By Ashlee Buhler

And suddenly, there are two days to go.

After a tumultuous year filled with doubt, uncertainty, dreams made and dashed, and the first-ever Olympic postponement in modern day Olympic history, the Tokyo Games are finally here! Podium training for the men took place today and the women go tomorrow. It’s real and it’s happening.

For many athletes, Tokyo will be their very first Olympics. They will be living out the moments they dreamed about since they first stepped foot in their hometown gym or watched their idols on TV. For others, Tokyo may be their second, third—or, maybe even eighth Olympic Games! Their passion for the sport is what fuels their fire to represent their country on sports’ biggest stage time and time again. Every hard day in the gym and every sacrifice made has been for this very moment. The world may have waited an extra year, but for many of the athletes, they have waited their entire lives for the opportunity to shine in Tokyo. So, let the Games begin!

Here, we take a look at ten of the top storylines to follow in Tokyo!

1. Re-Writing The Books!

Making history is what Simone Biles does best and in Tokyo she will have a shining stage of opportunities. With a medal in the team final, All-Around final, and just one of the four events, Biles will overtake Shannon Miller for the U.S.’s most decorated Olympic gymnast. (Shannon has seven Olympic medals to Biles’ five). Furthermore, if she wins the All-Around title, Biles will become the first female gymnast to defend her title since Vera Caslavska won in 1964 and again in 1968. In Tokyo, Biles will also look to get the Yurchenko double pike named after her. If she can land it successfully, which we saw her do easily at the GK U.S. Classic, and it will become Biles’ fifth eponymous skill—and the most for an American gymnast.

2. One Last Time for King Kohei

Hampered with injuries throughout the entire Olympic cycle, the reigning back-to-back Olympic All-Around Champion Kohei Uchimura will be in Tokyo. However, for the first time in his career, he will not be competing in the team event. In what will be his fourth and final Games, Uchimura has shifted his focus to high bar—an event he has yet to win an Olympic medal in. Uchimura, who is widely regarded as the greatest male gymnast of all time with eight World and Olympic All-Around titles from 2009 to 2016, returned to competition at the All-Japan Championships and posted a 15.766 on the event. That kind of score would certainly bode well for his medal prospects in Tokyo and be a fitting coronation to his legendary career.

3. Oksana’s Swan Song

With a career that has spanned over a quarter century, Oksana Chusovitina is finally ready to bid farewell to the sport in Tokyo. At the age of 46, Chusovitina will be competing in her eighth consecutive Olympics—a historic achievement in a sport where few gymnasts compete in more than two or three Olympics. Chusovitina’s presence in Tokyo will be historic enough, however, she will also be vying for a spot in the vault event final. And although it will not be an easy feat, adding one more Olympic medal to her decades-long collection would be the perfect ending to her storied career. 

4. Bridging the Gap

The U.S. is the favorite to win the team gold in Tokyo but keep your eyes on the Chinese and the Russians. Both teams have been looking mighty strong and if all goes as planned, could keep the gap from gold to bronze closer than expected. Russia finished second to the U.S. at the 2019 World Championships and has a lot of talented new faces on their team that could add some valuable tenths such as 2021 European Champion Viktoria Listunova, as well as the silver medalist on bars from the 2021 European Championships, Vladislava Urazova. The Chinese missed the podium at Worlds in 2019, so expect them to be hungry for redemption. They have a solid group of athletes who can bring in big scores like 2019 Junior Worlds All-Around bronze medalist Ou Yushan (keep your eyes on that potential 7.0 D-score beam routine for the finals) and 2021 Chinese National All-Around and Floor Champion Lu Yefei. If any team is expected to be better and stronger than we last saw them, it just may be China!

5. All-Around Medal Race

Simone Biles is expected to run away with the All-Around gold but there will be a fierce race for silver and bronze in Tokyo. Of course, the second American to qualify to the All-Around final will be in the mix, along with several international stars. Viktoria Listunova, who was not originally eligible for Tokyo due to the age limit, has been thrust into the spotlight and just may be Russia’s top scoring athlete at the Games. So far in 2021, she is undefeated in the All-Around and won the Russian Cup with a score of 57.965—one of the top All-Around scores of the quad. Her teammate Angelina Melnikova, who won gold at the 2019 European Games and was a bronze medalist in the All-Around at Worlds in Stuttgart, is also very much in contention for the All-Around podium. Other favorites include 2017 World All-Around silver medalist Ellie Black (CAN), 2019 All-Around European Champion Melanie de Jesus dos Santos (FRA), 4-time Japanese National Champion and 2018 World All-Around silver medalist Mai Murakami, and 2021 Chinese National Champion Lu Yufei. So many possibilities. Only two medal spots. Who will it be?

6. Murakami’s Time To Shine

Mai Murakami is arguably one of the best female gymnasts Japan has ever had. With three World Championship medals, including gold on floor in 2017, it was a big shock when Murakami was left off the 2019 Japanese Worlds Team. With an All-Around program and floor routine that are among the best in the nation, Murakami is Japan’s best hope for an Olympic medal. No Japanese female gymnast has ever won an Olympic medal, so Murakami could be the first. And to do it in front of a home crowd would simply be icing on the cake.

7. Returning Champs Look To Defend

Every champion wants to defend their title and in Tokyo a handful of Olympic Champions from the 2016 Rio Olympics will look to defend their individual titles! Simone Biles will have the most work to do with the All-Around, vault, and floor gold medals to her name. With her enormous difficulty level across the board, coupled with her consistency rate and pure determination, defending those titles should not be too big of a task for The GOAT. Sanne Wevers holds the title on beam and will be in the conversation to defend with the 5.8 D-score routine she competed at the Dutch Olympic Trials. However, there will be competitors with higher start values (such as Biles with a 6.5 D-score), so Wevers must strive for perfection. On the men’s side, Kohei Uchimura is not expected to do All-Around, making room for a new champion to reign supreme. Meanwhile, Max Whitlock, the floor and pommel horse champion, will look to defend his pommel horse title (he no longer competes floor). However, if he shows up with the 7.0 D-score routine he had at the 2019 World Championships, he will be tough to beat! Last but not least is Eleftherios Petrounias, Olympic Champion on rings. Since Rio he has won two World titles on the event so he definitely comes to Tokyo as a heavy favorite. 

8. Will Russia Rule?

After winning the first-ever World Championships team gold medal for Russia in 2019, the Russian men will look to get on the medal podium—and make it gold—in Tokyo. The Russian men’s team has not won an Olympic gold medal since 1996 but have a great shot at making it happen in 2021. The team will be led by two of the best gymnasts in the nation: reigning World All-Around Champion Nikita Nagornyy and 2018 World All-Around Champion Artur Dalaloyan who has made a remarkable comeback from injury in a very short time to make the team. If they hit consistently and stay injury-free, Russian dominance on the men’s side could very well be one of the top stories of the Games.

9. Battle of the Bars

It’s the battle gymnastics fans around the world have been talking about for quite some time: Belgium’s Nina Derwael vs. the United States’ Sunisa Lee. The two last faced off at Worlds in 2019 where Derwael took home the gold and Lee the bronze. However, both gymnasts have since upped their difficulty level, which will make the race for gold in Tokyo tighter than ever. At the Osijek World Challenge Cup earlier this year, Derwael debuted a Nabieva 1/2, which helped bring her D-score from a 6.5 to 6.7. Lee has a 6.4 D-score, but when she hits all the connections she is capable of, she can have a 6.8 D-score (which she did for the first time in competition at the 2021 U.S. Championships on Day 1). The uneven bar final might just become a game of tenths and one of the closest battles of the competition!

10. Far Less Fandom

The Tokyo Olympics will be like no Olympics we have seen before and unfortunately, this has nothing to do with the incredible gymnastics we are anticipating. Organizers for the Tokyo Games announced in March that international fans will be barred from attending the event due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For the athletes, this means no friends and family in the crowd as they fulfill the dream they have worked for their entire lives. As Japan grappled with a surge in cases, resulting in a state of emergency just 10 weeks before the start of the Games, the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee swayed back and forth regarding the decision to even allow local fans. A decision was made mid-June to allow the venues to be filled to 50% capacity, with a cap at 10,000 fans. However, cases continued to surge, and Tokyo entered a state of emergency on July 12, ending all chance of spectators in Tokyo. How will this impact the electric atmosphere we have come to expect for an Olympic Games? Only time can tell. Whatever happens, we’re ready for the Games to begin!

 

For full team rosters, click here!

For the schedule, click here!

Photos by Ricardo Bufolin and Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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