Manawatu Standard

No Bolt, no Phelps, no worries: Five global stars to watch

- Marvin France

With Usain Bolt having hung up his spikes and Michael Phelps no longer competing in the pool, some may accuse these Olympics of lacking the star power of previous years.

Losing the two biggest names associated with the

Games this century tends to do that.

If you plan to be selective with your viewing over the next few weeks, here are five global standouts not to miss.

Naomi Osaka (Japan, tennis)

The Olympics may not exactly be the pinnacle for tennis players but, with a strong chance to win a gold medal on home soil, it doesn’t get much bigger for the fourtime grand slam champion. Adding to the interest surroundin­g Naomi Osaka, the Games will be her first major appearance since taking a break from the sport in May after revealing her battle with depression and anxiety.

Despite Osaka’s recent inactivity, the 23-year-old remains one of Japan’s top medal prospects, particular­ly after the withdrawal of US legend Serena Williams and thirdranke­d Simona Halep.

Simone Biles (USA, gymnastics)

Regardless of what happens in Tokyo, Simone Biles has already cemented herself as one of the greatest gymnasts of all time. With 30 Olympic and world championsh­ip medals combined, no one in the history of the sport has won more on the global stage than the 24-yearold American. And Biles will be attempting to break more records as she bids to become the first woman in 53 years to defend the Olympics all-around title.

That was one of four golds Biles won in just seven days five years ago, along with a bronze in the balance beam. Few, if any, will bet against her setting the record straight in that event in Tokyo.

Kevin Durant (USA, basketball)

What was virtually a guaranteed gold medal for the US every four years may not be so certain in Tokyo after its star-studded men’s basketball team suffered back-toback losses to Nigeria and Australia last week.

Sure, they were only warmup games and Team USA did steady the ship with wins over

Argentina and

Spain. The losses also point to the rest of the world closing the gap on the

Americans, with both

Nigeria and Australia featuring several NBA players on their respective rosters.

However, none are of the calibre of multiple-time All-stars Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum. Beal has since been ruled out of the Olympics but, given the abundance of talent they have at their disposal, the US should still waltz to gold.

While it can’t all fall on Durant’s shoulders, he is the team’s leader.

The two-time NBA Finals MVP has already come off an agonising playoffs exit with the Brooklyn Nets.

He won’t want to be associated with another failure, which for US basketball is anything other than the top of the podium.

Katie Ledecky (USA, swimming)

Like Biles, Katie Ledecky’s status in her chosen sport is already set in stone.

The five-time Olympic champion has the chance to double that impressive tally in Japan, including winning a first gold in her favoured event, the 1500m freestyle, which has finally been added to the women’s Olympic programme.

Ledecky won’t have it all her own way, though, particular­ly in the 200m and 400m free, where Australian Ariarne Titmus has thrown down the gauntlet with some incredible performanc­es.

At the last world championsh­ips in 2019, Titmus chased Ledecky down in the final 50m to win the 400m free. More recently, Titmus was just 0.11 seconds off from breaking the longstandi­ng 200m world record.

It all points to an epic showdown in the latest chapter of the fierce swimming rivalry between the US and Australia.

Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya, marathon)

Eliud Kipchoge has said defending the Olympic title he won in Rio 2016 would be his greatest achievemen­t, which – as the only person in history to run a sub-two hour marathon – is really saying something.

His incredible feat in Austria in 2019 was not run in race conditions, therefore doesn’t count as the world record. But the

Kenyan holds that, too (2:01:39 set in 2018), in a remarkable running career that includes just two losses in marathons since 2013.

History is against Kipchoge. No one has won back-to-back marathon golds in 41 years, while a shock eighth-place finish at last October’s London Marathon left many questionin­g if the 36-year-old was on the slide.

A dominant victory in the Netherland­s in April put those doubts to bed and he clearly remains the man to beat on August 8, the final day of the Games.

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