It’s quite a statement about the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic that the 2020 Olympics have been postponed. Not just because it shows that sports and international travel are unconscionable even for an organization as venal as the IOC, but because the Olympics are one of the most universally recognizable waypoints on the cultural calendar. Every two years, like clockwork, we come together as a global community to watch sports, after which the Youth of the World are encouraged to reconvene at the next venue to keep the cycle going. Not since World War II has humanity confronted a crisis so insurmountable that we were told to hang on and wait until it was safe.
But beyond the bone-rattling anxiety and existential terror of watching society grind to a halt indefinitely, there’s the disappointment of missing out on what looked like a really exciting slate of events and athletes—perhaps for 12 months, perhaps for good. Here are a few select examples.
Simone Biles, USA
When Rodger Sherman wrote about the ripple effects of Olympic postponement this week, the first topic he addressed was its effect on Biles, the 23-year-old American with five Olympic and 25 world championship medals in her cabinet. That’s appropriate—Biles is the biggest star in the history of one of the headline events of the Summer Games. At this point, we’re not postponing the Olympics so much as we’re postponing the Simone Biles Show and several of her warmup acts.
Biles staked her claim as the best gymnast in the world when she took all-around gold at the 2013 World Championship, and has stood head and shoulders (figuratively, at least) above her competition ever since. The worry with postponing the Olympics is not that Biles will retire or that anyone will gain enough ground to really match her, it’s that she’s already been at the top of her sport longer than anyone else in the past 50 years. Asking her to maintain that peak into her mid-20s would be the latest in a string of miraculous achievements.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Jamaica
Sprinters tend to have longer careers than gymnasts, but even so, it’s kind of remarkable that the Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce who won two gold medals at the 2019 World Championships is the same one who won gold in the 100 meters at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Though I guess if Justin Gatlin can keep chugging along at age 38, there’s no reason Fraser-Pryce, 33, can’t do the same.
Fraser-Pryce is fun to watch not just because of her brightly colored hair and cheerful on-track demeanor, but because of her size. Many elite sprinters are tall and take big strides, but Fraser-Pryce is an even 5-foot, with tiny legs that sort of blur together like a cartoon character’s as she blazes past runners 6 or even 10 inches taller. Even though she tends to beat her American competitors, the Jamaican phenom is so entertaining it’s impossible to dislike her.
The Return of Baseball and Softball
The last time baseball and softball were on the Olympic schedule in 2008, the on-field product was awesome. Japan finally broke the American stranglehold on the softball gold medal, while the baseball tournament came down to a 3-2 final in which South Korea overcame Cuba thanks to a 21-year-old Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Ryu’s involvement is symbolic of what makes an Olympic baseball tournament so interesting. MLB has never released active major leaguers for the Olympics, so the rosters tend to be filled out by players who ply their trade in Japan, Cuba, South Korea, or the American minor league systems. In addition to Ryu, that 2008 tournament also featured 19-year-old Masahiro Tanaka and 21-year-old Yu Darvish, while the Americans rolled out future Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and a San Diego State sophomore named Stephen Strasburg.
The Olympic softball tournament would be the highest-profile international event in the sport, and Olympic baseball would be a unique high-stakes look at the stars of tomorrow—particularly if the United States or the Dominican Republic took one or both of the last two qualifying spots. We already have a showcase like that in hockey and soccer in the form of internationally televised world championships, but less so in baseball. It would have been cool to see Mackenzie Gore go up against Wander Franco with an Olympic medal on the line, then 10 years later watch them revisit that battle in the World Series.
Chloé Dygert Owen, USA
Cycling is a much more tactically nuanced and complex sport than it appears at first glance. It’s not just about who can ride the fastest for the longest—winning a cycling race requires planning, teamwork, tactical savvy, and the ability to read one’s opponents. A critical mountain stage of the Tour de France often more closely resembles a chess match or a hand of poker than an out-and-out race from one point on the map to another. To appreciate a great cyclist is to appreciate finesse.
And then there’s 23-year-old American Chloé Dygert Owen. At last fall’s world time trial championships, Dygert Owen absolutely atomized Anna van der Breggen (the 2016 Olympic road race champion and most dominant road cyclist on the planet) and two-time defending world time trial champion Annemiek van Vleuten en route to a surprise gold medal.
What sets Dygert Owen apart from anyone else in the sport is her visible power. Other cyclists, even great ones like van der Breggen, ride like Magnus Carlsen. Dygert Owen rides like Leonard Fournette. Most high-level cyclists pedal to a measured, level tempo and punch up the heat at targeted spots. At last year’s road world championships, Dygert Owen didn’t carry a power meter, as most of her rivals did—she just sat down on the bike, rode like hell for 42 minutes, and keeled over in a heap at the end.
And as good as she is on the road, Dygert Owen is even better on the track. She won a silver medal in the team pursuit at the Rio Olympics at age 19, and since 2016 she’s won seven gold medals at the world track championships. The most recent of those came last month, when she faced former world and European champion Lisa Brennauer in the individual pursuit final.
The announcers expected Dygert Owen to pace herself in the 3-kilometer race and reel Brennauer in gradually. Instead, she jumped out to a huge lead right out of the gate. The broadcasters couldn’t understand her strategy until it became clear later on that she had been pacing herself, and raced not only to a gold medal but a new world record. Subtlety in racing can be interesting, but dominance has a drama all its own.
Katie Ledecky vs. the World
It’s hard to think about American women outracing their competition to a comically large margin of victory and not bring up Ledecky, who won four gold medals and a silver in Rio. Tokyo was to be Ledecky’s third Olympics, but at 23, she would’ve been the same age as Michael Phelps when he won eight gold medals in Beijing. Moreover, the next Olympics will be the first to include Ledecky’s best event: the 1,500-meter freestyle, in which she holds three long-course world titles, two Pan Pacific titles, and the world record.
But while Ledecky’s reputation is that she’s unbeatable in freestyle races of 200 meters or longer, the reality since Rio has been different. She suffered her first individual loss in major international competition in the 200-meter freestyle at the 2017 worlds, then finished third in the 200 free behind Taylor Ruck of Canada and Rikako Ikee of Japan at the 2018 Pan Pacs. In 2019, she won just one gold medal at the world championships after illness forced her to scratch the 200- and 1,500-meter freestyle races.
Most of those defeats were fluky: The 200 free final in 2018 came just an hour after Ledecky had put in a grueling eight-minute effort to win gold in the 800. And she hopefully won’t get debilitatingly sick again whenever the Tokyo Olympics come around. But the competition seems to be getting tougher. Ruck is one of a promising generation of Canadian swimmers threatening to break the Australian and American stranglehold on Olympic dominance. Italian Federica Pellegrini, 31, won 200-meter gold in Beijing and is in the middle of a late-career resurgence after finishing fourth behind Ledecky in Rio. Pellegrini won the gold medal in the 200 at the 2019 worlds and has held the world record in that event for 12 years.
But the biggest threat to Ledecky is 19-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus, who won five medals at last year’s world championships and beat Ledecky head-to-head in two of the three events Ledecky medaled in. Even if Ledecky returns to form and dominates in Tokyo, she’ll have to overcome something new: a rival.
Mondo Duplantis, Sweden
From 1994 to 2019, the world record in the men’s pole vault was broken just once. Then, in the span of a week this February, a 20-year-old Swedish pole vaulter named Mondo Duplantis broke it twice. He cleared 6.18 meters (more than 20 feet) without breaking a sweat.
It might seem strange that the best pole vaulter in 25 years is a Swede whose name sounds like something Ed Orgeron would have thought up for a character in a crime novel, but there’s a good reason for that. Duplantis is actually a native of Lafayette, Louisiana, the youngest member of a family of athletes. (“Mondo” is short for Armand.) Both his parents and his older brother were competitive track and field athletes—his mother is from Sweden, which is why Duplantis fils doesn’t compete for the country of his birth. Another brother, Antoine, is an outfielder in the New York Mets’ minor league system and was a four-year baseball standout at LSU.
It’s tough to make pole vault interesting to mainstream sports fans, but Duplantis has the name and the swagger to come closer than anyone has in a long time.