One was a comic book hero in spikes who captured new fans across the world with his peerless speed and bountiful charisma.
The other was an icon in goggles who amassed a record number of medals and redefined what was achievable in the pool.
Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps have been by far the biggest draws at the past three Summer Games, but now their retirements have created a massive opportunity for the next generation of stars. Someone will take advantage of that glaring void in star power and emerge as the face of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Which athlete is best positioned to capture the public’s fancy next summer the way Bolt and Phelps did in Olympics past? With the Opening Ceremony exactly one year away, here’s a look at some fresh and familiar faces with the best chance, plus some other key storylines to watch.
Who will emerge as the face of Tokyo 2020?
1. Simone Biles
If Biles isn’t already the most recognizable American Olympic hopeful, she’s certainly near the top of the list. The 22-year-old gymnastics phenom fronted several high-profile marketing campaigns before and after the 2016 Rio Games, wrote a best-selling autobiography and appeared on Dancing with the Stars. Biles owes her popularity to her unrivaled dominance and her fun-loving demeanor. She won the individual all-around competition in Rio by nearly two full points and won the most recent world championships by a record margin, yet she continues to push herself to experiment with harder skills and innovative tumbling passes. — Jeff Eisenberg
Until pulling out of the World Championships on Monday with an undisclosed illness, Ledecky had been dominant in the long-distance freestyle swims. It’s not uncommon for no other competitors to even be within striking distance at the end of her races. She won Olympic gold in the 800-meter freestyle at age 15 in London. She captured four more gold medals and a silver four years later in Rio. She is the current world record holder in three different events, the 400-, 800- and 1500-meter freestyle.
There’s a chance Ledecky could vie for medals in four individual events and two relays in Tokyo. If so, that quest should offset her humble, low-key personality and attract the attention of fans and sponsors. — Jeff Eisenberg
At the 2008 Olympics, Michael Phelps claimed eight gold medals, a record that appeared likely to stand for generations at the time. Only three Olympic cycles later, another talented, versatile American swimmer has an outside chance to threaten it.
Dressel earned the high-pressure label of the next Phelps at the 2017 World Championships when he captured gold in seven events, the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, the 100-meter butterfly and four different relays. To match or surpass Phelps’ record, he’d need to repeat that feat in Tokyo and add at least one more event, maybe the 200 IM, the 200 butterfly or the 200 freestyle. Eight gold medals are too much to ask from anyone, but Dressel might be wise to at least try. The marketing opportunity alone could be worth the effort. — Jeff Eisenberg
Whereas Bolt was a presumptive favorite in the 100 at the past three Olympics, track and field’s glamour race should be much more wide open in Tokyo. Coleman could benefit most from that if the young 5-foot-9 American can maintain the form he has displayed the past two-plus years. Coleman ran 9.79 seconds into a slight headwind at the 2018 Diamond League Final, the seventh-fastest time ever recorded in the 100. He followed that up with a world-leading time of 9.81 seconds in June, solidifying himself as the favorite to take gold at the 2019 World Championships next month.
With Justin Gatlin turning 38 before the 2020 Olympics and a Jamaican heir apparent to Bolt yet to emerge, Coleman has an excellent chance to claim the title of world’s fastest man next July and to reap the endorsements that come with that moniker. — Jeff Eisenberg
5. Noah Lyles
Only three men in history have ever run the 200 meters faster than Noah Lyles. One is Bolt, the world record holder at the distance and the greatest sprinter of all time. The second is Michael Johnson, whose world record stood for more than two decades until Bolt smashed it. The third is Yohan Blake, the runner-up to Bolt in the 200 at the London Olympics in 2012.
That’s pretty good company for Lyles, considered to be one of the young phenoms of the U.S. sprint corps along with Christian Coleman and Michael Norman. The way Lyles is running this season, he should be the favorite for gold in the 200. He could also try for a double by running the 100 and take part in the 4x100-meter relay. — Jeff Eisenberg
6. Adam Peaty
When Peaty races, whether he will win is seldom in doubt. The bigger question is usually if he’ll better one of his world records or not. The late-blooming 24-year-old British wunderkind captured his third straight world title in the 100-meter breaststroke on Monday, and is favored to win his third straight world title in the 50-meter breaststroke later this week. He is the record-holder in both events and owns many of the top times ever recorded in both races.
Peaty has been a household name in Great Britain since 2016, when he became the country’s first man to win Olympic swimming gold in 28 years. Should he follow that with a dominant performance in Tokyo, he could become world famous too. — Jeff Eisenberg
7. Rikako Ikee
When Ikee became the first woman to win six gold medals at last year’s Asian Games, it looked like the teenager was destined to emerge as Japanese swimming’s golden girl at the Olympics next summer. Then the 19-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia in February, throwing her life and her Olympic dreams into flux. Ikee did not compete this year, but she insists she has not ruled out the possibility of trying to swim next summer. If she were to win an Olympic medal for the host country — or even just get the chance to swim in front of her home fans — she’d instantly become one of the most heartwarming stories of the event and a sentimental favorite of fans across the world — Jeff Eisenberg
8. Lilly King
The combination of King’s talent and candor has elevated her stature. Not only is she a two-time Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder in the 50- and 100-meter breaststroke, she also has built a reputation as an anti-doping crusader who is not afraid to call out an unscrupulous competitor.
It started in Rio when King wagged her finger at two-time Russian doper Yulia Efimova, defeated her in the Olympic final and then unloaded on her in the post-race presser. More recently, King slammed swimming’s governing body for allowing China’s Sun Yang to compete at this week’s World Championships under dubious circumstances.
King is a favorite to capture multiple gold medals in Tokyo, but it’s outspokenness as much as her breaststroke that makes this 22-year-old Indianan a potential face of the 2020 Games. — Jeff Eisenberg
Who are the other American athletes and teams to watch?
With Team USA projected to win 123 medals – two more than in 2016, and 47 more than any other nation – there will be plenty of American success to anticipate and celebrate. Here are a few particularly compelling teams and individuals.
9. The U.S. women’s soccer team is coming off a world championship. It’s as popular as ever. Its 2019 iteration was arguably the greatest squad the sport has ever seen. So what’s the story here?
Well, to cement their status as the GOAT, and shrug off any suggestions of recency bias, the American women have to do something nobody’s ever done: The World Cup-Olympic double. No world champion has ever remained on top of the sport the following summer. Women’s soccer hadn’t yet been introduced to the Games when the U.S. won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. After the famous ‘99 title, Norway upset the Americans in the 2000 gold medal match. And three years ago in Rio, they flamed out in the quarterfinals – the worst performance at a major tournament in program history.
With its 2019 core likely intact 13 months later, and with France failing to qualify, the U.S. will enter 2020 as the favorite. Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, assuming health and no surprising retirements, will enter as megastars. (Which is why, especially in a team sport, they can’t “emerge” as the face of the Games, and aren’t included above.) But soccer, unlike some other Olympic sports, is highly volatile and unpredictable. — Henry Bushnell
10. Can an American beach volleyball duo rebound from Rio disappointment? Kerri Walsh-Jennings and April Ross settled for bronze in 2016. They’ve since split, but each has a new partner and a shot at a medal in Tokyo. Walsh-Jennings has teamed up with Brooke Sweat. At this time next year, she’ll be 41 years old – the oldest female beach volleyball Olympian ever. But discount a three-time champ at your own peril.
Ross, meanwhile, will be 38. She’ll take her (likely) last shot at gold with 6-foot-5 Alix Klineman alongside her. — Henry Bushnell
11. Allyson Felix is gunning for a fifth Olympic appearance – and, if she gets there, for Carl Lewis’ American track and field record of 10 medals. She already has the female record with nine – six golds and three silvers. At 34, having given birth to her son last fall, she is anything but a guarantee to even qualify for her top events. But all she needs is one to add to her legend. — Henry Bushnell
12. Jordan Burroughs has spent much of his professional life atop wrestling’s 74-kg weight class. He entered 2016 with a 24-1 all-time record at world championships and Olympic Games. Which is why his early elimination and ninth-place finish in Rio were so shocking. They left him in tears. Four years later, he’ll be back for redemption. — Henry Bushnell
13. Tiger Woods, an up-and-coming golfer, hopes to join the U.S. team for the second go-round of golf at the Olympics, and he’s currently in position to do so. Like Serena Williams and Michael Jordan, Woods has absolutely nothing to prove to anyone – he’s won at every level, more than almost anyone else alive – but the idea of playing for his country and winning a new medal has enticed him. “It would be exciting if I got a chance to represent the United States in the Olympic Games,” Woods said before the U.S. Open last month. “I don't know how many more times I get a run at it ... it will certainly be an honor if I were able to represent the United States.” — Jay Busbee
14. The U.S. men’s basketball team should romp to a fourth consecutive gold … if, that is, NBA superstars want to romp to a fourth consecutive gold. And that’s a legitimate question after LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Anthony Davis and a loooong list of others decided they want no part of the upcoming 2019 FIBA World Cup. Of the 20 Americans selected to the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, only four – at most; possibly as few as two – will be in China next month.
Of course, the Olympics wield more prestige and pull. Curry has said he plans to participate. LeBron says Tokyo is a “possibility.” Non-top-tier stars are surely interested. But with “load management” a significant concern throughout the league, and with the size of contracts soaring by the millions every summer, players certainly don’t have financial or long-term incentive to risk their health for Team USA. (And their NBA teams certainly have incentive to dissuade them.) The question is whether the one-of-a-kind Olympic experience and the honor of representing the country outweigh that risk.
All that said, the U.S. men, like the women, are favorites. No matter what. They would be with their World Cup roster this summer. Will be even if two dozen stars pull out. The player pool is stacked. But Canada has its best team ever. Serbia and Spain will be strong. Greece has Giannis, Australia has Ben Simmons and a decent supporting cast, and the globalization of the game continues to make the field deeper. — Henry Bushnell
15. The U.S. men’s soccer team was non-existent in London and Rio. Its failure to qualify portended bigger failures ahead. And it still hasn’t qualified for 2020, either.
But the current crop of U-23 players – and remember, men’s soccer at the Olympics is an under-23-plus-three-older-dudes event – is the most promising the program has come across in some time. The senior national team’s three most talented players, arguably – Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie – are all 20. Two straight U-20 teams have made World Cup quarterfinals. The big question will be whether major European clubs agree to release the likes of Pulisic and Adams. (They aren’t required to.) Even if they don’t, though, this U.S. group could be a legitimate contender for a first American men’s soccer medal since ... 1904! — Henry Bushnell
16. South Africa’s Caster Semenya is the unwilling face of a complex, emotionally charged debate that has flared up often throughout her decorated middle-distance running career. The two-time Olympic 800-meter champ and three-time 800-meter world champ faces constant scrutiny over whether the naturally high levels of testosterone her body produces contributes to her dominance on the track.
In 2018, track and field’s governing body implemented a new rule requiring female athletes to have to sustain a testosterone level of five nanomoles per liter, either naturally or via hormone therapy. In case it weren’t already obvious Semenya was the target, the IAAF rule only applied to women’s 400-, 800- and 1500-meter races.
Semenya appealed the ruling in June and a Swiss federal court intervened, ordering the IAAF to suspend its new policy and offering the South African a temporary reprieve. The injunction has enabled Semenya to compete without undergoing hormone therapy this summer, but it’s unclear if a final resolution will come before the Tokyo Olympics or not. If Semenya runs at the Olympics without hormone treatment, she’ll be the overwhelming favorite in the women’s 800. She has not lost a race at that distance since 2015. — Jeff Eisenberg
17. Will Tokyo be ready? With 365 days remaining until the Opening Ceremony, construction and logistics schedules are far more on track for Tokyo than, say, Rio in 2016. More than 3.22 million tickets were sold in the first distribution earlier this summer, surprising organizers with fans’ speed and enthusiasm. More than 200,000 people have signed up to volunteer.
Still, Tokyo’s learning a lesson every host city beforehand could have told them: the Olympics cost so much more than you’ll possibly expect. A 2018 estimate put the cost of the 2020 Games at more than $24 billion, a fourfold increase from just five years earlier. While venues are moving toward completion, they’re not the only concern: The city could be skin-scorching hot next July and August. As the Guardian noted in a recent story, last year Japan suffered through a monthlong heatwave where temperatures spiked to 106 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest ever recorded in the country. There’s always a wild-card element of unpredictability at every Games, and the heat could be the one for 2020. —Jay Busbee
18. Rise of the Robots: The 1964 Tokyo Games featured the first use of computers in connection with the Olympics, and the first time that stopwatches could measure to hundredths of a second. This time around, we’ll see a similar leap forward in technology, starting with an armada of cute little robots. Miraitowa and Someity will, according to the IOC, “welcome athletes and guests at Games venues and other Games-related locations with human-like movements, such as shaking hands and waving, and with a variety of facial expressions. Cameras mounted on the robots’ foreheads will allow them to recognise when people are nearby and to react to them. Tokyo 2020 and Toyota are additionally discussing a number of ways for the mascot robots to make it easier for children to experience the Games, and to make this experience more enjoyable.” No, that doesn’t sound terrifying at all.
Decide for yourself if you’d be thrilled or horrified to see one of these little sprites walking up to you:
When we’re eventually all watching robots compete in the Olympics, you’ll know where it started. — Jay Busbee
19. New sports: Five new sports will join the Olympic slate this year. Surfing will take place on natural waves about 40 miles from Tokyo. Climbing will feature three disciplines: bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing. Karate will have two variants: kumite (fighting) and kata (style). Skateboarding will offer medals in both Park and Street styles. Baseball and softball … presumably you know what’s involved in those two sports. How long will each stick around? That depends, in part, on their reception during these Games. — Jay Busbee
20. Youth Movement: The IOC recognizes that its longtime fans are getting older, and younger fans might not be quite so interested in classic events like gymnastics, swimming or track and field. As a result, the IOC’s looking to emphasize events aimed at The Youth — not just new events like skateboarding and surfing, but demonstration and potential new sports. South Korea had the first esports demonstration — yes, one day your grandkids could medal in video games — and Paris 2024 will feature a demonstration of breakdancing. And if you think that’s ridiculous, well, you’re not the demographic the IOC’s seeking in the future. — Jay Busbee
We’re just one year out from the Games. Expect to hear about all these stories, and so many more, over the next 365 days.