The great promise of the Summer Olympics—virtually unlimited, round-the-clock sports—presents a dilemma: How does one prioritize what to watch? That question becomes particularly pressing if you have, you know, a job, or kids, or other responsibilities beyond channel-surfing over to the modern pentathlon at 4 a.m. local time.
What follows is a guide for those with limited time to spend on the Olympics: Nine events to clear your schedule for, with a mix of household names and sports you might only see covered in this type of venue. If you can’t watch everything, at least watch these.
Artistic Gymnastics: Women’s All-Around
This is one of the marquee events—if not the marquee event—at every summer Olympics, and I struggle to remember a time when there was less of a question of who was going to win. Simone Biles is not only the best gymnast in history, she’s dominated gymnastics longer and more thoroughly than almost anyone previously thought possible. She’s so good that the International Gymnastics Federation is devaluing her signature vault in a vain attempt to give anyone else a chance.
In other words, Biles is such a special athlete that she makes a likely noncompetitive sporting event a must-watch spectacle.
Basketball: Men’s 5-on-5
The same can usually be said for men’s basketball, an event that has been dominated by the U.S. since its inception: In 18 Olympic appearances, Team USA has medaled 18 times and won 15.
After exhibition losses to Nigeria and Australia, though, the U.S. looks vulnerable—and the team is scrambling for bodies. Team USA had to (with all due respect to Kevin Love) drag Kevin Love’s old ass back on the court, only to watch Love withdraw, citing lingering injuries, and be replaced by JaVale McGee. There’s still plenty of star power on the roster—Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and Devin Booker—but Booker, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton will have to turn around and fly across the world to play in the Olympics less than a week after they finish an exhausting playoff run.
It’ll probably be fine, but this chaotic lead-up is reminiscent of 2004, when the U.S. expected to cakewalk to gold and instead lost three of eight games to surprisingly talented and better-organized competition. This event could be the opposite of the women’s all-around gymnastics: worth watching because of the distinct possibility the favorite could lose.
Swimming: Mixed Medley Relay
This event, which first appeared at the World Aquatics Championships in 2015, is absolute chaos.
Relay swimming isn’t just about who’s ahead at a given moment; it’s about how big the margin is, and in what order each team is throwing out its swimmers. That mental calculus gets even weirder when multiple strokes are involved—one of the funniest spectacles in international swimming is watching dominant breaststroker Adam Peaty drag Great Britain kicking and screaming into the medal mix in medley relays. With multiple genders in the pool at the same time, the running order in a mixed medley relay flips around wildly like an overstimulated puppy. At the 2019 World Championships, the U.S. threw Lilly King and Caeleb Dressel in for the two middle legs, while four of the other top six teams had a male swimmer on the breaststroke leg and a woman on butterfly. That led to the U.S. yo-yoing almost out of the TV picture, only to regain the lead by the time Dressel got out of the pool.
Swimming is usually a pretty straightforward enterprise—both idiomatically and literally. But no other event has the wild twists and turns of the mixed medley relay.
Women’s Water Polo
Every time the Summer Olympics roll around, a particular type of Guy comes out of hibernation: on the internet, at the bar, on the train to work, everywhere. This guy—the guy with a massive gap between how cool he actually is and how cool he thinks he is—will go on and on about how great team handball is. And while he’s right, that’s not news anymore. Move along, Adam, maybe you’ll run into someone who hasn’t heard of Twin Peaks and you can impress them instead.
Giving two teams of giant Europeans a ball and a net is a recipe for a great sporting spectacle, from handball to volleyball to basketball. But it’s even better if you take said giants and said equipment out of the gym and put them in a pool. Enter water polo, the toughest, nastiest team sport on the Olympic calendar. Above the water, viewers will see intricate passing moves and long-range howitzer shots, while below the water, out of sight of the referee, there’s a level of shithousery that would make Charles Oakley blanch.
The dominant men’s teams come from central and southern Europe—where do you think Nikola Jokic learned to pass the way he does?—but on the women’s side, the United States is the heavy favorite. Team USA has won the past two Olympic gold medals, the past three World Championship gold medals, and the past seven editions of the FINA World League. They’re led by goalie Ashleigh Johnson and defender Melissa Seidemann, a physical inside presence at both ends of the pool. Spain, Hungary, and Australia should be in the hunt for the lesser medals, but the U.S. hasn’t lost a match in Olympic play since 2008 and should keep that unbeaten streak going until 2024.
Athletics: Men’s 200 Meter
Sure, the 100-meter sprint bestows upon the victor the title of “World’s Fastest Man.” But while the 200 meter sometimes gets treated like a sideshow for the 100, that’s the whole ballgame for reigning world champion Noah Lyles, who finished seventh in the 100 at the U.S. Olympic Trials and will only race the 200 in Tokyo.
A big part of NBC’s Olympics coverage involves getting viewers to care deeply about athletes they may have only known for a few minutes by the time their event starts. And Lyles is going to make that task preposterously easy. He dances at the start line, records music in his spare time, and talks bluntly both about his own dominance and his own struggles with depression. At the IAAF World Athletics Championships in 2019, Lyles made headlines by showing up with silver hair, then made further headlines when he revealed it was for Dragon Ball Z–related reasons. An avid fan of anime—a topic he discussed with Katie Ledecky on her Instagram last October—Lyles explained that he was invoking Goku’s final form, Ultra Instinct, with his coiffure.
If Lyles wins gold he’s going to be on every Wheaties box in America for months.
Standing in his way is Canadian Andre De Grasse, who won three medals as an Olympic debutant in Rio. (Those of you who remember the Usain Bolt meme from the 100-meter semifinal in 2016 might be interested to know it was de Grasse he was grinning at.) De Grasse’s admirers include 1996 Olympic 100-meter champion Donovan Bailey, who went viral himself in Rio while cheering De Grasse on from his perch as a CBC analyst. And at the 2019 Worlds, track’s last major international championship, de Grasse was closer than anyone to running Lyles down, finishing just 0.12 seconds behind.
Cycling: Men’s Cross-Country Mountain Bike
By all indications, this year’s Olympic mountain bike course is going to be a doozy. The 2.5-mile course features a combination of grass, rocks, and dirt singletrack, with steep climbs—about 500 feet—and sheer drops hewn out of the foothills of Mt. Fuji.
The favorites to get around quickest include reigning world champion Jordan Sarrou and reigning Olympic champion Nino Schurter. Schurter, a 35-year-old from Switzerland, has a full set of Olympic medals, having reached the podium in each of the past three Games, plus eight world championships and seven UCI World Cup overall titles in cross-country mountain biking. And in 2019, he also won a test race on the course they built for these Olympics.
What makes this race particularly spicy is the inclusion of two guests from the world of road cycling and cyclocross: 26-year-old Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel, and 21-year-old Brit Tom Pidcock. Van der Poel is the reigning Tour of Flanders champion and is capable of positively ludicrous accelerations. Such attacks, in addition to making him one of the most famous and popular cyclists on the planet, also won him the Strade Bianche and the second stage of this year’s Tour de France. Pidcock, meanwhile, is a first-year pro, and has won the junior editions of the world time-trial championship, Giro d’Italia, and Paris-Roubaix.
Road cyclists have tried to transition to Olympic mountain biking before; in 2016, world road race champion Peter Sagan finished 35th out of 49 starters on the mountain bike, a lap down on Schurter. But van der Poel and Pidcock finished first and second at last year’s world championships in cyclocross—a related but distinct discipline to mountain biking—and both have had recent success in cross-country mountain biking. Van der Poel won a European title in 2019, while Pidcock was the world U23 champion in 2020. Schurter won’t be able to dismiss these interlopers as easily as he did Sagan.
Archery: Men’s Individual
One of the joys of the Olympics is learning about sports that don’t usually make it onto ESPN. Among those is archery, a surprisingly compelling TV event. Archery is fast paced and exceedingly simple: Stand the better part of a football field from a target, hold up a bow, and hit the middle. It combines the visceral thrill of watching someone shoot a deadly weapon with the ASMR-like calm the athletes have to exude in order to shoot accurately.
The biggest American star is 32-year-old Brady Ellison, an individual and team world champion and three-time Olympic medalist who has yet to stand on the top step of the podium. And it’s clear who’s standing in his way.
Since archery was reintroduced to the Olympics in 1972, South Korea has taken home nearly a third of the 120 medals distributed, and 23 out of 40 golds. Ku Bon-Chan, the defending men’s individual gold medalist, will not be in Tokyo, but 2012 individual gold medalist Oh Jin-Hyek is back on the team, as is Kim Woo-Jin, who set an Olympic scoring record during the qualifying rounds in Rio and also took home a gold medal in the team event. If Ellison does win that elusive gold medal, he’ll have truly earned it.
After a 13-year hiatus, baseball and softball are back at the Olympics, and in baseball-mad Japan, no less. This incarnation of Olympic baseball features a novel format, with a double-elimination knockout round and only six teams in the tournament. That not only means that half the participants will medal, but Cuba—which had made every Olympic final since baseball became a competition sport in 1992—failed to qualify. That opened the door for the Dominican Republic, back for the first time in 29 years, and first-time qualifiers Mexico and Israel.
MLB does not pause its season for Olympic play, which precludes players on 40-man rosters from going and prevents the Olympics from attracting the kind of names you’ll usually see at the World Baseball Classic. But it also opens the door for prospects to make a name for themselves on the international stage. When Stephen Strasburg faced off against Yuli Gurriel in the 2019 World Series, for instance, they were renewing a rivalry from the 2008 Olympic semifinal. And the winning pitcher in the gold medal game that year in Beijing was 21-year-old Hyun-Jin Ryu.
The big prospects in this year’s edition include Rays right-hander Shane Baz (Team USA) and Mariners outfield superprospect Julio Rodríguez (Dominican Republic). And while MLB players aren’t coming, fans will recognize Mexico’s Adrian Gonzalez, Israel’s Ian Kinsler, and Masahiro Tanaka, the only Japanese holdover from 2008.
Women’s soccer is usually one of the best team sport events at the Olympics, given the high quality of play and the sometimes contentious familiarity between the participants. And Tokyo will feature a true rarity in women’s soccer competition: Team USA with something to prove.
In the first five women’s Olympic soccer tournaments, the U.S. won four gold medals and a silver. But in Rio in 2016, they made a stunning quarterfinal exit against Sweden. The bulk of that U.S. team—which also won World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019—now returns for a group stage rematch with Sweden in Japan.
France failed to qualify for these Olympics, as did defending gold medalist Germany, but many familiar antagonists are making the trip: Canada, led by 38-year-old captain Christine Sinclair, who’s chasing Methuselah’s record for international caps; a fearsome Dutch frontline that will headline Group F; and the England team that pushed the U.S. to the brink two years ago, under its Olympic guise as Great Britain. That team, which features reinforcements from Scotland and Wales, including hard-charging Arsenal captain Kim Little, will probably present the stiffest challenge for Team USA, should the two meet again. But while a fifth gold medal is far from a certainty for the Americans, anything less would be a disappointment.