Doubts? We’ve had a few. Did we ever think we’d make it to the Tokyo Olympic track and field competition? Some days we didn’t. But here we are. On Thursday night (Friday morning in Japan) we finally get what we’ve all been waiting for. The Games begin. A year later, amid a pandemic, and possibly a typhoon. Ready or not.
The athletes this year have endured a lot to earn their titles at Olympians. COVID-19 created tumult for everybody. It has stolen joy and it’s amplified consequences. It’s made all of us survivors in one way or another—watching these athletes excel on the global stage, despite it all, can stir a little bit of hope in all of us, if we let it.
Track and field enjoys an expanded audience for about nine days, every four (or five) years. What’s in store for this year’s (all virtual) spectators? In 2021 a couple of 400-meter hurdle world records could be rewritten. Maybe Flo-Jo’s 200-meter record will go down? A woman could go for three different medals…in the distance events. And we’ll watch a U.S. legend’s final farewell to the Olympics she’s starred in since 2004.
Every event holds promise for dramatics and stunning performances and we’ll be watching all of them. Here is just a sampling of the story lines we’re eager to see unfold at the 2021 Olympics.
Allyson Felix’s curtain call.
Felix was just 18 years old when she won her first Olympic medal at the 2004 Athens Games. Now she’s 35, nine medals deep, and competing for her fifth and final time. She’s the most decorated athlete, male or female, in world championships history. But beyond that, she’s evolved into a leader off the track, championing athlete maternal rights after the birth of her own daughter, as well as advocating for black maternal health.
In Tokyo, Felix will compete in the 400 meters. She came home from the 2016 Games with a silver medal in the event, after Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas dove across the finish line to win by 0.07 seconds. Felix still took gold in the 4 x 100- and 4 x 400-meter relays.
It’s hard to imagine a Team USA without Felix, but Tokyo will be her last appearance at the Games, she says. We’ll relish every second, of which we predict will be few.
Felix’s first round of the 400 meters is at 8:45 p.m. Eastern on August 2.
Is a triple distance attempt possible?
Right now Sifan Hassan, who trains in the U.S. but represents the Netherlands, is entered in the 1500 meters, the 5,000 meters, and the 10,000 meters. Will she race all three? We don’t know and she’s not telling. But the guessing game has our interest. It would mean six races in nine days—on August 2 alone, she’d race the 1500 meter preliminary round at 9:35 a.m. and the 5,000 meter final at 9:40 p.m. (Japan time).
If it were practically anybody else we might bet against it, but at the 2019 world championships, she won the 1500 meters and 10,000 meters, which in and of itself was impressive, but she also posted 3:51.95 in the 1500 meters (a world champs record) and closed the 10,000 meters in a 3:59 final 1500, to finish in 30:17.62. It was bananas, really.
If Hassan goes for the triple, it will be history making. If she wins three gold medals in the process (also possible!), it will be legendary. However it goes down, it will keep us glued.
Here’s when to watch Hassan in potentially three events (all times Eastern):
- 6 a.m. on July 30: 5,000 meter prelim
- 8:35 p.m. on August 1: 1500 meter first round
- 7:35 a.m. on August 2: 5,000-meter final
- 6 a.m. on August 4: 1500-meter semi-final
- 8:50 a.m. on August 6: 1500-meter final
- 6:45 a.m. on August 7: 10,000-meter final
Along with Leslie Jones, we’re suckers for the steeple.
As if the 3,000-meter steeplechase isn’t entertaining enough—almost two miles at top speed while jumping 35 barriers and seven water pits—Leslie Jones, comedian and former Saturday Night Live cast member who hilariously offers her own commentary on social media while watching Olympic sports, has made it even more endearing.
Warning: EARMUFFS for the kids. Jones uses some language…NSFW!
Aside from comedic relief, the women’s steeple has a lot of drama. A lot of bad things can happen when so many athletes are basically running an obstacle course in close proximity around the track. Just weeks ago, American Emma Coburn was on schedule to set an American record at the Monaco Diamond League, when she fell at the final water jump. Courtney Frerichs’s mark of 9:00.85 lives on, for now.
But will either Frerichs or Coburn finally break the nine-minute barrier in Tokyo? They’re both in the medal hunt. Coburn won bronze in 2016, then went on to become the world champion in 2017, while Frerichs, who also raced in 2016, set that American record in 2018 and was the world championship silver medalist in 2017.
It won’t be easy for either one of them. Kenyan Hyvin Jepkemoi Kiyeng was second at the 2016 Games and won that Monaco meet against Coburn. Then there’s Beatrice Chepkoech, also from Kenya, the world record holder (8:52.78) and 2019 world champion.
But like we said, anything can happen in the steeple and Jones will no doubt give the best call of the night. Here’s when to watch (Eastern):
- 9:25 p.m. on July 31: first round
- 7 a.m. on August 4: final
Athing Mu’s Olympic debut.
As we say goodbye to Felix, we also welcome new faces to Team USA that we have a feeling will be around for a while. Athing Mu, 19, won the U.S. Olympic Trials 800 meters and made it look as smooth as the 800 meters can be.
Mu put in one year of NCAA competition before she signed a contract this month with Nike. But during that one year at Texas A&M she set a total of six NCAA records and won three NCAA championship titles. The she set the Olympic Trials record (replacing one that predates her existence—it was 25 years old) while winning the title in 1:56.07.
Mu is joined on Team USA by Ajee’ Wilson, the American record holder (1:55.61); and Raevyn Rogers, the 2019 world championships silver medalist. The women’s 800 meters promises to showcase as one of the most exciting of the program with a field that is fast—four others have run sub-1:57 this year. Should one of them win gold, it will be the first in 50 years for the U.S. in the event.
Here’s when to watch (Eastern):
- 8:55 p.m. on July 29: first round
- 7:50 a.m. on July 31: semi-final
- 8:25 a.m. on August 3: final
Finally, the Olympic marathon.
Remember the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials? It was 84 years ago, it seems—or at least enough time for the winner, Aliphine Tuliamuk, to birth a human, little Zoe, whom we’re pleased is making the trip to Tokyo to support her mom (and be breastfed).
That race in February 2020 in Atlanta was the last time we were so excited to watch 26.2 miles. Until now, of course. It’s Tuliamuk’s postpartum marathon debut and she seems optimistic about her return to fitness. Molly Seidel, who came in second at the Trials in her first try at the distance, spent the pandemic year gaining experience, finishing the London Marathon in a personal best of 2:25:13. Sally Kipyego announced in June that her family welcomed another daughter, Jerop, to their family—a sister for 3-year-old, Emma—and that she was “returning to the mountains” to continue training for the Games.
The field in Sapporo, Japan, features the fastest ever. Kenyan Brigid Kosgei is the favorite—she set the world record at the 2019 Chicago Marathon (2:14:04) and won the 2020 London Marathon by more than three minutes. She’s joined by Kenyans Ruth Chepngetich (2:17:08) and Vivian Cheruiyot (2:18:31).
The marathon takes place in Sapporo, Japan, about 500 miles north of Tokyo, which officials had hoped would offer cooler temperatures. Still, the conditions look to be hot and humid, possibly leveling the field a bit. You can watch it all unfold at 6 p.m. Eastern on August 6.