Japan's Naomi Osaka. Picture: Seth Wenig/AP
Japan's Naomi Osaka. Picture: Seth Wenig/AP

Wonder women to look out for at Tokyo Olympics

By Nelandri Narianan, IANS Time of article published Jul 24, 2021

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Bikini wars, no-sex beds and an offensive joker who had no one laughing, the week leading up to yesterday’s Olympic Games opening in Tokyo, Japan, played out like made-for-TV drama.

Already under the cosh after a year-long delay due to the global coronavirus pandemic, Tokyo 2020 (plus 1), opened sans the usual pomp and ceremony reserved for the world’s grandest show of athletic prowess and human endurance, with only a fraction of participating athletes in an almost empty stadium.

The director of the Games opening and closing ceremonies was given the boot on Wednesday, just two days before kick-off the grand event, over a past Holocaust joke.

Kentaro Kobayashi was lambasted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a US-based Jewish rights NGO, over his use of the phrase “Let’s play Holocaust” in a 1998 comedy show.

Days earlier, Keigo Oyamada, one of the composers for the Games’ opening ceremony, resigned after public criticism over his past bullying children with disabilities.

As Kobayashi battled to get his foot out of his mouth, the Norwegian women’s beach volleyball team added their spike to the fight against sexism by refusing to wear bikini bottoms during matches. They refused to come up short(s) against their male counterparts and declared that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

This could be seen as the first cover-up in a beleaguered Games that is hedging its bets on TV and streaming coverage, albeit from empty stadiums, to beat the massive daily audience of 27.5 million global viewers, set by the 2016 Rio Olympics.

To help readers schedule viewing times to catch all the actual Olympics drama, we have compiled a list of the Top 10 women to watch in Tokyo, starting with Africa’s queen of the breaststroke, Tatjana Schoenmaker.

Tatjana Schoenmaker reacts after winning the Women's 100m breaststroke final at the Commonwealth Games. Photo: Darren England/EPA

The pressure’s on for the Tuks swimmer looking to become the first South African woman to win a medal in 21 years in an Olympic pool.

Right now, Schoenmaker holds the record as the world’s fastest woman in the 200m breaststroke, after she set a new African record winning in 2:20.17 at the South African National Aquatic Champs in Gqeberha.

A new African and South African record time of 30.32 in the women's 50m breaststroke final also bears her name.

Schoenmaker’s first event is in the 100m breaststroke heat tomorrow and she will dive in for the 200m – where she is one of the favourites for a medal – next Wednesday.

Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, ranked Number 2 in the world, came into the public eye after the upset defeat she inflicted on the 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final. Osaka made headlines when she pulled out of the French Open in May citing mental health concerns as well as sitting out the Wimbledon this year for the very same reason. It’s advantage Osaka as she plays on home turf in Tokyo.

The US women's soccer team is aiming to become the first women's team ever to score the World Cup and Olympic gold back-to-back after failing to do so following its World Cup wins in 1999 and 2015. Key to the team's aspirations is Megan Rapinoe, the 36-year-old winger, who is one of the world's most talented women soccer players. She won the Best Player Award in the 2019 Women's World Cup and the Ballon D'or (Golden Ball) in the same year. At 36, Rapinoe may be making her last appearance in the Games, so she couldn't ask for a more glorious exit than help her team achieve a world-first.

Tumbling in next is 24-year-old American gymnast Simone Biles, an eight-year veteran of the world gymnastics scene, rising to prominence when she was just 16. Claimed by many to be the greatest female gymnast of all time, Biles has had four gymnastic skills named after her. She won five gold medals in Rio and is defending the individual all-around champion's title.

Simone Biles of the USA celebrates after her performance on the Floor in the women's Individual All-Around final of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Artistic Gymnastics events. Picture: EPA

Basketballer Sue Bird, 40, is a slam dunk as leader of the US women's national basketball team, but leadership is not the only skill she brings to the court. The four-time Olympic gold medalist also holds the Women's National Basketball Association(WNBA) record for the highest number of assists. Bird has her sights set on becoming the first basketball player to win five consecutive golds. Somebody give Bird her own basket for all those medals.

Jessica Springsteen, the 29-year-old daughter of rock legend Bruce Springsteen is carving out her own impressive legacy in the sport of horse riding. The equestrian champ has been riding since age five and is currently Number 14 in the world rankings. Springsteen comes into this year's competition in top form, having just won the CSI4* Hubside Jumping Grimaud 2021, which is considered to be one of the premiere pre-Olympic international equestrian events.

Making Olympic history this year is 43-year-old weightlifter Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand. She will be the first transgender person to take part in a modern Games. Among the top-ranked lifters in the women's +87kg category, Hubbard is seen as a favourite to win a medal, especially after her impressive performance at the 2019 Samoan Pacific Games. While critics insist Hubbard should be barred from competing because of the perceived advantage she has over other women because she was born a man, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued new guidelines that allow a transgender athlete to compete as a woman provided her testosterone levels are below a certain mark.

Fleet-footed Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica comes into the Olympics in peak form, clocking the second fastest time in history - 10.63 seconds. A two-time gold medallist, Fraser-Pryce, 34. is one of three women to successfully defend her Olympic 100m title. She now hopes to live up to her moniker of “fastest woman alive” in what may be her last stab at the biggest Games in town.

Surfing will make its Olympic debut this year and seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore of Australia will be riding high in Tokyo. The 33-year-old hopes to bring her country's surfing success to the Olympic stage, but she is likely to face stiff competition from the USA's Carissa Moore, who has been Gilmore's long-term rival. Their fierce competitive spirits will surely create a splash of epic proportions.

Rounding off the list is 24-year-old Katie Ledecky, who at 15 was the youngest member of the 2012 US Olympic swimming team - and brought home the gold. Since then she has added four more gold medals to her Olympic kitty, which means she'd have to win three more in Tokyo to tie with Jenny Thompson for the honour of being the top medalist among American women swimmers.

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