Our Guide to Where the Olympic Spotlights Will Shine at the five-ring Circus in Rio de Janeiro
RIO DE JANEIRO — For some of the right reasons and maybe too many of the wrong ones, the world-famous Copacabana Beach is the picture perfect postcard for the Summer Olympics.
On the surface, the famous strip of Brazilian sand and sea is blinding in its beauty. The endless stretch of beach is framed by deceiving, true blue water and an endless parade of bodies of all shapes and sizes.
But like the Games, which officially launch Friday when the flame is lit at Rio’s beloved Maracana Stadium, it may not be as idyllic as the first glimpse.
The water, we know, is polluted and in some areas harbouring floating excrement. The beach may mostly be safe by day, but crime is a threatening shadow at night that hangs over visitors and locals alike.
For the competition itself, there exists another perplexing mirage. These Olympics could be a breakthrough for South America and the competitions are expected to provide a rousing Olympic adieu to American swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, but they are clouded by the Russian doping scandal and fears that all will not come off as smoothly as organizers promise.
How many medals will be tainted by the institutional doping exposed at the Sochi Games just two years ago? Will the stadiums be safe? Will transportation allow fans and athletes alike to get to venues on time? And, as always, will the threat of terror attack be more real in this most complicated nation?
So welcome to Rio, where the best summer athletes in the world gather in what is the Brazilian winter, hoping that for 16 days higher, faster, stronger trumps the lurking threats.
Here’s a quick look at what to expect over the next two-plus weeks from 42 sports, more than 10,000 athletes and the 206 countries they represent:
Phelps and Bolt will be the show-stopping faces of these Games, even if they are not as overwhelmingly favoured to win as they were in the past. Both men have achieved rock star status that transcend their sports and both have opportunities to set Olympic records that may never be touched.
In the pool, Phelps will compete in as many as six events, looking to add to his record 22 Olympic medals, 18 of those gold. The 31-year-old U.S. flag bearer will compete in his fifth Games and promises to retire from a sport he led to new heights in popularity.
Bolt, meanwhile, will look to make it a triple-triple gold-medal experience. The Jamaican star won gold in the 100 and 200 metres the past two Olympics, as well as the 4×100 metre relay, and plans to contest all three again. The sublimely talented showman, who has been hampered by a hamstring injury leading up to the Games, would be the first Olympian to pull off that triple-triple feat.
And then there’s a special treat for locals. While the men’s soccer competition is an under-23 event, teams are allowed to add three overage players and the host Brazilians have opted to include the beloved Neymar, a huge fan favourite here.
News you can use: Forbes magazine reports 14 athletes who will compete in these Games earned more than $18 million in the previous 12 months (based on income and endorsements). Topping that list is NBA star and Team USA member Kevin Durant.
There will be a record 306 medal events contested at these Games, four more than in Beijing (2008) and London (2012).
Among the new arrivals are men’s and women’s golf, returning after a 112-year absence. In keeping with the theme of concern, men’s golf had a rocky start with top-ranked Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson withdrawing.
Much of the focus of Week 1 will be on swimming, while athletics takes the stage for Week 2 as the two traditional showcase, multi-medal events get plenty of time in the spotlight.
Beach volleyball, the pastime of so many Brazilians, also will be a big hit here. So too will men’s basketball, featuring the latest incarnation of the U.S. Dream Team, and men’s soccer in this football-mad land.
News you can use: Thirteen of the competitions — 12 in athletics and one in fencing — have been contested at every modern Summer Olympics.
Most prognosticators have Canada winning in the vicinity of 20 medals, with a modest gold-medal total almost certain to be measured by the fingers of one hand.
Our Postmedia projections call for 21 Canadian visits to the podium, with two athletes reaching the top step. (Sports Illustrated, meanwhile, is a tad more bullish, giving four gold to Canada.)
The consensus top two choices, however, are reigning world champion paddler Mark De Jonge in the men’s K-1 200 metres, and world silver medallist Brianne Theisen-Eaton in heptathlon. Beyond that pair, there are several podium prospects on a young Canadian team that is hoping to top the 18 medals won four years earlier in London and aggressively build for the 2020 Games.
Among those garnering some serious attention will be the Canadian women’s soccer team, off to a rousing start with an gritty 2-0 win over Australia on Wednesday. Next up is a date with Zimbabwe on Saturday in Sao Paulo.
Track observers around the world are keen to see how young Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse fares at his first Olympics after his Pan Am Games title in the 100 metres and a bronze medal at the world championship.
The Olympic track meet figures to be a strong one for Canada with Theisen-Eaton, world champion pole vaulter Shawn Barber and world champion high jumper Derek Drouin all strong medal threats.
As many as three medals could come from the paddling events, with kayaker Adam van Koeverden, a four-time Olympic medallist, expected to retire after Rio.
News you can use: Of the 314 Canadians scheduled to compete for Canada across 34 sports, 186 are women and 128 are men.
Through the lenses of the TV cameras of NBC and CBC, Canadian viewers will see these Games as one spectacularly vivid television studio.
Copacabana Beach will be prominent in the background of various sets, as will Sugarloaf Mountain, which towers over Lagoa, home to the rowing and canoe-kayak competitions. As visuals go, the first South American nation to host a Summer Games certainly will be spectacular.
The massive $1.2 billion NBC spent on U.S. rights to these Olympics comes with some perks, including a set for the Today Show on the sand at the eastern end of Copacabana Beach. It also empowers the network to dictate starting times for all events. There’s been more than a little grumbling from swimmers about finals being raced after 11 p.m. local time to accommodate the Michael Phelps-Katie Ledecky show in prime time. (Rio currently is an hour ahead of the Eastern time zone in the North America.)
If the swimming doesn’t capture the top ratings, the next best bet is a potential showdown in the men’s 100-metre final between Bolt and the fastest man in the world so far this year, Justin Gatlin of the U.S.
News you can use: In Canada, rights holder CBC will stream more than 4,000 hours of Olympics coverage on its website, cbc.ca, complementing the hours being shown on traditional broadcast television.
There are mixed feelings on just how enthusiastically Brazilians are embracing these Games, given the cost and controversy and the poverty that abounds.
Judging by the crowds soaking up the sun and pre-Olympic vibe at Copacabana on Thursday, the enthusiasm is starting to build. Locals seem willing to put aside the concerns coming into the Games and embrace the global guests, while visitors remain cautiously optimistic that safety fears won’t be a major obstacle to enjoyment.
While Brazil will be nowhere near the powerhouse of recent Olympic hosts such as Russia and China, there are at least a couple of events that will stand out. One of them, certainly, is beach volleyball, which will be contested in a towering stadium built in the heart of Copacabana Beach.
On Thursday, there were dozens playing volleyball in the sand outside the stadium, on the beach considered by many to be the birthplace of the sport. The Brazilian duo of Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca are huge medal favourites in the women’s event, and may be among the most popular Brazilian athletes here.
The men’s soccer team is in that category too, although with a touch of nervousness given their infamous flameout here in the World Cup two years ago.
News you can use: Brazil is the fifth-largest country in the world in terms of area, making it the largest country in the world yet to host an Olympics.