle standing in the “Russian Tank’s” way. Sadulaev’s biggest Olympic rival in his current weight class is none other than the reigning gold medalist from Rio, the American Kyle Snyder. As InterMat reports, the two have met each other on the mat twice, and both men have beaten each other once. Though Sadulaev is the No. 1 seed in Tokyo, a potential match between these two titans should be one for the ages. 

Sky Brown

If you’re looking for an Olympic success story that’s seemingly straight out of a Hollywood movie, look no further than Sky Brown. As the BBC tells us, the British athlete is notorious for not only competing in the newcomer sport of skateboarding, but also because she will have barely turned 13 when the Tokyo Olympics begin. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s an absolutely amazing skateboarder, who debuted at the Vans US Open when she was just eight years old. Apart from her groundbreaking skateboard skills, Free Surf Magazine notes she’s also a talented surfer and dancer. In fact, you might remember her as the winner of 2018’s “Dancing with the Stars: Juniors” (via USA Today Life).  

The Olympics will be a bit of a comeback story for Brown. Per the BBC, she fractured her skull and broke her hand and wrist in a nasty training accident in June 2020 but has reportedly managed to recover fully. Despite her grievous injury, she was already discussing the incident a few days later. “People might think I’m super girl or something, but I want to show sometimes you’re going to fall,” she said at the time. “I want to spread the message that it’s OK to fall sometimes, you are going to fall, Beyoncé’s going to fall, all your heroes are going to fall. I wanted to show you’ve got to get back up and keep on going. Falling is part of life and that can’t stop what you’re doing.”

Kohei Uchimura

The Tokyo Olympics are an interesting showcase for many ascendant athletes, and many compete incredibly hard to make the cut. However, as NBC Sports tells us, one particular competitor seemed almost sorry to join his country’s Olympic team. Japan’s 32-year-old gymnastic legend, Kohei Uchimura, made it to his fourth Olympics by the skin of his teeth, beating Hidenobu Yonekura by his higher world ranking after the two tied in a high bar competition. Uchimura wasn’t exactly thrilled about the result. “I thought I failed to qualify, but then was told I’m going,” the veteran gymnast said. “I don’t think I deserve it. I apologized to Yonekura afterwards.”

Regardless of how Uchimura feels about being part of the Japanese Olympic team this time around, there’s no denying that the Tokyo Olympics are an incredibly fitting way to end his momentous Olympic career. Per the Olympics website, he has no less than three Olympic golds and four silver medals to show for his first three Olympics, which, combined with his massive World Championship medal tally (per Japan Times), has earned him the nickname “King Kohei.” 

In Tokyo, Uchimura has decided to eschew competing in multiple events in favor of the high bar as his sole event — a byproduct of his recent shoulder injury struggles, according to the Olympics website. Can the King beat the competition once more, or will his final Olympic showing end in a disappointment?

Shaunae Miller-Uibo

The Bahamas’ Shaunae Miller-Uibo made waves at the 2016 Rio Olympics, when she defeated Allyson Felix at the 400-meter sprint with an unconventional dive at the finish line (per The Guardian). Much was made about the dramatic finish, and as Reuters tells us, Miller-Uibo is once again looking to impress in Tokyo. The sprinter’s goal is not only to defend her Olympic gold at the 400 meters, but also to score a second gold medal in 200 meters — a feat that hasn’t been achieved in 25 years.

Unfortunately, Miller-Uibo’s quest is facing an extra hurdle, courtesy of a scheduling conflict that would require her to run twice on two different days, thus posing a risk for her potential double Olympic glory. “As much as I wanted a new title in the 200 meters, I also wanted to defend my Olympic one,” she said, pointing out that male runners have a far more favorable schedule for such endeavors. “With the guys, they had a two-day break between the 400-meter semis and final. Had they opened that up for the girls, then it would have been fine.”

Though the issue seems to have effectively ended Miller-Uibo’s aspirations for double gold, her Olympic path is still well worth watching. The fact that she has chosen to focus on the 200-meter sprint means that the event will be one for the ages, courtesy of the challenge from athletes like Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith (via The Guardian). 

Alexander Massialas

Throughout the history of modern fencing, Olympic individual gold has eluded the U.S. men’s fencing team (per the Washington Post). In 2016, foil fencer Alexander Massialas almost changed this grim situation, only to lose to Italy’s Daniele Garozzo in the final of the Rio Olympics. Massialas was incredibly disappointed … but now, he’s back with a vengeance.

As NBC Olympics tells us, Massialas is heading toward his third Olympics with one goal: Go for the gold. The young athlete’s long-standing ambition has been to win an Olympic gold (per NBC Sports). In Tokyo, that fire has more fuel than ever, thanks to his two near misses in Rio — his individual loss to Garozzo, and the U.S. team’s team event bronze. (Incidentally, he beat Garozzo in the team’s bronze match rather decisively.)

“It feels a little bit more like unfinished business,” Massialas has said about his quest for highest Olympic glory. “I’ve proven that I can do amazing things. I can win World Cups and Grand Prix. I can win all kinds of results, but the dream ever since I was a kid, before I even started fencing, was to be an Olympic champion.” 

Sandra Sánchez

The art of karate is finally an Olympic sport, which can only mean one thing: As the Olympics website notes, someone’s about to make history by becoming the first-ever Olympic gold medalist in karate. The athletes can compete in two types of events — the solo demonstration called kata, or one-on-one kumite matches. Seeing as the first athlete to receive their karate gold medal will be the winner of women’s kata, the Olympics site names Spain’s Sandra Sánchez as a potential history-maker. Sánchez clearly has the makings of a deserving victor. As the Olympics site points out, some considered her way too old for the sport at 33. She’s now 39, and the top-ranked female kata practitioner in the world. Per Iberdrola, the International Karate Federation has named her the best karateka in history. 

Nevertheless, it hasn’t been an easy path, as Sánchez has been rebuked countless times, and didn’t even make it to Spain’s national team until she was 32. Her life as a karateka has been full of adversity — yet, in Tokyo, she steps on the tatami as a certified great of the sport. Will she be able to add the first karate Olympic gold to her string of victories?

Brady Ellison

Three Olympics, two silver medals, one bronze (via Tokyo 2020 Olympics). Such is the Olympic path of Brady Ellison, the U.S. archer who travels to Tokyo as the world’s top-ranked recurve bow competitor. Since his last Olympic foray in Rio de Janeiro, Ellison has come a long way. In 2019, he became the World Archery Champion after what World Archery has called “arguably the greatest season for an international archer in history.” What’s more, he has risen to the top of his game despite a potentially career-ending condition, which caused pain in his fingers and made it difficult to shoot a bow (per Tokyo 2020 Olympics). At one point, he even considered quitting the sport and becoming a miner to support his family. 

Ellison says that his wife, Slovenian archer Toja Ellison, ultimately hooked him up with an experimental treatment that seems to have helped with the pain, and despite his multiple Olympic podium places and considerable success outside the event, his thirst for more success at the Olympic stage is greater than ever. “The Olympics are just special,” Ellison says. “It’s the ultimate sporting event. It’s just always special to be part of it. Once you get to go to the Games, nothing else matters except trying to get back to another one.”

Nevin Harrison

What does an aspiring Olympian do when she suffers a career-ending medical situation? If she’s Nevin Harrison, she finds another sport, and becomes so good at it that she makes it to the Olympics anyway (per Northwest Public Broadcasting). The 19-year-old started her athletic career as a sprinter, but an early hip dysplasia diagnosis effectively destroyed her dreams of Olympic track and field. However, Harrison was far from done with sports. Instead of focusing on running, she pivoted to canoe racing in her teens, and proved to be a natural, to the point that her sheer speed at 100 meters made her coach, Aaron Huston, doubt his own eyes. “I thought there must have been some kind of error in the timing,” Huston said.  

It turned out that Harrison was simply very, very good — a fact that she has since demonstrated many times. At 17, she took home the gold medal at the 2019 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships. Now, she’s heading to Tokyo, and the Olympics website drops her name as a potential success story at the newly established women’s solo 200-meter canoe sprint. 

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