The Olympic Games are a quadrennial opportunity for thousands of elite athletes to come together not just in pursuit of sporting greatness, but in the name of humanity. At times, the latter has taken the form of iconic political symbolism, such as when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists as the U.S. national anthem played on the podium at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico to protest the mistreatment of African Americans and blue-collar workers. The Olympics are also a venue for broadcasting to the world aspects that define who we are: our global community, uncommon sporting events, genders, cultures and races represented amid white-hot competition on the biggest international stage. Take, for example, how just 33 years ago the first openly LGBTQ athlete competed at the Olympics; in Tokyo this summer, the number of out LGBTQ Olympians is expected to top 100 and include the first known transgender competitors. In today’s Sunday Magazine, we profile several in our curated list of 18 emerging talents to watch for this summer, as the greatest show on earth, amid COVID-19-related protests, heads to Tokyo.
With contributions by OZY reporter Liam Jamieson
Repeating Uncommon Feats
Simone Manuel — Women’s Swimming (USA)
Simone Manuel made history as the first Black woman to win gold in an individual swimming event at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Prevailing in the 100 freestyle competition, however, the gold medal wasn’t hers alone: With an Olympic-record time of 52.70 seconds, she tied Canada’s Penny Oleksiak and the two shared the top spot on the podium. At the same games, she also won a gold medal in the 4×100 medley, as well as silver medals in the 4×100 freestyle relay and the 50 freestyle. Fast-forward to today and, along with Katie Ledecky, 24-year-old Manuel is among the most decorated American swimmers, and she is expected to win several gold medals in Tokyo outright. Even with her success, Manuel shared last year that she has felt excluded in a sport where less than 1% of American athletes are Black. “Sadly,” she said, “there still is racism that exists.”
Cheick Sallah Cissé — Men’s Taekwondo (Ivory Coast)
With one second left on the clock, Ivorian athlete Cheick Sallah Cissé landed a kick worth three points to defeat Britian’s Lutalo Muhammad 8-6 in the 2016 Olympics 80kg taekwondo gold medal contest. Cissé leaped off the mat in unbridled celebration — and for good reason: Not only was it a monumental moment for him personally, it was also the Ivory Coast’s first-ever Olympic gold. Prior to Rio, the West African nation’s only two Olympic medals came first at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles (men’s 400 meters), and the second just hours before Cissé’s victory in 2016. Once again, Cissé, 27, has qualified for the Olympics, looking to double his country’s gold medal count this year.
Jennifer and Jessica Gadirova — Women’s Gymnastics (Great Britain)
Born in Ireland to an Azerbaijani family, Jennifer and Jessica Gadirova are 16-year-old identical twins competing for Great Britain this summer. Both competed at the 2021 European Championships, with Jessica winning silver in vault and the all-around bronze medal. Now the sisters comprise half of Britain’s Olympic women’s gymnastic team in Tokyo. Though rare, this isn’t the first time twin gymnasts have competed at the Olympic Games. American identical twins Paul and Morgan Hamm competed in Sydney in 2000, taking silver in a team event in Athens in 2004, while Lieke and Sanne Wevers competed in Rio for the Netherlands, with Sanne winning gold on the balance beam.
Kirani James — Men’s Track and Field (Grenada)
At the 2012 Games in London, James took gold with a time of 43.94 in the 400-meter event, becoming the first sprinter from outside the United States to break the 44-second mark. This also brought Grenada, a grouping of Caribbean islands of 112,000 people, its first-ever Olympic medal. Four years later, James won his country’s second Olympic award after finishing second in the 400 final. He is expected to compete in Tokyo but has taken a significant amount of time away from sprinting since being diagnosed in 2017 with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder. “The situation is under control right now,” James said this spring. “I have to see doctors and stuff but training consistently is the challenge.” At the ripe age of 28 years old — for a track star, that is — can Grenada’s most decorated Olympian ever add to his medal count one last time?
Laurel Hubbard — Women’s Weightlifting (New Zealand)
The 43-year-old weightlifter hasn’t been named to New Zealand’s team, but once teams are officially submitted, odds are Laurel Hubbard will become one of the first (if not the first) out transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics. Most recently, she won gold in the +87kg event at the Roma 2020 World Cup — just a few years after an elbow injury nearly ended her career. Yet some of her fellow athletes have called Hubbard’s potential inclusion “unfair” and a “bad joke.” Until she turned 23, Hubbard competed as a man but never at the international level. She transitioned at 35 and meets the current International Olympic Committee requirements to compete in the Tokyo Games. “For a long time, it really wasn’t fair because it was based on where you were in your transition, as opposed to where your hormone levels are, which is really what it should be,” Charley Cullen Walters, an LGBT Olympic analyst, told OZY. Assuming Hubbard makes it to Tokyo, she’ll have a strong chance to medal and make more history.
Anzhelika Sidorova — Women’s Pole Vaulting (Authorized Neutral Athletes)
A state-run doping program involving dozens of Olympic athletes has left the Russian Athletics Federation in the midst of a four-year Summer and Winter Games ban. But what about Russian athletes who weren’t part of the scandal? As of March 2020, 10 Russian track athletes will be allowed to compete, but sans their country’s flag or anthem (should they take top spot on the podium). The athletes are instead registered as “authorized neutral athletes (all Russian)” and must meet stringent anti-doping criteria. One such athlete is pole vaulter Anzhelika Sidorova, who won the 2019 World Championship where she also competed as a neutral athlete. Did it matter to her that victory didn’t belong to her home country? “All that is not too comfortable but I was so happy,” she said after her 4.95 meter win.
Noah Lyles — Men’s Track and Field Sprinting (USA)
Imagine the euphoria of crossing the finish line having shattered one of Usain Bolt’s most prestigious records. Only to discover that your triumph was the result of a mistake and your record-breaking sprint meaningless. That’s exactly what happened to Noah Lyles, 23, last summer at the Inspiration Games, when he ran a blazing 18.90 in the 200-meter dash, only to learn race officials started him in the wrong lane, and his sprint was just 185 meters. Still, Lyles is in a strong position heading to Tokyo to accomplish one of Bolt’s most impressive feats: winning gold in the 100, 200 and 4×100 in the same Olympic Games.
Favorites Seeking First Medals
Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes — Women’s Beach Volleyball (Canada)
Failing to reach the podium in Rio in 2016, Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes have become the No. 1 sand volleyball duo in the world and one of two favorites to win gold in Tokyo. The height discrepancy between the two world-renowned athletes is significant. At 6-foot-6, Pavan towers over Humana-Paredes, who stands 5-foot-9. Their biggest rivals are American stalwarts Alix Klineman and April Ross. But the Canadians bested their American rivals at the 2019 Beach Volleyball World Championships, winning two games to zero in the finals. Odds are a match between these North American foes will decide the gold medal winner later this summer.
Tai Tzu Ying — Women’s Badminton (Taipei, Taiwan)
This will be Tai Tzu Ying’s third straight Olympic Games. In December 2016, she became the top-ranked women’s singles player in the world by the Badminton World Federation. She held that title off and on for the 18 months that followed before holding fast to it for more than three solid years, setting the record for weeks ranked No. 1. She’s also a fan favorite due to her aggressive and, at times, erratic playing style. Now the 26-year-old phenom will have a chance to show the world what she’s got in Tokyo — where she and her fellow countrywomen and men must still compete as “Chinese Taipei” and will not hear the Taiwanese anthem if they win gold.
Chen Yiwen — Women’s Diving (China)
In recent Olympics, China has dominated men’s and women’s diving events. At the 2016 Games in Rio, the world’s most populous country won seven of eight diving gold medals. This summer, it’s a safe bet that at least a few Chinese divers will take home gold medals, with 21-year-old Chen Yiwen a near lock to appear on the podium in multiple events. At the 2021 FINA Diving World Cup in May, Chen won gold in the women’s 3m springboard. The silver medal winner? American Sarah Bacon, who finished a whopping 34.80 points behind Chen.
Mario Mola — Men’s Triathlon (Spain)
Spanish triathlete Mario Mola is also flexing a top spot in the world rankings. With a plethora of ITU World Triathlon wins to his name in addition to an eighth-place finish at the Rio Olympics in 2016, the 31-year-old is showing no signs of slowing down, and a target will be on his back as the stacked field of triathletes, including Vincent Luis of France and Kristian Blummenfelt of Norway, battle it out on the Tokyo course.
Selemon Barega — Men’s Distance Running (Ethiopia)
The Ethiopian prodigy shocked the track and field world in 2018 when, at just 18, he ran a record-setting time of 12:43.02 over 5,000 meters to win the Diamond League race in Brussels. Selemon Barega has since kept up the momentum, securing a runner-up finish in the same event at the 2019 World Championships. Currently ranked first in the world with weeks to go until his Olympic debut, the now 21-year-old is facing some fierce competition. With the likes of distance running stars including 5,000-meter world record holder Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda and fellow Ethiopian Muktar Edris, who edged Barega to win the 2019 World Championship, a gold won’t come easy.
Competitors In New Olympic Sports
Tomoa Narasaki — Men’s Sport Climbing (Japan)
As a child, Tomoa Narasaki dreamed of competing in the Olympics as a gymnast. As a 5-foot-7, 128-pound adult, he finds himself flying high in the world of competitive climbing. This summer, the 24-year-old is the favorite to win the debuting men’s sport climbing event, which combines three climbing disciplines into one: lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing. Narasaki is a decorated boulderer with a slew of gold and silver medals from recent World Cups. In preparation for the Olympics, he’s also become a more than adequate speed climber, with a personal best 5.73-second ascent up the predetermined 15-meter route in March.
Hannah Roberts — Women’s Freestyle BMX (USA)
As a dominant athlete in her sport, Hannah Roberts was seen as a budding breakout star in spring 2020 and one of the youngest Olympic gold medal favorites. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed her rise to the world stage, but that didn’t stop the now 19-year-old freestyle rider from making the most of 2020. She bought her first home, adopted several dogs and got married. “For personal growth, it was probably my biggest year,” Roberts told OZY. But with international competitions back on, she’s back on her bike and already traveling the world. As the No. 1 women’s freestyle BMX rider in the world, Roberts is the undisputed favorite to grab gold in Tokyo.
Dušan Domocivć-Bulut — 3X3 Basketball (Serbia)
Known on the court as “Mr. BullutProof,” Dušan Domocivć-Bulut is the world No. 1 men’s 3×3 basketball player. He’s helped lead Serbia to multiple 3×3 World Cup titles and earned several International Basketball Federation MVP awards along the way. With Serbia’s spot at the Olympics locked up since 2019, Bulut attended the Olympic Qualifying Tournament this May and mentored a rising Qatar team, which ultimately fell short of qualifying for Tokyo. In 2019, he was slated to compete in the BIG3, a 3×3 basketball league owned by Ice Cube that consists of former NBA players such as Joe Johnson, Rashard Lewis and the now-retired Allen Iverson, but withdrew due to concerns he would not be allowed to compete in Tokyo. Now, finally on the world stage in Japan, will Bulut shine while leading Serbia, the presumptive favorite, to a gold medal?
Sky Brown — Skateboarding Park (Great Britain)
Had the 2020 Olympic Games not been postponed, Sky Brown might have missed them altogether. In June 2020, she suffered a horrific crash that involved a 15-foot fall off the side of a vert ramp, leaving the 11-year-old with a fractured skull and broken arm. Now healthy, Brown won’t be an “emerging” athlete for much longer. She’s already sponsored by Nike, appearing in ads with past Olympic gold medal winners Simone Biles and Serena Williams. Last year she became the first woman to land a frontside 540, and she has already placed at major international skateboarding competitions, including taking bronze at the 2019 World Skateboarding Championship in Brazil.