TOKYO 2020/Day 2 Preview: The best U.S. team in Tokyo has won 88 of its last 89; a look ahead to Saturday’s finals; USC tops all NCAA schools with 63 in Tokyo

The best American team in Tokyo: the two-time defending Olympic Champion women's water polo squad (Photo: USA Water Polo/Jonathan Moore)

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= TOKYO 2020 =

The U.S. expects to win multiple medals in the many team sports at the Games, but which is the best American team in Tokyo?

● The men’s basketball team, winners of the last three golds and riding a 25-game Olympic win streak? Maybe, but it had a rough time in its exhibitions, losing to Nigeria and Australia before beating Argentina and Spain. Zach LaVine was in the health protocol, but is in Tokyo and Gregg Popovich’s groups gets reinforcements from the NBA finals from Phoenix’s Devin Booker and Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. Let’s wait and see.

● The women’s softball squad? Winner of the Olympic tournaments in 1996, 2000 and 2004, this group is 2-0 with shutouts of Italy (2-0) and Canada (1-0) by Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott and then Abbott alone against Canada. The U.S. plays Mexico and Australia next, but we’ll know a lot more when the U.S. and Japan face off on the 26th in Yokohama. Japan won the last Olympic gold in 2008 and has won its first two games.

● How about the women’s basketball team, winners of six straight Olympic golds and with a 49-game Olympic winning streak and 95-1 in Olympic and World Cup games from 1996-2018? But what about the exhibition losses to the WNBA All-stars (93-85) and to Australia (70-67) before a 93-62 win over Nigeria. Diana Taurasi, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, is apparently now ready to play after injuries and she will help. But there are questions.

● Here’s the best American team in Tokyo: the women’s water polo squad. Not only two-time defending Olympic champions, but winners of 88 of their last 89 matches. That includes three straight FINA World Championship titles and all the FINA World Cups and World League Super Finals in between. The U.S. women won 69 matches in a row, lost to Australia – by 10-9 – in an exhibition match in January 2020 and has now reeled off another 19 wins in a row.

The stars of this squad are the two-time gold medalists – attacker Maggie Steffens, perhaps the best player in the world, and defender Melissa Seidemann – plus Rio returnees Ashleigh Johnson in goal, attackers Rachel Fattal and Maddie Musselman, center Aria Fischer and defender Makenzie Fischer (Aria’s older sister). Coach Adam Krikorian took over in 2009 and his teams have won 19 golds in 22 major international tournaments. What’s not to like? They’re the best and will start defense of their title on Sunday against Japan in Group A. (Oh yes, in case you were wondering, Australia is in Group B).

= PREVIEWS: SATURDAY, 23 JULY =
(11 events across 7 sports)

Archery: Mixed Team
South Korea was mostly absent from the international World Cup circuit during the pandemic, but they are in Tokyo in force. During the 72-arrow Ranking Round held on Friday, 17-year-old Je Deok Kim (688), 2012 Olympic Champion Jin-Hyek Oh (681) and two-time World Champion Woojin Kim (680) went 1-3-4 with American Brady Ellison second at 682.

In the women’s Ranking Round, San An (20) set an Olympic Record of 680, followed by teammates Min-Hee Jang (677) and Chae-Young Kang (675). The top American was Mackenzie Brown, fifth with 668.

Korea’s Woo-Seok Lee and Kang won the Mixed Team world title in 2019 and An and Kim start as favorites. The U.S., with Ellison and Brown, are in the hunt for a medal with Italy, the Netherlands. Wild-card contenders Russia and Turkey will face off in the first round and then shoot against the winner of Italy-Netherlands.

Russia’s Svetlana Gomboeva, who fainted in the 93-degree heat during Friday’s round, was reported fine, telling Russia’s TASS news agency, “I’ve got a terrible headache but I am fine in general. I am ready to continue competing, everything’s fine.”

Cycling: Men’s Road Race
The 234 km loop course from Musashinonomori Park to the Tokyo International Speedway features three significant climbs with a mostly downhill finish in the final 22 km. The favorites are Slovenians Tadej Pogacar, fresh off his second straight Tour de France win, and Primoz Roglic, the two-time Vuelta a Espana winner who desperately wants this race after crashing out of the Tour. The most feared rider is easily Belgium’s Wout van Aert, who won three Tour stages and who descends powerfully. There are many more stars: former Tour winner Geraint Thomas (GBR), former Vuelta a Espana winner Simon Yates (GBR), former Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde (ESP), former Giro d’Italia and Vuelta winner Nairo Quintana (COL), former Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin (NED) and even Rio gold medalist Greg Avermaet (BEL).

Fencing: Women’s Epee
Lots of possibilities here: 2018 World Champion Maria Navarria of Italy, 2019 World Champion Natalie Moellhausen of Brazil and finalists Sheng Lin (CHN), two-time bronze medalist Olena Kryvytska of Ukraine and 2008 Olympic silver winner and 2018 Worlds runner-up Ana Maria Popescu (ROM).

Almost impossible to pick one with no FIE World Cup events for almost two years. Who’s in shape? The U.S. has three very capable entries, including 2018 Worlds bronze winner Courtney Hurley, her sister Kelley Hurley and Katherine Holmes. All three were on the U.S.’s gold-medal-winning Team Epee squad at the 2018 Worlds.

Fencing: Men’s Sabre
Hungary’s Aron Szilagyi won his second straight Olympic title in Rio in 2016, defeating American Daryl Homer in the final, and both are back for Tokyo. In the interim, fellow Hungarian Andras Szatmari won the 2017 Worlds over Bong-Il Gu (KOR), Korea’s Jung-Hwan Kim defeated American Eli Dershwitz in the 2018 Worlds and in 2019, it was Korea’s Sang-Uk Oh and Szatmari going gold-silver.

So look for Korea to be in the mix with the Hungarians, but with Dershwitz a clear medal contender along with all three Italians: Luca Curatoli, Luigi Samele and Enrico Berre.

Judo: Women’s 48 kg
The 2018 and 2019 World Championships final pitted Daria Bilodid (UKR) and Japan’s Funa Tonaki, with Bilodid winning both times, after Funaki took the 2017 world title. Both have already been seeded into the round of 16 and are medal favorites from the start. Defending Olympic champ Paula Pareto (ARG) is back, along with bronze winner Otgontsetseg Galbadrakh (KAZ). Besides Bilodid and Funaki, both the 2019 Worlds bronze winners are back as well: Distria Krasniqi (KOS) and Urantsetseg Munkhbat (MGL).

Judo is being held at the famed Nippon Budokhan, spiritual home of the sport, first contested in the Tokyo 1964 Games. Hard to pick against Tonaki at least making it to the final, perhaps against Bilodid again?

Judo: Men’s 60 kg
Georgia’s Lukhumi Chkhvimiani is the 2019 World Champion, defeating Sharafuddin Lutfillaev in the final and both are going to contend again. Bronze medalist Yeldos Smetov (KAZ) is also back, the Rio 2016 silver medalist.

Japan’s Naohisa Takato was a bronze medalist in Rio and expects to do better: he was World Champion in 2013-17-18. So does Russian Robert Mshvidobadze, who lost to Takato in the 2018 Worlds final. But can anyone stop Takato on home turf?

Shooting: Men’s 10 m Air Pistol
All three Rio medal winners are bach: gold medalist Xuan Vinh Hoang (VIE), runner-up Felipe Almeida Wu (BRA) and bronze medalist Wei Pang (CHN). But Jong-Oh Jin (KOR) might be the favorite, having won the 2012 Olympic title and the 2018 World Championship, the latter over Artem Chernousov (RUS).

However, in the 2021 World Cup events, which had good participation, Iran’s Javad Foroughi won this event twice and India’s Saurabah Chaudhary won a silver and a bronze and appear to be hot at just the right time.

Shooting: Women’s 10 m Air Rifle
American Ginny Thrasher upset a lot of better-known shooters in this event in Rio in 2016, and this event figures to be open again. Thrasher didn’t make the U.S. team, but Mary Tucker and Alison Weisz went 1-2 for the U.S. in the ISSF World Cup in March.

Hungary’s Eszter Meszaros won the World Cup in Croatia last month, followed by Ziva Dvorsak (SLO) and Sofia Ceccarello (ITA). Do not count out Korea’s Eunji Kwon, Russian Anastasiia Galashina or the Chinese entries Luyao Wang and Qian Yang: all capable even without many results during the pandemic.

Taekwondo: Women’s 49 kg
It’s a clash of weights, as the Olympic program has only half as many as the World Taekwondo Championships. So, two-time 46 kg World Champion Jae-Young Sim is here, but so is 2016 Rio bronze medalist (at 49 kg) and 2019 49 kg World Champion Panipak Wongpattanakit. Add in Rio 2016 silver medalist Tijana Bogdanovic, Vietnam’s 2017 46 kg Worlds silver winner Thi Kim Tuyen Truong (VIE) and 2019 Worlds 49 kg runner-up Jingyu Wu (CHN) and you have a mess.

Taekwondo: Men’s 58 kg
The reigning World Champion at this weight is Korea’s Jun Jang, with 2019 bronze medalists Rui Braganca (POR) and Lucas Guzman (ARG) ready to try again. Iran’s Armin Hadipaour is moving up from 54 kg, where he won a Worlds bronze in 2019, and Russian Mikhail Artamonov was runner-up at 58 kg in the 2017 Worlds. But Jun won three times on the Grand Prix circuit in 2019, and on paper, is the man to beat.

Weightlifting: Women’s 48 kg
This is pretty simple. China’s Zhihui Hou holds the world record for the combined Snatch and Clean & Jerk and was second to a teammate at the 2019 World Championships. It’s hers to lose.

Behind her, Japan’s Hiromi Miyake returns as the Rio bronze medalist and India’s Chanu Saikhom Mirabai was fourth at the 2019 Worlds in this event. American Jourdan Delacruz has a shot at a medal here as well.

= INTEL REPORT =

Tokyo 2020 reported 19 new Covid cases on Friday (23rd), which included three athletes, bringing the total to 11. The largest group continued to be Games contractors (51), followed by “Games-concerned personnel” such as coaches and officials (32), eight media members and four from Tokyo 2020 staff and volunteers. Of the 106 total, 56 are residents of Japan and 50 are not.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government reported 1,359 new Covid cases on Friday; for comparison, the much-smaller Los Angeles County report for Thursday was 2,767, the second straight day with 2,000-plus newly confirmed infections.

In beach volleyball, the Czech pair of Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova were declared non-starters for the tournament and will not compete due to Slukova’s Covid infection. Their last medal in an FIVB World Tour event came in a 2-star tournament in mid-2019.

Startling statistics on the impact of the American collegiate system showed that more than 1,000 Olympians in Tokyo came through the NCAA system, and more than 100 coaches are participating with multiple nations.

The Pac-12 alone claims 321 Olympic athletes across 29 sports; by itself, it would be the 12th-largest delegation at the Games. Within the conference, USC has the largest number of Olympians across all NCAA schools (63) with Stanford (53) apparently second. California (47), UCLA (39), Washington (31), Arizona State (23), Arizona and Oregon (21) all have more than 20 athletes in Tokyo.

As the NCAA structure is under extreme pressure from developments in college football, the concern within the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and the U.S. National Governing Bodies about the future of sports beyond football and basketball is high.

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