After a build-up that’s been unedifying even by the low standards set by its predecessors, the 29th Olympics are about to begin. Over the next 19 days, 11,246 athletes will compete in 42 sports for a total of 306 gold medals. The glory of the Olympics – and the one thing, really, that justifies the colossal extravagance of staging them – is that the excitements they offer are so delightfully unpredictable. How can it be otherwise, when so many (mostly obscure) athletes are competing in so many (mostly obscure) sports? While this makes reading the Olympic runes a challenging task, here are some predictions – for the casual fan – as to the athletes and events that will prove unexpectedly captivating.
Everyone knows that Usain Bolt will be attempting a third gold in the 100m at Rio, but the women’s sprint events are arguably even more mouth-watering. This is largely because of the improbable rise of Holland’s Dafne Schippers, who, over the last two years, has transformed herself from a mediocre heptathlete (she finished 11th in the event in 2012) into a world-beating sprinter. At last year’s World Athletic Championships, she ran the third quickest 200m ever; she’s the fastest this year at both 100m and 200m. Aside from prompting some to question her cleanness, her rise has blown apart the supremacy long enjoyed by black Jamaican and American athletes in sprinting. Can she beat the legendary Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (who, like Bolt, is attempting a third consecutive gold) in the 100m?
The Campbell sisters
One of Rio’s most intriguing-looking races is the women’s 100m freestyle swim, which will pit two sisters, Australia’s Bronte and Cate Campbell, against one another. Both are world champions at the distance: Cate, the elder by two years, won the title in 2013; Bronte did so in 2015. Earlier this year, Cate broke Britta Steffen’s world record – an achievement all the more impressive given that it dated from the “super-suit era”, when special body-covering swimwear led to a raft of world records being shattered. (The suits were banned in 2009.) The sisters, who moved from Malawi to Australia in 2001, say their biggest inspiration is their brother Hamish, who has cerebral palsy.
Can Lin Dan win again?
Rio offers a chance to watch the Roger Federer of badminton, China’s Lin Dan, going for a third consecutive individual gold. Even if you don’t know much about badminton, Lin, 32, is amazing to watch. For a start, he’s left-handed, which seems to give him access to all sorts of bamboozling angles. And despite the sport’s ferocious speed (shuttlecocks leave players’ rackets at up to 200mph), he rarely seems hurried; his game consists mainly of nonchalant flicks, punctuated by the odd fantastically explosive smash. A triumph in Rio is by no means guaranteed; his great rival, Lee Chong Wee of Malaysia, whom he has beaten in the last two Olympic finals, is the current world No.1. A final between the two would be thrilling.
The Fijian men’s rugby sevens team
Two new Olympic sports are being unveiled at Rio: golf (which hardly needs the extra attention) and rugby sevens, which is played on a full-sized rugby pitch but with teams consisting of seven players and matches consisting of seven-minute halves. Fiji are its undisputed kings; the Pacific island is obsessed with the sport, with national holidays declared following each significant victory. The team is managed by an Englishman, Ben Ryan, who, since taking over in 2013, has introduced more structure and discipline, without entirely reining in its expansive playing style. A gold medal would represent a huge boost for the island, which suffered devastation earlier this year when it was hit by a cyclone. Fiji has never won an Olympic medal.
The charismatic 19-year-old Texan gymnast (pictured) may well be the breakout star of Rio, with five gold medals a not unrealistic prospect. Biles, who is 4ft 8in and was raised by her grandfather after being taken from her drug-addict mother aged two, is notable not only for being black in a traditionally white-dominated sport, but also because she embodies the new, more ambitious style of gymnastics made possible by the abolition of the “perfect ten”. These days, points are awarded both for “execution” and “difficultly”; the muscular Biles often succeeds because the routines she attempts are so much more challenging than those of her rivals.
Partly, it’s the setting: can a more ideal place for volleyball be imagined than Copacabana beach? But another reason why the sport is bound to thrill is that it offers the home nation one of its best prospects of gold. (Brazil’s record at the Olympics isn’t impressive; its best ever gold medal tally is five, which it achieved in Athens in 2004.) Success on the sand seems virtually assured, given that Brazil has the current world champion pairings in both the men’s and women’s events. However, stern competition in the latter is sure to come from the veteran American duo Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty-May Treanor, who are attempting their fourth consecutive gold.
Three other athletes to look out for:
Ibtihaj Muhammad A fencer who will be the first American to compete at the Olympics wearing the hijab
Yusra Mardini A swimmer who fled Syria in 2015, aged 18, and made her way to Germany after swimming part of the way across the Aegean. She will compete in the 200m freestyle for the ten-strong refugee team
Dutee Chand A sprinter who will be the first Indian woman to compete in the 100m since 1980. She was banned in 2014 after failing a gender-identification test, but was reinstated in 2015 following a legal challenge