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10 Unique Storylines To Follow In The Final Stretch Of The Tokyo Olympics

U.S. star sprinter Allyson Felix, shown here in June during U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, is competing this week at the Tokyo Olympics.
U.S. star sprinter Allyson Felix, shown here in June during U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, is competing this week at the Tokyo Olympics.

TOKYO — We're in the home stretch of the most dramatic Olympics in recent memory, held against great odds amid a global pandemic in a country where many Japanese residents didn't want it to happen at all.

The first week has seen athletes that seemed untouchable — such as superstar gymnast Simone Biles and tennis champion Novak Djokovic — show that they are human. Some alternates sitting at home suddenly got on planes to compete on the world's biggest stage when teammates caught the coronavirus. New stars were born, like gymnast Sunisa Lee and shot putter Raven Saunders.

The swimmers are now leaving Japan and the spotlight moves to the track and field events at Olympic Stadium. Other events that have been happening in the background this whole time, like soccer and basketball, are reaching their most pivotal moments. Athletes are also confronting the International Olympic Committee over where they can protest.

We'll walk you through the biggest things to watch for until the closing ceremony.

Track and field takes center stage, and the 400 meter hurdles races will be epic

Track and field rules the second half of the Olympics. We've already crowned the fastest man and woman in the world — the winners of the 100 meter sprints. Marcell Jacobs of Italy was the surprise winner of the men's race, and Jamaica's Elaine Thompson-Herah defended her title in the women's.

Two of the most highly-anticipated events are the men's and women's 400 meter hurdles finals. In the men's, two of the three fastest men in the event ever — Norway's Karsten Warholm and Rai Benjamin of the U.S. — will go head-to-head in the final at 11:20 p.m. ET on Monday.

It's a similar story in the women's race, where the two fastest women to ever compete in the event are expected to face each other. Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad are both from the U.S.

Simone Biles returns to the mat

U.S. star gymnast Simone Biles will return for the final women's artistic gymnastic event of the Tokyo Olympics, after multiple withdrawals to focus on her mental health.

After Biles pulled out, with the support of her team and coaches, the other Team USA gymnasts have stepped up and delivered medal-winning routines. In the team competition, the group took silver. And Sunisa Lee walked away from the individual all-around competition with a gold medal.

Lee and Biles will both compete on beam, which will start just before 5 a.m. on Tuesday ET.

U.S. beach volleyball could medal, including a team that came together at the last minute

Two U.S. beach volleyball teams are still in medal contention on the sand. April Ross and Alix Klineman have advanced to the quarterfinal, where they will play a pair from Germany on Monday evening ET.

U.S. beach volleyball player Alix Klineman reacts during a match against Cuba on Monday in Tokyo.
Petros Giannakouris / AP
U.S. beach volleyball player Alix Klineman reacts during a match against Cuba on Monday in Tokyo.

The success of the other U.S. pair is more of a surprise. Jake Gibb and Tri Bourne have fought their way into the round of 16 after Gibb's original partner, Taylor Crabb, tested positive for the coronavirus upon entry into Japan. The new pair have won two out of their three games so far, and must beat Germany at 11 a.m. ET on Monday to avoid elimination.

Coronavirus outbreaks among athletes appear contained. The question is whether the organizers can keep it up

So far, 24 Olympic athletes have tested positive for the coronavirus. They are whisked away into isolation in a special hotel and must leave Japan when it's safe. A total of 276 Games-related cases have been recorded by Japanese authorities.

Olympic organizers have stressed that they do not believe cases are spreading from the Olympic bubble to the Japanese general population, the majority of which is not fully vaccinated. Still, cases within Japan are surging. More areas near Tokyo are going into a state of emergency, and coronavirus cases in Tokyo have topped 3,000 for five straight days.

Sport climbing has its moment at the Games

Climbing makes its Olympic debut this week and it promises to fascinate and frustrate. Fascinating, in its display of speed and athleticism and strategy. Frustrating, in the climbing community, for its combination of disciplines that climbing purists don't think belong together.

Slovenian climber Janja Garnbret, shown here training in June, is a star to watch at the debut of Olympic sport climbing.
Maja Hitij / Getty Images
Slovenian climber Janja Garnbret, shown here training in June, is a star to watch at the debut of Olympic sport climbing.

Under the umbrella of "sport climbing" there are three disciplines: speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing. The controversy stems from a belief by some that the disciplines, especially speed climbing, require different skills and shouldn't be lumped together.

Controversy aside, here's the lineup: speed climbing is just that — two climbers, side by side, first up a 15-meter wall wins. Don't blink because it takes about 10 seconds or less. Bouldering is on a shorter wall and climbers have to strategize how to scale routes using different hand and foot holds. The goal is to climb as many routes as possible in a set amount of time.It will demonstrate a climber's hand/finger strength and explosive athletic moves. In lead climbing, athletes rope up and try to climb as high as they can on a high wall, in a set period of time.

In both bouldering and lead climbing, athletes aren't allowed to see the wall before their turn and then have just a few minutes to survey the possible routes.

Skateboarding is back with the park competition

Skateboarding has been a hit at these Tokyo Games making its debut as an Olympic sport. If you missed the competitions earlier in the Games, you're in luck because it's one of those sports that spans both weeks. Japan led the way with golds in the men's and women's street skate competitions, including Japan's youngest-ever gold medal winner — 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya.

U.S. skateboarder Zion Wright competes in the Olympic qualifying skateboard event at Lauridsen Skatepark in May in Des Moines, Iowa. He'll go up against the world's top skateboarders in Tokyo this week.
Charlie Neibergall / AP
U.S. skateboarder Zion Wright competes in the Olympic qualifying skateboard event at Lauridsen Skatepark in May in Des Moines, Iowa. He'll go up against the world's top skateboarders in Tokyo this week.

Now it's time for the park skateboarders to shine. Unlike the street competition which was all about tricks and skills using stairs, handrails, benches and walls, the park discipline is all about mid-air tricks, spins and skills performed in a bowl.

More athletes will likely protest on the podium. Will the IOC punish them?

While the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee has made clear they won't punish athletes for protesting on the podium, the International Olympic Committee is playing by different rules. They relaxed Rule 50, which polices the athletes' ability to speak on racism and social justice at the Games. But the rule still threatens sanctions for any statement made on the medal podium.

On Sunday, U.S. shot putter and silver medalist Raven Saunders became the first to defy the ban. Now the question is, will she be punished and will others follow suit? All eyes are on U.S. hammer thrower Gwen Berry. She goes into her final on Tuesday at 7:35 a.m. ET. Last week, she slammed the IOC in a video statement. Among her demands: Rule 50 "has to go." Berry is outspoken on racial injustice even when it's cost her sponsors, led to sanctions and criticism.

U.S. shot putter Raven Saunders poses with her silver medal on Sunday and lifted her arms above her head and formed an X with her wrists. Asked what that meant, she explained, "it's the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet."
Francisco Seco / AP
U.S. shot putter Raven Saunders poses with her silver medal on Sunday and lifted her arms above her head and formed an X with her wrists. Asked what that meant, she explained, "it's the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet."

Allyson Felix could become the most decorated U.S. track athlete

Allyson Felix is perhaps the best-known of the U.S. runners competing in Tokyo. An Olympian since the 2004 Athens Games, Felix has already captured six Olympic golds and three silvers.

If she medals in Tokyo, she would match – or even surpass – Carl Lewis' record 10 medals for a U.S. track and field athlete. She'll be on the track for the 400 meters at 9 p.m. ET on Monday — and she may also be selected for one or more relays.

She's now 35, and gave birth to her daughter Camryn in 2018, a difficult experience that led her to criticize the maternity policies of Nike, her then-sponsor. Nike soon changed its maternity policy for its sponsored athletes.

Felix and her current sponsor, Athleta, recently announced a $200,000 fund to help cover childcare costs for female athletes with children.

U.S. basketball teams head into the quarterfinals

Olympic basketball is about to get serious — not that it wasn't in the early rounds of group play. But now it's the quarterfinals. You win and you move on, you lose and you're out. The U.S. remains the favorite in both the women's and men's tournaments. The U.S. women have the more impressive run of dominance — with a victory over France in their final game of the group stage, the Americans take a 52-game win streak, dating back to 1992, into the quarters. U.S. women have won the last six Olympic competitions and eight of the last nine.

The U.S. men have struggled at times with two pre-Olympic exhibition losses and then a loss to France in their group stage opener in Tokyo. But the star-studded team has hit a stride with two straight wins by a nearly 45 point average margin of victory. In the quarterfinals, the U.S. has a tough matchup against Spain. They're familiar foes in Olympic competition — they played for the gold medal in 2008 and 2012 and in the semifinals at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. The U.S. won all three games, but each one was close. With a roster boasting current and former NBA players, Spain hopes its size and skill can break the string of losses against the Americans.

U.S. women's soccer is still in medal contention

The U.S. Women's National Soccer team lost a heartbreaker to Canada early Monday morning ET, but the squad is still in medal contention.

They'll play for the bronze medal on Thursday morning ET against Australia.

They have already played both of these teams at these Olympics — an opening game loss to Sweden 3-0 and a scoreless draw against Australia.

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