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The American athletes to watch during the Tokyo Olympics

The opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games are just four days away. But the specter of COVID hangs over the games as more than 50 people involved, including athletes, contractors and staff, test positive. Olympics officials say they still hope to put on compelling games despite it all. With that in mind, Judy Woodruff previews some of the Americans to watch with Christine Brennan of USA Today.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics are just four days away, and competitions in soccer and softball actually begin tomorrow night.

    But the Specter of COVID hangs over these Games. More than 50 people in Tokyo connected with the Games have tested positive. That includes contractors and staff. It also includes some athletes, among them, an alternate on the U.S. gymnastics team who tested positive while training outside Tokyo.

    Olympics officials say they hope to put on a compelling series of Games, despite it all.

    With that in mind, we have a preview of some of the Americans to watch.

    I spoke with Christine Brennan of USA Today shortly before she left for Tokyo for her 19th Olympics Games.

    Christine Brennan, good to have you with us again.

    Let's start, Christine, with an athlete who brings probably the highest hopes around her, and that would be Simone Biles, the gymnast already won so many gold medals.

    Tell us, what are the expectations for her this time?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Judy, I don't think I have ever seen an athlete more discussed, hyped on more covers, on the tip of everyone's tongue, social media, than someone Simone Biles that into an Olympic Games.

    I mean, we have had great, great stars going into the Olympics before from the United States and from around the world. Nothing like this. And that's well-deserved, absolutely well-deserved, the greatest gymnast ever coming back for another Olympic Games, trying to recreate what she did in Rio five years ago, which was four gold medals and one bronze, and maybe even went all five gold medals.

    She is the strong favorite to win the all-around competition, to lead the U.S. to the team competition, and then to win a couple of gold medals on various apparatuses in those competitions.

    She's a survivor of the worst sexual abuse scandal in the history of sports, a survivor of Larry Nassar, the absolutely tragic and horrible sexual assault and sexual abuse of hundreds and hundreds of young gymnasts by the former USA Gymnastics team doctor.

    The Simone Biles is the one who was calling out the organization, the national governing body, time and again saying — being that voice for the survivors.

    She's also the greatest in her sport ever. Truly remarkable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Truly remarkable.

    A lot of anticipation, Christine, also around swimming. Tell us who to look for there.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Katie Ledecky is the other huge name to watch going into these Olympic Games

    Katie Ledecky was the star of the Rio Olympics, and is coming back, trying to defend those titles, freestyle 200, 400, 800, and the 1, 500, first time ever that women will be able to swim the mile, the 1, 500, at an Olympics. It's well past overdue, Judy. Men started swimming it in 1904,, only 117 years later. It is ridiculous it took that long for the International Olympic Committee to add women's — the women's mile in swimming.

    But Katie Ledecky is favored to win that. She's favored to win the 800. It's going to be a little tough for her in the 200 and maybe the 400, her signature events as well, because Australia has got a couple of very strong competitors.

    And then, on the men's side, Caeleb Dressel. He's not Michael Phelps. He's not going to win seven or eight Olympic gold medals, but he will probably win — I think he's favored to win three individual golds. And he will be on several relays. And Dressel also is a name to watch for the Americans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such high interest in swimming.

    And then there's track and field. And, Christine, there's probably more being said now about who isn't it going to be running. And, of course, that's Sha'Carri Richardson, who was taken off the U.S. team.

    But it does appear to be, what, starting a conversation that wasn't had before about the role of marijuana in these Games.

  • Christine Brennan:

    That's right, Judy. And it's an important conversation to have.

    Richardson of course, was destined for greatness, was going to be the gold medal favorite in the women's 100-meter dash, the marquee event of track and field, and would also have been on the relay team for the U.S.. And because she said she ingested marijuana not long after finding out that her biological mother had died — she went into an emotional tailspin, and that's how she reacted.

    Because she tested positive for marijuana, which is a banned substance — even though a lot of us think that's ridiculous, the world anti-doping code says it is. And she knew it. And to her great credit, despite the controversy and despite the questions about whether it should or should not be banned, she accepted it. She didn't try to lie or get out of it.

    She — with dignity, with grace, with class, Sha'Carri Richardson, think, really, well, is holding herself in good stead, Judy, for the future. But perhaps this will lead that conversation and move the World Anti-Doping Agency to take marijuana off its banned list, as this is obviously that kind of high-profile case that would lead to that conversation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sha'Carri Richardson will be missed.

    And then, Christine, the other part of the women running story is how many mothers there are who are going to be running this year.

  • Christine Brennan:

    That's right.

    And this is, Judy, just — as is the fact that 54 percent of the U.S. Olympic team is women, for the third straight time, more women than men on the U.S. Olympic team. This is all about Title IX. This is about the law signed by Richard Nixon in June of 1972, almost 50 years ago now, that opened the floodgates for women and girls to play sports.

    And so someone like Allyson Felix, the great star in her fifth now Olympic Games, track and field star for the U.S., as a mom, she has been leading the way in this conversation about pay from Nike for — if you're pregnant, you should still get your money and your contract, and also for grants for women athletes who are also mothers.

    Then you throw in the pandemic. And what happened was, over the last few months, thankfully, the Japanese Olympic organizers have relented, but they weren't going to allow women who were breast-feeding to bring their babies with them, so competitors, athletes, and wouldn't let them actually have their babies.

    Thankfully, they changed their mind. The kids can come. The moms can do what they're doing on the field, and they can be moms off the field.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A reminder of how many of these women's teams are being so closely watched.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Oh, that's right.

    I mean, we tend to talk about basketball, we think about the men, right, the dream team and all of that. Well, we really — the dream team is women's basketball. And going back, the U.S. women's Olympic basketball team has not lost, Judy, since 1992, Barcelona 1992.

    This is the most dominant team in the history of sports. They just simply do not lose. And the odds are that they will win again. They have got some great stars. Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, longtime Olympians, are back. This is a professional team, mostly WNBA stars, and they will be favored to win the gold medal again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we also will see some history made, in that there will be for the first time some openly transgender athletes competing.

  • Christine Brennan:

    This is something that its time has come.

    And it's a conversation that I think many people are having, whether it be at the high school level, college, pro, and also at the Olympics. And back in 2015, Judy, the International Olympic Committee mandated that transgender athletes could compete, transgender women in particular could compete, as long as they met the testosterone levels in the body, and that they would have to be lowered than what they would be for men.

    So, in the case of the New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, she has been taking testosterone suppressants or whatever she has done to be able to be in the competition. And, as a man, she competed in weight lifting, and will be competing as a woman.

    Obviously, transgender rights are such an important topic. This is the obvious fruition of that, that the greatest competition on Earth, the Olympic Games, would allow a transgender athlete to compete.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, there's always so much excitement around these Olympic Games.

    We are so glad to be able to look ahead with you, Christine Brennan, at Games that are going to be historic one way or another, taking place in the middle of this pandemic.

    Christine Brennan, thank you so much.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Judy, my pleasure. Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we look forward to hearing from her during the Games, when they get under way in the next few days.

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