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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Star athletes to watch at Tokyo Olympics

The lowdown on the players to keep an eye on at this year's Games

Who will be the next Olympic legend? (Nikkei montage/Reuters/USA Today)

TOKYO -- Outstanding athletes from around the world will take part in the Tokyo Olympic Games, which officially started with the opening ceremony held on July 23 as scheduled.

This will be the first Olympics in the 21st century in which two of their biggest recent stars will not take part -- American swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who earned their places in Olympics history with their extraordinary achievements.

Who will follow them as the next sporting legends? Here is the lowdown on the new wave of top athletes.

Ashleigh Barty, Australian female tennis player

Although, at 166cm tall, she is small for a tennis player, Ashleigh Barty, a 25-year-old Australian, is ranked No. 1 in the world. What is remarkable is her ability to change her backhand slice with each shot and her handling of the ball. In the singles final at the recent Wimbledon Championships, she defeated a powerful player 20cm taller than herself.

Ashleigh Barty of Australia faces Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic during the Women's Singles Final at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship in London on July 10.   © Getty Images

She was called a genius after winning the girls' singles title at Wimbledon at the age of 15, but she left the Women's Tennis Association Tour for about two years after the 2014 U.S. Open. During that period, she played as a member of a cricket club in Australia. "For me, I needed time to step away, to live a normal life, because this tennis life certainly isn't normal. I think I needed time to grow as a person, to mature," Barty said. She missed the competition and the "one-on-one battle", she said, and returned to tennis.

Only about a year after returning to tennis, she was ranked in the top 20. In 2019, she won the singles title at the French Open.

Barty is the first Olympic tennis player from the Aboriginal Australian ethnic group. She is also devoted to activities that increase opportunities for Aboriginal children to grow through sports. "[T]here have certainly been a lot of Olympic athletes that have paved the way for me in an indigenous sense, kind of showing me there is a pathway, that it is possible," she said, adding "we're all united as one in our Australian Olympic team ... [and can] pave the path for next generations coming through."

Will she bring a gold medal to her country, which is traditionally strong in tennis?

Reporting by Masako Hara


Eliud Kipchoge, Kenyan male marathon runner

He may be the best runner in history. Eliud Kipchoge, a 36-year-old Kenyan marathon runner, aims to become the third person in history to win a second consecutive Olympic victory at the Tokyo Games. The world record holder, with a marathon time of 2:01:39, will come to Sapporo in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido to take part in the competition he has long awaited.

Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon world record holder, crosses the finish line wearing Nike Vaporfly shoes during his attempt to run a marathon in under two hours in Vienna on Oct. 12, 2019.   © Reuters

In April this year, Kipchoge won a marathon in the Netherlands with a time of 2:04:30. He missed a title for the first time in seven years at last October's London Marathon, finishing 8th, but he has maintained a high and stable level of running. The race in the Netherlands gave him confidence for the Tokyo Olympics. According to World Athletics, he said, "It is mission accomplished.... The race was really perfect. The [Netherlands marathon] was a real test before Tokyo."

He won medals in the men's 5,000-meter events at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and switched to the marathon in 2012. He has competed in world major marathons at a rate of one or two times a year, achieving an overwhelming 12 victories in 14 races. He wears Nike's 'platform' running shoes, which have toppled common thinking on footwear in the long-distance running world and are now also widely used by everyday runners. He became the first human to break the two-hour mark for completing a marathon in 2019, though an unofficial record. With speed and strength, he now stands at the top of the marathon world.

Kipchoge once said that "no human is limited" and that "records are meant to be broken." On Aug. 8, the closing day of the Tokyo Olympics, people all over the world will watch him competing in his prime.

Reporting by Takeshi Watanabe


Teddy Riner, French male judoka

Big Dutch judoka Anton Geesink held down Japan's Akio Kaminaga to win the final of the judo open-weight division at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The moment is remembered as one of the Games' highlights, shocking people all over Japan. Now, 57 years after the event, Geesink's role could be reprised by Teddy Riner, a French judoka who will compete in the men's over 100-kg division. This century's strongest judoka, who has won golds in two consecutive Olympics, could face Japanese judoka Hisayoshi Harasawa.

Twice Olympic and five times world champion judoka Teddy Riner of France looks down on the shorter Kokoro Kageura of Japan on Feb. 9, 2020 in Bercy, France.   © Getty Images

Every trick he performs with his tall 204-cm stature is first-rate and his defense is rock solid. However, he turned 32 this year. He narrowly defended his over 100-kg division title against Harasawa at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 and won his eighth straight gold in the same division at the World Championships in 2017, but then he took some rest. In February 2020, he lost to Japan's Kokoro Kageura at the Paris Grand Slam, ending a winning streak of 154 matches that had lasted about 10 years. It does appear that the strength of his techniques is declining.

However, he also seems to have advanced in maturity. Harasawa said Riner "has strength in not letting his opponents have a judo match as they want." At the Tokyo Olympics, as an unseeded participant, he could come up against high-seeded opponents, including Harasawa, in the early stages. Will he lose the top position or will he make this event another stepping stone, after boasting he will retire after winning a gold at the Paris Olympics in 2024? In either case, this man will surely be at the center of the competition in the over 100-kg division on the final day of individual bouts.

Reporting by Takashi Nishihori


Simone Biles, U.S. female artistic gymnast

If we were asked to choose one "queen" of the gymnastics world, it would definitely be Simone Biles, an American artistic gymnast who won four gold medals in the team competition, individual all-round, vault and floor exercises in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics five years ago. The 24-year-old athlete boasts such overwhelming strength that she can maintain a wide lead even if she makes some errors in performance. Shining more brightly than ever, she has returned to the Olympics.

Simone Biles of Team United States looks on during Women's Podium Training ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 22 in Tokyo.   © Getty Images

The spring and muscular strength in her small 145-cm-tall body are astounding. She controls the atmosphere in the venue by freely performing dynamic, difficult skills no one can imitate, including the Biles II, a double-flip, triple-twist move she has made a trademark on the floor, and the Yurchenko double pike vault, which she performed at an event in America last May and in which she earned the highest score of 6.6.

She carries herself with an air of dignity wears a leotard featuring a logo of a goat -- a word which as an acronym represents "greatest of all time." She is widely expected to achieve five golds, including balance beam, at the upcoming Olympics, as she did at the World Championships two years ago. If she does so, she will receive her ninth gold medal, tying with Larisa Latynina -- a gymnast from the former Soviet Union who won golds, including floor exercise, at the Tokyo Olympics 57 years ago -- as the holder of the most Olympic gymnastics golds among both male and female players.

Tokyo will be an occasion for her to attain a historical record.

Reporting by Hideto Motoike


Caeleb Dressel, U.S. male swimmer

Michael Phelps, a former American competitive swimmer, won 23 Olympic gold medals, the most in Olympic men's swimming history, and was called a "monster in water." A man who may catch up with the great swimmer is Caeleb Dressel, a 24-year-old American swimmer who won six golds at the World Aquatics Championships in 2019. He plans to compete in up to six events at the Tokyo Olympics, including 50-meter and 100-m freestyle, 100-m butterfly and relay.

Caeleb Dressel reacts after winning the men's 50m freestyle during wave two of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials on June 20 in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.   © AP

Dressel came into the limelight at the 2017 World Championships, where he won seven gold medals, tying with the record number at a single World Championships marked by Phelps, and suddenly became a central figure in a country already strong in the swimming category. In the 100-m butterfly event at the 2019 World Championships, he set a world record of 49.50 seconds, breaking the previous record held by Phelps, and won a gold.

Powerful strokes with his 191-cm tall body and a rocket start that puts him ahead of competitors are his strengths. While showing splendid performances, he is also known for kind gestures. He brings a blue bandana to each race, which is a keepsake from his high school teacher who died in 2017.

At the U.S. Swimming National Championships in June, he marked 49.76 seconds in the 100-m butterfly, the world's fastest this season. He has had stable results amid the coronavirus pandemic. At the upcoming Olympics, Dressel will likely try to achieve new world records as well as to win many golds.

Reporting by Haruka Horibe


Zhu Ting, Chinese female volleyball player

China's Zhu Ting is one of the most famous athletes in one of the world's strongest sporting nations. She is captain of the China women's volleyball team, which is likely to win a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. She aims for the same results as at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where the team won the gold and she got the most valuable player award.

Zhu Ting of China hits a spike at the women's volleyball gold medal match between China and Serbia in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 20, 2016.   © Reuters

Standing 198-cm tall and with outstanding jumping ability, she scores many points with her spikes, and also blocks and receives well. At the Volleyball Nations League (VNL) international women's tournament held in Italy in June, she played in a limited number of games and scored 16 points in a game against the U.S. team, which won the tournament, helping the Chinese team win in straight sets.

She came from a poor farming background in Henan Province before she rose to sporting fame, with her popularity exploding after the Rio Olympics. Her mentor is "Jenny" Lang Ping, a gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the current head coach of the women's national volleyball team. The ratings for a TV program on the VNL tournament were much higher than those on other events held around the same time, including the UEFA European Football Championship.

The 26-year-old Chinese star intends to play at least until the Paris Olympics in 2024. "I have responsibility for leading younger players by growing myself," she said. Together with the head coach, whom she trusts wholeheartedly and who "unites the team," she aims to claim China's first back-to-back Olympic golds in volleyball.

Reporting by Masato Suzuki

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