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Tokyo Olympics: Eight sports where the pandemic postponement affected the US the most

Erriyon Knighton, who is just 17, is the most exciting US sprinter in years and can medal in the 200 meters.
Erriyon Knighton, who is just 17, is the most exciting US sprinter in years and can medal in the 200 meters.Patrick Smith/Getty

TOKYO — Postponing the Olympics for a year hasn’t hurt the United States’ medal chances. The Americans were favored to top the table last summer as they have since 1996, and they’ll still be favored when the Games formally begin on Friday.

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If anything, the star-spangled medal machines of track and field, swimming, and gymnastics, which collected a combined 77 (and 33 golds) in 2016, have become even more productive with the arrival of new faces that probably wouldn’t have been podium-ready in 2020. Nearly a dozen swimmers are teenagers, notably Katie Grimes, a 15-year-old distance phenom.

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JuVaughn Harrison, Athing Mu, Erriyon Knighton, Torri Huske, Emma Weyant, Brody Malone, and Jordan Chiles all will be in the medal hunt in Tokyo. Equally as significant is that stars such as gymnast Simone Biles, swimmer Katie Ledecky, and shot putter Ryan Crouse, who might have moved on after last year’s Games were deferred, have stuck around and may be even better now.

The boxers made it here without having to go through regional qualifying. The baseball team collected its ticket after all. In several men’s sports, though, the extra time didn’t prove a boon. The US still didn’t qualify in soccer. The rowing squad will have only two entries, the fewest ever. And the tennis team is sending the second string.

A look at the sports where the postponement made a marked difference, for better and worse:

Basketball

Devin Booker came straight to Japan following the NBA Finals.
Devin Booker came straight to Japan following the NBA Finals.Mark J. Rebilas/Associated Press

The US men’s team undoubtedly will be better than the patchwork bunch that finished seventh in the World Cup two years ago. But it won’t be as deep or nearly as fresh as it would have been last summer. The previous NBA season ended in October, this one started in December and finished just before the Games. So stars such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George, all of whom were in the candidate pool, were unavailable for various reasons. And Milwaukee guard Jrue Holiday and forward Khris Middleton, and Phoenix guard Devin Booker came to Tokyo straight from the Finals. The Americans still will be favored for a fourth straight gold, but the task will be harder than usual. The women’s WNBA schedule also was rearranged and they’ll be breaking in midseason. But its exhibition stumbles aside, nobody figures to stop the US from a record seventh consecutive Olympic crown.

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Boxing

When the Games were postponed the Americans still were waiting to earn their way in. When the hemispheric tournament was scrubbed in the spring the entries were determined instead by global rankings. That gave the US a bonanza of three extra men — featherweight Duke Ragan, lightweight Keyshawn Davis, and middleweight Troy Isley — all professionals and former world amateur medalists, plus an extra woman in featherweight Yarisel Ramirez. Along with flyweight Ginny Fuchs, Lynn, Mass., lightweight Rashida Ellis, and middleweight Naomi Graham on the women’s side there’s now a chance for half a dozen medals.

Gymnastics

Jordan Chiles figures to provide a boost for the United States.
Jordan Chiles figures to provide a boost for the United States.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

The US women, who won the last world championships by nearly six points, didn’t need much help. But they’ll get a significant boost from Chiles, who’ll be a terrific table-setter for clubmate Biles, and for Sunisa Lee in the team event. The men, who were fourth at the last global meet, will be a step closer to the elusive podium with the presence of Malone, the new US champ from Stanford who might not have made the squad last year.

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Rowing

The medal possibilities haven’t changed. Sculler Kara Kohler and the eight should make the women’s podium and the double, pair, and four will be in the mix, as should the men’s four and eight. But the US males, who came up empty at the last-chance qualifying regatta in Switzerland in May, have no other possibilities. So there’ll be no men’s scullers at Olympus for the first time since 1912 and no pair since 1924.

Soccer

Becky Sauerbrunn and Team USA face an uphill battle after their loss to Sweden.
Becky Sauerbrunn and Team USA face an uphill battle after their loss to Sweden.Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press

The men, who had an additional year to prepare for qualifying, missed out for the fourth time in five quadrennia, losing to Honduras in March. The women, who came here as world champions with a 44-match unbeaten streak, now risk missing the medal round at consecutive Games after their alarming 3-0 opening loss to Sweden. “We got ourselves into this mess,” said captain Becky Sauerbrunn, whose teammates have a must-win date with New Zealand on Saturday. “And now it’s our responsibility to get ourselves out of it.” If the Americans do manage to win the gold medal they’ll be the first reigning World Cup titlists to manage it.

Swimming

It’s not as if the Americans, who won 33 medals (and 16 golds) in Rio needed much rookie assistance to leave the world in their backwash again. But they’ll get it from Huske and Weyant, who’ll be favored in the women’s 100 butterfly and 400 individual medley, and from Rhyan White, who should make the podium in the 200 backstroke. That’s in addition to gold-medalist holdovers Ledecky, who’ll be favored to win four individual events this time, breaststroke queen Lilly King, and Ryan Murphy, who should make the men’s podium in both backstrokes.

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Track and field

Teenager Erriyon Knighton, center, brings electric speed to Tokyo.
Teenager Erriyon Knighton, center, brings electric speed to Tokyo.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

The Yanks owned the podium in Rio with 32 medals (13 gold), as many as the next three countries combined, and did it again at the 2019 world championships. They’ll get an additional boost this time from a trio of new stars. Harrison, an LSU senior, should make the award stand in both the long jump and high jump, the 18-year-old Mu will be favored in the women’s 800, and the 17-year-old Knighton, the most exciting US sprinter in years, can medal in the men’s 200.

Tennis

If the Americans had a legitimate shot at a medal it likely vanished when Serena Williams, who won the 2012 singles title plus three doubles golds with sister Venus, opted out. The men, who haven’t made the podium since Mardy Fish in 2004, would have been a long shot, but it didn’t help that five of the top six ranked guys said nix.