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Tokyo Olympics: The international stars set to shine

A five-year gap between the Rio and Tokyo Olympics has meant a changing of guard of sorts among the athletes set to compete. For the first time in 25 years, the Games will be without the likes of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, the pair having retired with a combined 31 gold medals.

Gymnastics star Simone Biles looks set to cement her place as an Olympic legend. Source: Associated Press

However, there are plenty of stars who still remain, while a new generation are ready to make a name for themselves on the biggest stage. Among the thousands also stand a group of sporting greats who our own Kiwi stars will need to topple in order to achieve Olympic glory.

Stars set to shine

Katie Ledecky of the U.S. points into the crowd Source: Associated Press

Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming – 200m freestyle, 400m freestyle, 800m freestyle, 1500m freestyle, 4x200m freestyle relay)
Arguably the greatest female swimmer in history, Ledecky heads to her third Olympic Games at the age of just 24. Five years ago she walked away from Rio with four golds and a silver, making it the most decorated single-Olympics performance by a US female athlete. Ledecky has broken 14 world records in her career and is the current record holder in the 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle. She heads to Tokyo entered in five events and will likely cement her place in history as one of the greatest Olympians ever.

Simone Biles (USA, Gymnastics – artistic)
Another 24-year-old American with the world at her feet is gymnast Simone Biles, who took the world by storm in Rio, winning four golds and a bronze. She returns an even better athlete with a new bag of tricks, including a Yurchenko double pike vault, which she landed earlier this year and became the first woman in history to do so. For over half a century the name Nadia Comaneci has been associated with the pinnacle of women’s gymnastics, but another dominant performance in Tokyo could see Biles surpass the brilliant Romanian.

Naomi Osaka (Japan, Tennis)
Already a household name among tennis fans, Osaka has the unique opportunity to compete for an Olympic medal in her home country. American Lindsay Davenport is the only female singles player to win gold at a home Olympics, doing so in Atlanta 1996, and world number two Osaka seems poised to achieve the same feat. It has been an up-and-down year for the 23-year-old. She began by winning her second Australian Open, but withdrew from the French Open after refusing to speak to the media and also pulled out of Wimbledon. Her likely challenger will be world number one Ash Barty, but her road to glory has been made easier by the withdrawal of Serena Williams and Simona Halep.

Allyson Felix (USA, Athletics – 400m, 4x400m relay)
One of the most gifted all-around sprinters in history, Felix heads to her fifth Olympic Games chasing her tenth medal. Now 35, Felix’s life has changed since she claimed three medals in Rio five years ago. She heads to Tokyo as a mother and has said she hopes qualifying for her fifth Games will inspire her daughter. A former competitor in the 100m and 200m – the latter of which she won gold at London 2012 – Felix will only be competing in the 400m individual and relay disciplines this time around. Not that she is any slouch in that discipline. In Rio she missed a 400m gold by the narrowest of margins before leading the United States to victory in the relay. Felix has already announced this will be her last Olympics and given one medal will see her join Carl Lewis as the most decorated sprinter of all time, her motivation will surely have never been higher.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (Jamaica, Athletics – 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay)
Fraser-Pryce arrives in Tokyo as the fastest woman alive and in the form of her life. The 100m gold medallist in 2008 and 2012, Fraser-Pryce was only able to claim bronze in Rio after struggling through an injury-plagued season. But she has come back better than ever. The 34-year-old Jamaican recently smashed her personal best, clocking a blistering 10.63 seconds in Kingston last month, the second fastest time by a woman in history. With upcoming rival Sha’Carri Richardson being suspended for marijuana use, a third gold medal is very much within grasp. If she wins, she will become the first female to win three 100m golds in Olympic history. Fraser-Pryce is also in line to compete in the 200m and the 4x100m relay that could see her add even more medals to her collection.

Caeleb Dressel (USA, Swimming, 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 100m butterfly, 4x100m freestyle relay, 4x100m medley relay)
With Michael Phelps having retired, there are plenty of medals now up for grabs in the men’s swimming competition. Among those seeking to carve out their own legacy is American Caeleb Dressel, who has established himself as Phelps’ successor in the five years since Rio. In 2017, Dressel equalled Phelps’ record of seven gold medals at a world championships and won six more in 2019 as well as two silvers. He already has two Olympic gold medals from relay events in Rio, but he will be looking to go for at least five more this time around in Tokyo.

NEW FACES

Teenage skateboarder Sky Brown will become Great Britain's youngest ever Olympian when she competes in Tokyo. Source: Associated Press

Sky Brown (Great Britain, Skateboarding – park)
At just 13 years and 13 days, Sky Brown will become Great Britain’s youngest ever Olympian when she competes in the skateboarding women’s park competition in Tokyo. The Japanese-born Brown is sponsored by Nike and turned pro at just 10-years-old. Last year she suffered a horrific fall on the half-pipe ramp that left her with several skull fractures and unresponsive upon arrival to the hospital. While her father said she was lucky to be alive, Brown remains determined to continue her incredible career and chase Olympic gold.

Slovenia men’s basketball team
It is highly unlikely that any nation will be able to stop the United States from walking away with its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal, but the race to claim silver and bronze remains wide open. One team that could make a surprise run is Slovenia, competing in its first ever Olympics since gaining independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The European champions are led by NBA superstar Luka Doncic, considered to be the best players in the world. He is surrounded by a settled supporting cast that together easily ran through the Olympic qualifying tournament this month, defeating world No. 13 Poland and No. 8 Lithuania. The Slovenians are placed in a tough group alongside Spain, Argentina and hosts Japan, but should they advance to the knockout stages, there is no reason they could not walk away with a medal.

Erriyon Knighton (USA, Athletics - 200m)
The next big thing in sprinting, the 17-year-old Knighton made headlines earlier this year when he broke Usain Bolt’s under-20 record for the 200m, and then incredibly broke his own record three more times at the US Olympic Trials in June to qualify for Tokyo. By doing so he became the youngest American runner to make an Olympic team since Jim Ryun in 1964. It’s unlikely Knighton will medal, but it could be the first chance to see the future of sprinting on the global stage. Bolt himself didn’t medal at his first Olympics in Athens, but no one remembers that now.

Ariarne Titmus (Australia, Swimming - 200m freestyle, 400m freestyle, 800m freestyle, 4x200m freestyle relay)
If anyone can take down Ledecky, it is 20-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus. The youngster beat Ledecky in the 400m freestyle at the 2019 World Championships and has only gone from strength to strength since. Titmus enters the Olympics in the form of her life. At the Australian Olympic trials she swam just a half-second off Ledecky's 400m world record time, and just a tenth of a second off Federica Pellegrini's 12-year-old 200m world record set during the supersuit era. It will take a monumental effort to overcome Ledecky, but if anyone can, it will be Titmus.

Mariya Lasitskene (Russian Olympic Committee, Athletics – high jump)
A likely gold medallist in Rio, the Russian high jumper Lasitskene was unable to compete after her nation was banned from the Games due to systematic doping. She has since been able to compete as a neutral athlete, winning the world championships in 2017 and 2019. During that period she won 45 competitions in a row, has recorded one of the highest jumps for a female athlete in history and heads to Tokyo as a clear gold medal favourite.

Ayumu Hirano (Japan, Skateboarding – park)
A familiar name to Winter Olympic enthusiasts, Hirano is one of the world’s best snowboarders and won back-to-back silver medals in the halfpipe at Sochi and Pyeongchang, narrowly behind American star Shaun White. Now he will compete at his home Summer Olympics in skateboarding. A logical transition from the snow, Hirano actually began skateboarding as a child before taking to the mountains, and if he can do even half of what he can on the slopes, he will be in with a chance of achieving the rare feat of Olympic glory in both the Summer and Winter Games.

Takeru Kitazono (Japan, Gymnastics – artistic)
One of the most exciting athletes for the host nation, 18-year-old Kitazono is competing in his first Olympics having absolutely dominated the sport at youth level. In 2018 he won an unprecedented five gold medals at the Youth Olympics and three more a year later at the junior world championships. Japan will be hoping the promising youngster can help bring the country back to its former gymnastics glory of the 1960s.

Janja Garnbret (Slovenia, Sport climbing)
Sport climbing is making its Olympic debut in Tokyo and with that comes a host of new athletes. Among those will be Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret, who has quickly risen to become the best female sport climber in the world. She already has six world championship golds at the age of 22, and in 2019 became the first athlete to win all World Cup bouldering events in a season. Slovenia have only ever won seven gold medals at the Summer Olympics, but Garnbret certainly looks likely to increase that tally.

Kristof Milak (Hungary, Swimming – 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 4x100m freestyle relay, 4x100m medley relay)
While Dressel has been earmarked as the man to take the baton from Michael Phelps in the pool, another worth keeping an eye on is Hungarian Kristof Milak. Predominantly a butterfly specialist, Milak smashed Phelps’ 10-year-old record in the 200m butterfly at the world championships two years ago aged just 19. He heads to Tokyo chasing medals in four events and is the odds-on favourite to win gold in the 200m fly, especially given Dressel won’t be competing in that event.

KIWI RIVALS

American shot putter Ryan Crouser recently broke the 31-year-old world record, and stands between Tom Walsh and a gold medal. Source: Getty

Jason and Laura Kenny (Great Britain, Cycling – track)
The cause of heartbreak for New Zealanders for a generation, the British couple have time and again dominated the Olympic velodrome. Between them they have an incredible ten gold medals spanning three Olympic Games and will once more lead Great Britain in Tokyo as they seek to extend their dominance. The big question will be whether the Kiwis can finally overcome their long-time rivals and break the nation’s gold medal drought on the track.

Danuta Kozak (Hungary, Canoeing – sprint)
A five-time Olympic gold medallist, Kozak is Lisa Carrington’s biggest threat on the water in Tokyo. Despite Carrington’s famous gold medal victory in Rio, it was actually Kozak who walked away from the Games with the heaviest suitcase, having claimed gold in three out of the four sprint events. Carrington had the wood over her at the last world championships in 2019, but expect the Hungarian to be a mighty obstacle to overcome in Tokyo.

Ryan Crouser (USA, Athletics - shot put)
Tom Walsh recently made a confident claim that he was heading to Tokyo with his sights set on gold. That is a bold statement considering he will need to topple American giant Ryan Crouser to succeed. The reigning Olympic champion is an absolute mammoth of a man, standing a six-foot-seven and weighing 145kg. At the US Olympic trials in June Crouser smashed the 31-year-old shot put world record by throwing a remarkable 23.37m - nearly 50cm further than Walsh's personal best. He is a clear favourite to defend his Olympic title and only a potential record-breaking performance looks likely to change that.

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