Tokyo 2020 predictions: Guardian US writers predict Team USA’s medal haul

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<span>Photograph: Ashley Landis/AP</span>
Photograph: Ashley Landis/AP

Medal count winner

These Olympics are more unpredictable than usual due to the absence of many qualifying events over the last year, but the United States should lead the pack in both most overall medals and total golds. BG

China. Just a hunch that they’re keeping some athletes under wraps who didn’t register many results over the last 18 months of rescheduled and reshuffled international competitions but are poised to dominate. BD

U-S-A! U-S-A! Even with Sha’Carri Richardson’s doping suspension and an ever-growing Covid-positive list that now includes tennis teen queen Coco Gauff and NBA scoring prince Bradley Beal among the competition casualties, the Americans still boast a deep enough delegation to lead the medal count, even if they don’t take home the most golds. AL

United States. I was really, really tempted to pick China, but I think I’m just down on the US’s chances after the recent basketball upsets and Covid roster reshuffling. The US haven’t finished worse than first in the medal count of a Summer Olympics since 2008, and even if thy do a bit worse than the projections, they should still stay on top. JN

Covid-19 will …

thrust Olympic alternates into action at a far higher rater than usual. We’ve already seen it in the case of beach volleyball player Taylor Crabb, who was forced to withdraw this week after four positive coronavirus tests. That opened the door for Tri Bourne to take his place as the partner of four-time Olympian Jake Gibb. Other eleventh-hour replacements will follow. BG

… be all but forgotten by day three, just as terrorism concerns faded in 2002 and Zika had little impact in 2016. The naysayers said it was foolhardy to play sports in a bubble (NWSL, MLS, WNBA, NBA) or outside a bubble (the same leagues, plus college sports and the NFL, NHL, golf and tennis). All of these sports got through their seasons in the USA, which hasn’t managed the pandemic as well as Japan and doesn’t have as much experience creating secure bubbles as the IOC. BD

… continue to be the lead story of these Games. With every country having their own approach to health and safety and American swimmer Michael Andrew and other anti-vax athletes boldly going to Tokyo anyway, it’s only a matter of time before the Games kick off a third wave of the pandemic despite organizers’ best efforts to not only keep competitors at a distance, but also discourage them from having sex. AL

… absolutely affect who gets to compete and who doesn’t. The virus is already present in the Olympic Village, and it’s affected one major US roster decision (men’s basketball); sure, a massive outbreak feels unlikely, but isolated cases are going to pop up early on and sideline athletes. Will it keep a mega-star from participating? That’s impossible to say without knowing who’s vaccinated, who isn’t and what kind of variants pop up in the bubble. But Coviid will knock athletes out of events, and athletes who recover in time to compete may well feel the effects of the virus when they do. JN

Breakout star

Caeleb Dressel. The freestyle and butterfly sprint specialist has been cast as the heir to Michael Phelps as the face of swimming in the US and, potentially, the world. Dressel equaled Phelps’s world championships record with seven gold medals in Budapest in 2016, followed by six golds and two silvers at the most recent worlds in Gwangju. The 24-year-old from Florida will enter Tokyo as the favorite in the 50m free, 100m free and 100m fly with a chance for as many as six golds after relays. BG

JuVaughn Harrison. That’s not a typo on the track and field start lists. The 22-year-old athlete, who recently announced he will go pro and give up his remaining eligibility at LSU, will be the first American to compete in both the long jump and the high jump since Jim Thorpe did it in 1912. He’s already the first man to win both events in one NCAA championship meet, doing the double in 2019 and 2021 along with the 2021 indoor championships. In Tokyo, he’ll be a legitimate contender in each – his 2.36-meter jump (vertically) is only a centimeter off the 2021 world lead, and his 8.47-meter jump (horizontally) is No 2 on the world list this year. BD

Aliphine Tuliamuk. The Kenya-born marathoner is gunning for Olympic gold not long after giving birth to her first child and starts on a triumphant note after a successful appeal of the Games’ Covid-motivated ban on family members that, among other things, allows her to continue breastfeeding her infant daughter. But if you think that’s going to slow her down in Sapporo, consider: she monstered the US trials six months after suffering a femoral stress fracture in her right leg. Also: She’s the only person I’ve ever talked to who could crochet a hat from start to near finish during an hourlong phone conversation. AL

Sunisa Lee. In 2019, when Lee was 16, she finished second in the all-around at the U.S. gymnastics championships behind Simone Biles, and now, in her first Olympics, she’s primed to break out. Lee is the first Hmong American Olympic gymnast, and she became a lock for Tokyo after her performance at the Olympic trials. Though she won’t eclipse Biles quite yet, her performance could very well have a major impact on the US team’s total score; she’s a standout on the uneven bars and also excels on the balance beam. JN

Bold prediction

The US men’s basketball team are coming off a seventh-place finish at the 2019 Fiba World Cup, their worst ever finish at an international tournament. Their lack of practice time showed itself during a rocky exhibition series last week in Las Vegas. In a competition where gold medals were for years an American birthright, they can expect a dogfight just to reach the podium. BG

In a year in which the X Games-ification of the Olympic continues, the IOC will be stunned by a sudden surge of interest in volleyball. Anyone can surf and skateboard, but not many can stare down a 6ft 10in middle blocker. American and Australian viewers will immediately demand pro volleyball leagues in their countries so their top players don’t have to go to Germany, Italy, Russia or Estonia to make a living. The other sport that will gain interest in the Games will be modern pentathlon, which will take place near the end of the Olympic fortnight-plus and will capture viewers who have grown a bit tired of the other events. BD

Both USA Basketball teams lose gold. For years they’ve coasted on All-Star talent. But not only has the world caught up with them, the internal politics have led to rosters built more around cronyism and star power than cohesive talent. With both teams taking their lumps in exhibition, and the US women purposefully leaving off MVP stars like Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, USA Basketball figures to be in for its roughest Olympics since Larry Brown et all stunk it up in Athens. AL

Even after all of the pre-Olympics drama – Covid, injuries, exhibition upsets, waiting for star players to finish the NBA finals – the US men’s basketball team will take gold in Tokyo. Yes, its roster will feature some exhausted players who haven’t had time to train with the team this month. And yes, Bradley Beal probably would’ve helped Team USA’s cause. But the US has the privilege of getting to pick its hoops squad from the most elite talent pool in the world, and that’ll be apparent in Tokyo. Will it be easy? Maybe not as easy as most (understandably) spoiled viewers would like. But the pre-Games fears are nowhere near warranted. JN

Can’t miss events will include …

BMX Freestyle, women’s park final (31 July, 9.10pm ET). Hannah Roberts, the 19-year-old two-time world champion from the southeast corner of Michigan, is the gold medal favorite in the new event of BMX freestyle and can become the youngest US Olympic cycling medalist in 109 years and the first teenage woman to win an Olympic cycling title from any country. The fresh-faced newlywed has also emerged as a gender-equality pioneer in a traditionally male-dominated sport. BG

Swimming, women’s 200m freestyle and 1,500m freestyle (27 July, 9.30pm ET). With the 1,500m added to the Olympic program, Katie Ledecky has a chance to win four individual gold medals in addition to any relay for which she’s picked. The longer the distance, the safer the bet Ledecky is. This two-and-a-half-hour session features her shortest (200m) near the beginning and ends with the longest (1,500m). BD

Weightlifting. Men’s 73 kg (28 July, 1.50 am ET). 21-year-old CJ Cummings has been destined for this stage pretty much from the moment he padded into the gym as a diapered toddler. Dubbed the LeBron James of weightlifting, he held scores of American and world records by the time he was old enough to drive. After nearly making the cut for the Rio Olympics as a teenager, Cummings enters the Tokyo Games as the third-best lifter in his weight class. To beat top-ranked Shi Zhiyong of China, Cummings will have to summon the lift of his life. No doubt all of us here in his hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina, will be rooting for him. AL

The long-awaited debut of skateboarding at the Games (24 July, 8pm ET). Decades after the sport emerged as a major cultural phenomenon in the U.S., skateboarding is finally a part of the Olympics. Sure, Tony Hawk isn’t competing, but the sport still has some major stars, including Americans Heimana Reynolds, a Hawaiian favored in men’s park, and Nyjah Huston, who’s set to compete in the first-ever event, men’s street. JN