For some of us, the Olympics don’t really get started until the runners take the starting line and the javelins go flying. Every four years — or in this case, five — we rejoice when the hours of swimming coverage give way to wall-to-wall athletics, as the Olympics and other countries call track and field.
Here are a few storylines to watch for, as the tracksters lace up their spikes and events kick off in Japan.
JuVaughn Harrison is a double-threat jumper
JuVaughn Harrison won both the high jump and the long jump at the U.S. Olympic trials last month. That means the 22-year-old will compete in both events in Tokyo, making him the first man to represent the U.S. in both events at the Olympics since Jim Thorpe in 1912.
“Doubling in high and long jump is rare,” said Marquis Dendy, who placed second to Harrison in the long jump trials. “It’s amazing. He’s a great talent. It’s all kinds of crazy.”
U.S. sprinters aim to take Bolt’s mantle
For the first time since Athens 2004, there will be no Usain Bolt scorching the Olympic track.
That means a bevy of sprinters will be vying to be the new fastest man in the world – and many of them are on Team USA.
The U.S. has the potential to take the number one and two spots in the men’s 100 meters, as Trayvon Bromell and Ronnie Baker have each notched blazingly fast times this year.
In the 200 meters, watch for Noah Lyles. After narrowly missing a spot on the 2016 team, Lyles won the event at the Olympic trials last month — in the fastest time this year.
And after a year in which he says he stopped having fun on the track, that success brought the thrill back. “My first feeling is, ‘Shoot, that was hard, but gosh, that was fun,” Lyles said afterward.
Trying to catch him will be U.S. teammates Kenny Bednarek and Erriyon Knighton, both in their first Olympic Games. Knighton is the U.S. squad’s youngest track and field athlete: He’s just 17, and still in high school in Tampa, Fla.
Michael Norman is a medal favorite in the 400 meters. He missed out on making the team in Rio, but he’s only gotten faster. And he’s got a connection to the host country: His mother, Nabue Saito, was born in Japan. Norman has been working on learning Japanese in the runup to the Games.
The Games welcome a new event: the 4×400 mixed relay
Making its Olympic debut is a “mixed” 4×400 meter event in which each relay team consists of two women and two men.
A big part of the strategy in any relay is in the order of each team’s runners. It’s especially true in this event, given that the male 400-meter runners at the Olympics are about 6 seconds faster than the female runners at the same distance — and it’s up to each team to decide which lineup of team members will be most competitive.
So, for instance, a team could decide to have its men run the first two legs, and the women running the final two legs, or have the men go first and last, with the women running the middle two legs.
The U.S. won the event — and set the world record — at the 2019 World Championships, with the team of Wilbert London, Allyson Felix, Courtney Okolo and Michael Cherry, running in that order.
It hasn’t been announced who exactly will be on the U.S. relays at the Olympics — there is a pool from which members will be selected. All of the 2019 World Championship winners are at the Olympics, except Okolo.
This marathoner became a mother — after qualifying for the Olympics
And if you’re looking for just how much can change in a year, look no further than Aliphine Tuliamuk. She took the top spot at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials back in February 2020.
Then the pandemic changed everything, and the 2020 Olympics was pushed until the following summer. Tuliamuk and her partner decided to use the time a bit differently: to start a family.
Tuliamuk gave birth to a daughter in January – leaving her less than seven months to prepare for the Olympics.
Allyson Felix is back on the track
Allyson Felix is perhaps the best-known of the U.S. runners competing in Tokyo. An Olympian since the 2004 Athens Games, Felix has already captured six Olympic golds and three silvers.
If she medals in Tokyo, she would match – or even surpass – Carl Lewis’ record 10 medals for a U.S. track and field athlete.
She’ll be on the track for the 400 meters — and she may also be selected for one or more relays.
She’s now 35, and gave birth to her daughter Camryn in 2018, a difficult experience that led her to criticize the maternity policies of Nike, her then-sponsor. Nike soon changed its maternity policy for its sponsored athletes.
Felix and her current sponsor, Athleta, recently announced a $200,000 fund to help cover childcare costs for female athletes with children.
Coronavirus testing is the first hurdle
Before any athlete can prove they’re the fastest, highest or strongest, they must pass a different kind of test: One that shows they don’t have the coronavirus.
The virus is already shaping the field of competitors in Tokyo.
American pole vaulter Sam Kendricks, who won the last two world championships, was just knocked from the competition by a positive coronavirus test.
So instead of hurling himself into the air over an impossibly high bar in the coming days, he’s isolating in a Tokyo hotel room. His father and coach said on Instagram that Kendricks “isn’t sick.”
And Kendricks’ positive test has an impact on other athletes, too.
Three Australian athletes had brief contact with Kendricks, which meant the country’s entire team was put into isolation for a couple hours while they were tested for the virus. The three athletes who interacted with Kendricks remain in isolation, per official protocols, though they all tested negative.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce pursues 100-meter gold
The fastest U.S. female sprinter won’t be in the starting blocks in Tokyo.
Sha’Carri Richardson won the 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic trials, but was suspended after testing positive for THC, the intoxicant found in marijuana. She said she had used the drug due to “emotional panic” after learning of her biological mother’s death a few days before the trials.
But Richardson wasn’t the sprinter with the fastest time this year — that would be Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
In June, Fraser-Pryce notched a time in the 100 meters faster than any woman in history except American track star Florence Griffith Joyner. She was surprised by her own speed: “I never expected I would run 10.6 and think it’s a good thing because there was no pressure,” she said.
To win in Tokyo, Fraser-Pryce will need to fend off stiff competition from Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith and her fellow Jamaicans Shericka Jackson and Elaine Thompson Herah, the defending 100 meter Olympic champion.