The Olympics is happening – and for that we can only be grateful. But these Games, the 32nd of the modern era, are likely to be odd ones in, for the first time, an odd-numbered year. Some of the dominant characters of the past decade will be absent, either retired or finally showing human fallibility: so no Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps or Mo Farah. Nor will there be many fans. International supporters have been banned from entering Japan, while spectators will be barred from most events.
But Simone Biles, the gravity-scoffing US gymnast will be there, as will her compatriot, swimmer Katie Ledecky, the closest the world has seen to an actual mermaid. And giving Tokyo 2020 (as it is still called) a much-needed pep, the Olympics will welcome five new sports: skateboarding, karate, surfing, sport climbing and BMX freestyle. That eyebrows might be raised at a couple of these even being “sports” is now moot; the International Olympic Committee has decreed it, so best deal with it, grandad.
The debut of skateboarding is being particularly keenly anticipated. If you are after a melting pot of characters, styles and ages, look no further. Athletes range from a 46-year-old Dane, Rune “The Danish Destroyer” Glifberg, to a young woman who will be just 13 years and 11 days old when the Games begin. That’s Sky Brown, ranked third in the world in park skateboarding, who is set to become Britain’s youngest-ever summer Olympian, breaking a 93-year record held by swimmer Margery Hinton, who was 13 years and 44 days old at the 1928 Games.
“Oh, it’s a crazy feeling,” says Brown, when asked how she feels about making history. “It’s more than a dream come true, it’s insane. I’m so stoked and I’m going to try my best for Britain.”
No British men qualified for skateboarding in Tokyo, but Brown is joined on Team GB by another female teenager, 15-year-old Bombette Martin. She also competes in park skateboarding, which takes place in deep bowls and sees competitors pull off as many dazzling midair stunts as they can in 45 seconds. (The other skateboarding discipline is street.)
Martin thinks there’s an obvious reason why so many of the best park skateboarders are in their teens. “You’re more fearless when you’re young,” she says. “And the saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is definitely true. So yeah, it helps to start young.”
The debutant sports selected for the Olympics have clearly been picked to appeal to a new generation. Another potentially eye-catching spectacle will be the surfing, which will take place in the ocean off Shidashita beach, about 40 miles from Tokyo.
The 49-year-old US surfing great Kelly Slater didn’t qualify, but look out for the clash between long-time rivals Stephanie Gilmore, from Australia, and Carissa Moore from the US. The main concern for the event is the waves, which can be tame in Japan: Moore recently said the surfers will be “praying for a typhoon”.
More reliable conditions can be found in sport climbing, where athletes compete in all three disciplines: speed, bouldering and lead climbing. The speed event, where a pair of climbers race up a 15-metre wall side-by-side, might well be the breakout smash of the Olympics. Team GB has one competitor, Shauna Coxsey, a 28-year-old bouldering specialist from Runcorn, but the favourites for gold are Janja Garnbret from Slovenia and the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra.
There are no British athletes in karate, where Japan is expected to dominate, but look out for Charlotte Worthington, a definite medal shot, and Declan Brooks in the BMX freestyle. BMX racing has been in the Games since 2008, but this is the first outing for its high-flying sibling.
It’s not been the most auspicious start for Tokyo 2020 (the clue’s in the name): it’s a Games that the Japanese don’t want to happen; at home the buildup has been starved of oxygen by the Euros. But give it a week or so, and a few British medals rolling in, and Olympics fever will spread. Soon enough you will find yourself lecturing anyone who’ll listen on the difference between park and street skateboarding, and man- or woman-splaining why Ondra should be regarded as the greatest climber of all time.
Three to watch: Britain’s great hopes
Dina Asher-Smith, athletics The 25-year-old from south-east London is the fastest woman in British history, the reigning 200m world champion and the cover star of Vogue’s digital August issue. When not running very quickly, she can be found writing award-winning articles about George Floyd.
Adam Peaty, swimming If Peaty doesn’t win gold in the 100m breaststroke, it will be one of the shocks of the Games. The 26-year-old has set all 20 of the fastest times in history and seems to break world records when he feels like it.
Jade Jones, taekwondo When “the Headhunter” won gold aged 19 in the women’s 57kg category at London 2012 it was a surprise. Now, after a second gold in Rio and a world championship, the 28-year-old is a white-hot favourite for Tokyo.
Sources: The Guardian