The Globe previewed the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in a recent Zoom webinar in which Olympics reporter John Powers, columnist Tara Sullivan, and NBA writer Gary Washburn joined sports editor Matt Pepin to break down the many storylines that surround this summer’s unique games.
Here are highlights of the conversation.
How are the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of spectators going to affect athletes?
Washburn: “[For NBA players], I don’t think they’re worried as much about [having no fans] because they went through the entire season getting tested every day. I think the thing that is going to affect the athletes the most is no friends or no family at all. [Celtics player] Jayson [Tatum] has obviously his popular son, who’s three-and-a-half years old now, [and] who is starting to realize what dad does. He will not be able to go to Tokyo, nor will his mother and other people that are close to him. None of the athletes will be able to have family members, so I think, one, that will help them bond more. Two, that’ll probably make them a little more lonely, a little bit more secluded. Will that make them concentrate more on the task at hand? Perhaps.”
Powers: “I think especially for the team events, this is huge. You have to trust your teammates that they’re going to be smart about this, that they won’t be unlucky. Let’s say we come to the medal round and two of us are sick. Our whole team is out of the Olympic Games. It’s all been done for nothing. So I think that’s one reason why there’ll be the daily testing, they’ll all have the masks on, they’ll be sitting six feet away from everybody else in the village. You won’t be able to go touring. It’ll be like being under house arrest. And I think most of the athletes are not used to that. But I think, theoretically, it’s going to help certain athletes more than others . . . The biggest thing here is: the Games will belong to those who can adjust and adapt.”
Who are the big names you’re most eager to see at these Olympics?
Powers: “Seeing how [and] what happens with [gymnast] Simone Biles. I mean most people have retired by that age (24). She had nothing to gain by this, which is why I think people are so entranced, because she says: ‘Because I can. That’s why I do this vault I’m not getting much credit for.’ Is she going to be able to not just lift the team, because the team can win the gold medal, [but] can she bring what she needs to bring here? She’s the best in the world. Now you have to do it. If you watched the US Olympic trials, she had a rough second day. She actually lost on the second day. Will she be able to put that out of her mind? With her, it’s Simone versus Simone. It’s tough being up against yourself — especially the self you were five years ago.
“So that’ll be interesting to watch, and [swimmer] Katie Ledecky coming back for a third Olympic Games. She could sweep every freestyle race: 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m. That obviously hasn’t been done before because it’s the first time for the metric mile. Caeleb Dressel [is] her male counterpart . . . A couple of interesting things: the US women’s soccer team — they were knocked out; they never even got to Rio last time. Very good team, world champions, [but] the World Cup winners have never won the Olympics the next year.”
Washburn: “Women’s boxing, I’m definitely interested in. I’m also interested in particular sports, to be honest: baseball and softball. Baseball’s back after a hiatus and so is softball . . . I’m always a guy who wants to go try out and see what’s up with equestrian or some of the synchronized swimming, maybe. I’m a big handball guy, even though the US is terrible at that sport. I want to see some of the other athletes. I want to see track and field, definitely. With no Usain Bolt this year, who becomes the darling? . . . And also now, NBC has got to be doing backflips because Luka Doncic, the superstar player, got Slovenia into the basketball tournament. So I’m sure they were literally doing cartwheels at the NBC studios, because Luka is now part of the Olympics. Slovenia was not a favorite; Canada was the favorite to get one of those final spots. It was Slovenia, so now we’re going to get ‘Luka Time’ in Tokyo.”
Sullivan: “I would hop on John’s bandwagon because I think for me, there’s almost a Simone Biles Olympics, and not just because of what she individually does or might do, But we even saw today the report that the FBI mishandled so egregiously the reports of the Larry Nassar scandal as it related to the gymnasts being abused. It’s just a reminder of how much these women, the whole team and Biles, and just how much they’ve endured, and how much they continue to rise above, and her impact on the rest of that team and her leadership. So for me the Biles part is just so captivating and I just can’t wait to see how she does.
“Women’s soccer – I’m rooting for a [Kristie] Mewis-to- [Sam] Mewis goal. I think the Mewis sisters [of Hanson, Mass.] and what they have done, sticking with their road through injury, through a talent pool that is so, so deep in women’s soccer as we’ve talked about before. The US, it may struggle to win gold as John correctly pointed out, but it also could probably field two teams that could vie for gold and silver just with the depth of talent . . . I would also bring up a non-American. I think [tennis player] Naomi Osaka, after what has happened with her public admission of mental health challenges, and returning at the Olympics and it being in Japan. I think I’ll be very interested to see how she does and what she can accomplish over there.”
When will some of the highlight moments fall from a scheduling perspective?
Powers: Normally, swimming is the first week, track and field is the second week. So if you like those two . . . gymnastics used to be much more tight, but they became so popular, it’s now much more spread out. But weekends are always when NBC wants to stack the stuff, and anyone that doesn’t think that NBC didn’t sit down with the organizers to write the schedule is crazy. So certainly Saturday, Sunday of the first week [and] Saturday, Sunday of the second week is when they will have most of the premier stuff. If you look at track and field, what they did with the US trials, the hundreds were on the weekends, and it’ll be backloaded in track and field.”
Where is the potential for a major upset loss or dark horse victory?
Washburn: “I don’t think USA men’s basketball losing would be such an upset at this point. They’ve got a lot of work to do . . . The USA women’s team lost to a group of WNBA players [in the WNBA All-Star Game], and there are teams like Australia, which has Liz Cambage, who’s the best center in the WNBA [note: Cambage withdrew after this discussion took place]. There’s going to be teams going after them. The USA women have won six golds in a row, it hasn’t really been close, but it’s new coaching [and] a lot of new players on this team. No Candace Parker, no Elena Della-Donne. So it’s kind of a young group here with a couple of veterans like Sylvia Fowles. But the women’s team is one to watch.”
“I want to see what the baseball team does too — whether they can get gold. As John mentioned, two Red Sox prospects, so I’m going to keep an eye on them after remembering 20 years ago, the late Tommy Lasorda leading Team USA to a gold medal as the manager. I’m going to take a long look at them, too.”
Powers: “I like the Israeli baseball team winning the gold medal [and] beating the Japanese. Matter of fact, they play the Americans right off the bat. I’m sure people by now know that most of those players are Americans — former pros — who have Jewish ancestry, and because of that were able to get Israeli citizenship. Those guys may be the best, most experienced group out there, They have had plenty of time together; don’t forget they had to qualify to be able to get in in the Games. It’s Israel’s first time in. It would not surprise me.”
Sullivan: “The one that would not surprise me is US women’s soccer, because as John pointed out, it’s a very difficult double to do — to go from World Cup to Olympics. So that one wouldn’t shock me. I don’t know, [it’s] the beauty of the games, isn’t it? Throw it up and, you know, you all start out 0-0. So, all the factors — the heat, the condensed schedules, the age of certain rosters — all of that can come into play. But I think the one lock for me will probably be [US] women’s gymnastics, I can’t imagine that women’s gymnastics is not coming home as a team with gold.”
What is different about preparing for these Olympics as a journalist?
Powers: “Generally the preparation has been [about] getting all your [preview] stories in line [and] writing here so you don’t do it over there. I’ve never had a question about getting into the country. And that’s the issue here. As you all know; you’ve all been doing it. The paperwork, the downloads, the medical protocols. I had my second test in a row today for COVID-19 and I was vaccinated months ago. So I don’t know if I get to Tokyo — will I be able to get in, is there going to be some little glitch? That’s the major issue for me, is the dual preparation track — making sure all the paperwork is ready, and making sure that the real reason I’m there is: are the stories ready to go?”
Washburn: “This like preparing for going back maybe a year or so, in the United States in terms of getting all your masks together, your hand sanitizer, all the things that you’re going to prepare because we’re not going to be allowed to go anywhere but the venue, the media center, and our hotels. It can be very restrictive like it was in the United States, maybe a year-plus ago . . . I could probably speak for John — I think we’ll both be relieved when we just actually get there, into our hotel room, and we’re like, OK, then we can start actually covering the games.”
Sullivan: “You like to rely on some freedom of movement because you don’t know who’s going to advance to a gold medal game, or who’s going to maybe be available via training one day, and what story might pop up . . . That freedom of movement this time is just entirely different. It’s just not there as it has been in the past . . . It’s going to be hard to just read and react in a way that, at least, particularly for me as a general columnist, has always done in the past. You want to sort of hop on board with the stories that are hot at the moment, and I think that’s going to be very hard for media members to do this time.”