Tuesday 20 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney tells you the 12 events that much be watched during the Rio Olympics

Should Taylor prevail in Rio it will count as the greatest triumph of her career. Photo: Billy Stickland.
Should Taylor prevail in Rio it will count as the greatest triumph of her career. Photo: Billy Stickland.

Eamonn Sweeney

Herewith, things to look forward to at the Olympics. But before we begin, perhaps a mention of the stuff worth missing: anything being won by a Russian competitor, because the medal has no value at all

Justin Gatlin's victory over a hobbled Usain Bolt in the 100m because Gatlin, like Donald Trump, is a Russian at heart; the opening ceremony, because even Danny Boyle's one wasn't actually any good; golf, reduced to irrelevance and sure to be marred by commentators telling us 'bet they're wishing they were here now' when they won't be; and shooting, always the most difficult competition to work out what's going on, and anyway isn't there enough shooting going on in the world already?

Now to the good stuff, a deadly dozen of things with the potential to provide more entertainment and good memories than a year of normal sporting telly.

1 What Katie Does Next

It might sound an odd thing to say given all the adulation which has come her way, but at some level four years ago we seemed to underestimate the achievement of Katie Taylor in winning the first proper Irish Olympic gold medal since 1992. It seemed less a competition than a coronation, an event whose inevitable consummation was the crowning of the Bray woman as the great star of women's boxing, the fighter who'd done more than anyone else to bring it into the Games.

This time round it's different. The shock when Taylor lost to her old foe and London silver medallist Yana Alekseevna, now representing Azerbaijan, in the Olympic qualifiers in Turkey back in May was seismic. But it was the World Championship defeat by France's Estelle Mossely, the Irish legend's first at the championships in 11 years, which confirmed that the anticipated Rio procession would not materialise.

Taylor will still be the favourite but both Alekseevna and Mossely, now world champion, will regard her as vulnerable. Should Taylor prevail in Rio it will count as the greatest triumph of her career. I believe she will.

Women's lightweight final, Friday August 19

2 The Likely Lads

As always, the boxers carry our main medal hopes and in the men's competition Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan are both in with an excellent shot at gold.

A surprise bronze medallist in 2008, Barnes was outclassed in the semi-final by the great Zou Shiming of China. Four years ago his progress was graphically illustrated by a desperately unlucky semi-final defeat on countback to the same opponent. There have been two Commonwealth Games gold medals, a European title and an untroubled stroll to qualification in the World Series of Boxing. It has been one of the great Irish amateur careers and it says a lot for Barnes's standing that anything other than a gold would be regarded as a disappointment. His main rival will be Cuba's 19-year-old prodigy Joahnys Argilagos, who made the most of Barnes's absence to win last year's world title.

Flyweight final, Sunday August 21

For Barnes in 2008 read Conlan in 2012. Only 20, the Belfast man took a surprise bronze before taking a serious beating in the semi-final by Cuba's Robeisy Ramirez, who was just 18 at the time. Since then he's gone from strength to strength with world and European titles. And just as Barnes had to face Zou again in 2012, Ramirez is probably Conlan's biggest obstacle this time round. There's also the presence of American boxing's new wonder boy Shakur Stevenson, a 19-year-old already being compared to Floyd Mayweather. This might be the hottest division in the whole boxing competition.

Bantamweight final, Saturday August 20

3 The Big Guns

Joe Ward has the misfortune of finding himself in the same light heavyweight division as maybe the most gifted operator in world amateur boxing, Cuban Julio Cesar la Cruz, who's won the last three world titles and easily defeated Ward in last year's World Championship final. However, the fact that Ward was in that final, making it two world medals to add to two European titles at the age of just 22, underlines what a serious medal contender he is.

Other big dangers include Azerbaijan's Temur Mammadov, a former world and Olympic medallist at heavyweight who's dropped down a division, and the big-hitting Russian Petr Khamukov, a former European middleweight champ coming off an undefeated World Series of Boxing season.

Light heavyweight final, Thursday August 18

Michael O'Reilly might have left it till late to clinch his spot in the middleweight division, but the European Games champion and world bronze medallist is another medal prospect. The big beast here is another Cuban world champion Arlen Lopez, while Uzbekistan's Bektemir Melikuziev, who edged out O'Reilly in last year's world semi-finals, Commonwealth champ Anthony Fowler, cousin of the more famous Robbie, and 2013 European champion Christian Mbili Assomo of France will also be in the mix. The draw will be crucial but O'Reilly shouldn't be written off.

Middleweight final, Saturday August 20

4 Just Because

We all have an Olympic sport for which we've developed an unaccountable liking and with me it's handball. Every four years I sit glued in front of the thing, wondering why I don't watch it more often and vowing to follow it more faithfully before forgetting it yet again. But in Rio I'll be a devotee once more. It is, after all, a game where blanket defence and low scoring are pretty much impossible.

In both competitions you've got countries going for three in a row. In the men's it's France, who are the only side in history to be Olympic, World and European champions at the same time and are regarded as perhaps the greatest team ever. However, Croatia did shock them in the 2013 worlds and will not be without hope.

The women's competition is both more intriguing and more problematic. Norway, who also hold the three big titles, are going for the hat-trick there but one of their main rivals are the Russians. A Russian victory would be almost impossible to stomach but seeing Norway do a Vera Caslavska on them would be compulsory viewing. And then there's the possibility of the home nation Brazil, the 2013 world champions, rising to the occasion. I never remember Top Ace being this entertaining.

Women's final, Saturday August 20.

Men's final, Sunday August 21.

5 Take Two

Last year at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing, the great Genzebe Dibaba tried the almost impossible task of becoming the first ever winner of a 1500m/5,000m double. The pressure of five races in nine days was too much for her and after winning the 1500m she could only manage bronze in a 5,000m won by her surprise package Ethiopian team-mate Almaz Ayana.

This year there's also talk of an Ethiopian double but it's Ayana who's favoured to achieve it as Dibaba will be sticking to the 1,500m, where she'll have her hands full against Kenya's Faith Kipyegon, who's taken advantage of the world champion's absence through injury to go unbeaten in the Diamond League. Their duel should be one of the highlights of the Games, as should the 10,000m, where Ayana's main rival should be Genzebe's sister Tirunesh, bidding to become the first athlete ever to win three Olympic track titles in a row. The older Dibaba is coming off a two-year lay-off due to injuries and childbirth and was 20 seconds behind Ayana in Hengelo last month, but she is the greatest female distance runner of all-time. Don't rule out an 'Ali in Kinshasa' moment.

10,000m final, Friday August 12

1500m final, Tuesday August 16

6 White Sprinters Matter

Well, not normally. Which is why Dafne Schippers has cut such an anomalous figure over 100m and 200m over the past couple of years. The Flying Dutchwoman shocked the Jamaicans and Americans last year when winning the world 200m title in a championship record time and looks unstoppable at that distance this year. But the real intrigue is in the 100m. Schippers took silver in that event in Beijing and was just five hundredths of a second behind Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who in Rio will be bidding to become the first ever woman to win a hat-trick of Olympic sprint titles.

But earlier this month at the Jamaican Olympic Trials, Elaine Thompson didn't just beat Fraser-Pryce, she ran 10.70, the fourth fastest 100m time ever. And in winning the US Olympic trials, English Gardner ran just four hundredths of a second slower than that. Schippers' easy European title win showed her acumen as a championship runner while Gardener's US team-mate Tori Bowie, last year's world bronze medallist, can't be discounted either. It could be the greatest women's sprint race of all-time.

100m final, Saturday August 13

7 The Greatest of Them All

When Michael Phelps made it a record 18 Olympic gold medals at the last Games, there was a sense that we were witnessing a last hurrah. Retirement soon followed. After two years Phelps came back, only to find himself derailed when a drink driving conviction earned him a suspension by USA Swimming which saw him unable to compete at last year's World Championships. Yet at the recent US Trials, Phelps won the 100m and 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley events to qualify for a fifth Games. So what are the chances of more individual golds to add to the big man's current total of 11? Pretty good actually. The 100m butterfly event seems to be a two-horse race between Phelps and reigning world champion Chad LeClos of South Africa. They will renew their struggle in the 200m, where LeClos shocked Phelps in London and his excitable father became a momentary media sensation, but both may have to yield to Hungarian world champion Laszlo Cseh.

His biggest rival in the medley should be Ryan Lochte, who's spent most of his long and illustrious career being overshadowed by Phelps and is back for one more shot in the event where he holds the world record. These will be some tremendous races.

200m butterfly final, Tuesday August 9

200m individual medley, Thursday August 11

100m butterfly final, Friday August 12

8 The New Nadia?

Gabby Douglas's achievement in becoming the first African-American woman to win the overall gymnastics title might have made her one of the stars of London but it now looks as though she was merely filling a kind of Joan The Baptist role for Simone Biles. Because as she goes into these Games, Biles is already regarded as perhaps the greatest female gymnast of them all. The 19-year-old Texan is the first woman to win three world titles in a row, and the 10 gold medals she has amassed in those three championships is also a record. Should she perform to her best in Rio, the name of Simone Biles will be on the world's lips.

The youngster, who was adopted by her grandparents and brought to Texas after a difficult early childhood in Ohio, is expected to win the floor exercise and balance beam titles in addition to the all-round and to help the US to a team medal. She won't be far away in the vault either.

Nothing is certain in sport but if Simone Biles does not prove to be the most dominant gymnastics performer at a games since Nadia Comaneci it will be one of the shocks of the Olympics. Make sure to catch her in action.

Women's all-round final, Thursday August 11

9 O'Donovan Rossa

The Irish lightweight double sculls pairing of Gary and Paul O'Donovan just about qualified their boat for the Olympics. But since then they've gone from strength to strength, winning the European title and finishing second in the World Cup Series. Make no mistake, the boys from Skibbereen can give this a real shot.

France's reigning world and European champions Stany Delayre and Jeremie Azou look unbeatable for gold while Norway's Kristoffer Brun and Are Strandli, the hugely experienced 2013 world title winners, appear to be a pretty solid bet for silver. However, while South Africa are the front-runners for bronze, that doesn't seem quite as certain. Ireland, Britain and Italy will all have hopes of sneaking the third spot, and as always making the final in itself will be a pretty gruelling process. It remains our best chance of a medal since Sean Drea's agonising fourth place in 1976. They have a very good reason indeed for leaving Old Skibbereen.

Lightweight double sculls final, Friday August 12

10 Davy's On The Road Again

There have been few more compelling performances in the history of Olympic athletics than David Rudisha's gun-to-tape 800m world record run in London. It was the sort of thing supposed to be reserved for Grand Prix meetings rather than major championships. Instead Rudisha just acted as his own pacemaker, apparently wanting to see just how fast he could go for the hell of it. Four years on Rudisha is not quite the irresistible force he was back then. But his defence of his title still seems like the highlight of the men's track programme, the introduction of a competitive element being one reason and the sheer attractiveness of Rudisha in full flow being another.

Rudisha is not without serious rivals - for one thing his heir seems to be coming up fast behind him. World youth champion in 2013 and world junior champion in 2014, Alfred Kipketer beat Rudisha at this year's Kenyan Olympic Trials. Another young Kenyan, Ferguson Rotich, beat Rudisha in the Shanghai Diamond League meeting, while there's a genuine European contender in Poland's Adam Kszczot, second behind Rudisha in last year's worlds and exceptionally dangerous in a tactically run race. Also into the mix goes Botswana's Nijel Amos, second at the last Olympics while still a junior and the conqueror of Rudisha at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. It'll be a lot closer this time and maybe just as compelling.

Men's 800m final, Monday August 15

11 What Katie Did In The Pool

The enormously competitive nature of world-class swimming is graphically illustrated by the fortunes of Missy Franklin. Four years ago Franklin, then just 17, was the darling of the Games, winning four gold medals. A year later she became the first woman to win six golds at a World Championships, setting a world record in the 200m backstroke. But at this year's Olympic Trials she struggled and only qualified in two events, coming second in both.

This time round all the talk is about Katie Ledecky. Just 19, the American has been World Swimmer of the Year for the past three seasons and at last year's worlds became the first woman to win the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle events at the same championships. In Rio she's trying to become just the second woman in history to win the 200m, 400m and 800m at the same Olympics (there is no 1500m for women at the Games). Short course world record holder Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden has a slim chance against Ledecky in the shortest of the three races; in the other two the girl from Washington is the hottest favourite there is in any event at the Games. She'll be the Phelps of this Olympics' swimming competition.

400m freestyle final, Sunday August 7

200m freestyle final, Tuesday August 9

800m freestyle final, Friday August 12

12 On Your Bike

Mark Cavendish is probably the best sprinter in the history of road cycling. The Manxman has 30 Tour de France stage wins and a world road race title to attest to that. Yet his Olympic experiences have been little short of disastrous, with ignominious failure on the track in 2008 and on the road in 2012 at a time when British cycling was enjoying its greatest Games ever. This time round Cavendish tries to remove this blot on his escutcheon by winning the omnium, the six-event race which is viewed as the ultimate test of a track cyclist.

There's one big problem. He's a 21-year-old Colombian called Fernando Gaviria who's won the last two omnium world championships. And to add a bit of spice to things he first came to the public eye when outsprinting Cavendish in two stage finishes in Argentina's Tour de Saint Luis. At this year's world championships in the event Cavendish finished back in sixth. Yet he is typically bullish about his chances in Rio, though he doesn't just have Gaviria to compete with. At this year's worlds the young Colombian finished level on points with Germany's Roger Kluge and former world champ Glenn O'Shea of Australia and only took the gold on countback. This will go right down to the wire.

Omnium, Sunday August 14/Monday August 15.


And I haven't even mentioned the men's 400m or the white water canoeing or the Irish men's hockey team or the chances of a Brazilian double in the volleyball or Caster Semenya against Allyson Felix or the water polo or . . .

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport