8 of the biggest ways the Summer Olympics are different in Tokyo this year

Familiar faces we expected to see are missing, while new sports like skateboarding and surfing make their debuts

Published July 23, 2021 6:10AM (EDT)

Jagger Eaton of Team United States practices on the skateboard street course ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 21, 2021 (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Jagger Eaton of Team United States practices on the skateboard street course ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 21, 2021 (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

After being delayed by a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are finally taking place, with the opening ceremony scheduled for July 23. But even as many people around the world hope to use these Games to take a mental break from real-world anxieties and recapture some form of normalcy amidst the chaos of the pandemic, the truth is the world has changed, and is still changing, as a result of everything we've gone through over the last 18 months. And the Summer Olympics, which will run through Aug. 8, are no different. 

The 2020 Olympics are going to be unlike anything we've seen before, and not just because Michael Phelps has finally hung up his goggles and Serena Williams, a four-time gold medalist, has opted out. In addition to the introduction of several new sports and the return of a couple old ones, COVID-19 has also forced the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to revamp several aspects of the Games. These are the eight biggest ways the Summer Olympics will be different in Tokyo.

1. Many familiar faces won't be returning

This one seems rather obvious — and almost silly — given that new athletes come of age and compete every four years, but it truly feels like Tokyo is the beginning of a new era in Olympics history. Not only are these the first Summer Games since 1996 to not feature Phelps, a 23-time gold medalist and the greatest Olympian of all time (he has 28 medals overall), but Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, a three-time Olympian known for his confidence as much as his speed, and Russian gymnast Aliya Mustafina, a two-time Olympian and seven-time Olympic medalist, have also retired since the Rio Games.

Meanwhile, there are some big names who tried but failed to make Team USA during the Olympic Trials. Diver David Boudia flubbed a dive during the finals and failed to make his third Olympic team as a result, while Ryan Lochte — whose excellence in the pool over the last 15 years often pushed Phelps to even greater heights — also failed to score a spot on the roster. Nathan Adrian, a cancer survivor and an integral member of the 2008,  2012 and 2016 Olympic squads, also narrowly missed out on making his fourth Olympic team when he came in third in the 50m free behind Michael Andrew and Caeleb Dressel. Elsewhere, beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings, gymnast Laurie Hendandez and wrestler Jordan Burroughs all fell short in their own endeavors. 

It's unfortunate to see so many beloved athletes we've now come to associate with Olympics success have to watch the Games from home like the rest of us, especially when it comes to people like Adrian, a respected athlete whose experience and leadership would have been an asset to younger Olympians. But it's also a natural part of the Games. As veterans are overtaken by their younger cohorts, we're reminded that time marches on and this new generation will hopefully carry on a legacy of success as we head into a new era.

2. The U.S. has a younger and less experienced swim team 

One sport in which Team USA will be younger and less experienced than in previous years is swimming. Eleven of the 53 swimmers are still in their teens, while 35 are making their Olympics debut in Tokyo. This is compared to 31 newcomers in 2016 in Rio, 28 in London in 2012 and 26 in Beijing in 2008. Why does this matter? The U.S. is a heavyweight when it comes to swimming, having won 556 medals in Olympics history, the most of any country. When you consider that Phelps and Lochte have 40 medals between them, it's easy to see why having so many veterans has helped the U.S. maintain its dominance in the sport over the last couple decades. But now it's up to those who are returning for their second, third or even fourth Olympics — including Katie Ledecky, Abbey Weitzeil, Allison Schmitt, Simone Manuel, Ryan Murphy, Chase Kalisz and Lilly King — to step up and fill the shoes of those who came before them while welcoming the new swimmers and preparing them for what could be their own long tenure in the sport.

3. Japan has banned spectators and protesting

Although the show is going on amid the pandemic, Japan has implemented a number of rules meant to curb a new wave of COVID-19 infections. In June, shortly after the country declared a state of emergency that will run through Aug. 22, Olympics organizers banned spectators from the Olympics. International spectators had already been barred, but domestic crowds would have been allowed to attend in venues that were capped at 50% capacity. Now we'll see no fans in the stands. There will be no crowd noise, likely not even artificially, like when MLB pumped crowd noise into empty baseball stadiums last summer to mimic a typical game experience. This means the Olympics are going to be an eerie sight, one that some say will only further highlight the brutal excess of the Games themselves

But spectators are not the only item on the banned list in Tokyo. A new rule for the 2020 Games also bars athletes from protesting or engaging in any kind of "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" while in an Olympic site, venue or other area. This means athletes cannot raise a fist like Tommie Smith and John Carlos did during the Mexico City Olympics 1968, nor can they take a knee like Colin Kaepernick did during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

At least two Olympians participating this year – hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden – are known for their protests on the medal podium and previously had been put on 12-month probation by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). If they should advance to the podium this time, would they be able to restrain themselves? More importantly, should they?

This rule is said to be an attempt to preserve "the neutrality of sport at the Olympic Games and the neutrality of the Games themselves." In July, the IOC released additional guidelines that explain when and where athletes are allowed to express themselves, though, including during press conferences, in interviews and other interactions with the media. 

4. The medal ceremonies will be a bit lonelier

Other changes to the Olympics involve new rules for the medal presentation ceremonies in an effort to better protect everyone involved. Rather than having medals placed around their necks by presenters, the gold, silver and bronze medalists will each pick up their gift and medal from a tray offered by a presenter. They will then place the medals around their own necks without ever touching the presenter. Meanwhile, the podiums will also have extra modules between the gold, silver and bronze medalists to allow for social distancing. Group photos will also not be taken, which means these Olympics might look a bit lonelier than others when we look back at them years from now.

5. An openly transgender athlete will be competing for the first time

The IOC recently came out in support of New Zealand's selection of Laurel Hubbard, a 43-year-old weightlifter, to its team, marking the first time an openly transgender athlete will compete in the history of the modern Olympics. "The rules for qualification have been established by the International Weightlifting Federation before the qualifications started," IOC President Thomas Bach said during a press conference in Tokyo on July 17. "These rules apply, and you cannot change rules during ongoing competitions."

Technically, trans athletes have been allowed to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics since 2004, but Hubbard is the first to qualify under the current rules, which the IOC updated in 2015 and state that trans women's testosterone levels must be below 10 nanomoles per liter of blood for at least 12 months prior to their first competition. (It should be noted, however, that there is little scientific evidence that supports the idea that testosterone increases performance in elite athletes.)

6. Baseball and softball will be played for the first time since 2008

Baseball and softball officially became Olympic sports in 1992 and 1996, respectively, but both were dropped from competition following the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now they're making their triumphant return to international competition in Tokyo because of the popularity of the sports in Japan (they won't be played in 2024 at the Paris Games). 

However, don't expect to see Shohei Ohtani, Fernando Tatis Jr., Jacob DeGrom or any of the other big names in baseball playing in Tokyo. MLB prevents any player on a 40-man roster from competing for any team at the Olympics because it would require pausing the season or forcing teams to go without their best players for several weeks. So the U.S. baseball team, which could medal but is not the heavy favorite to win, is made up of free agents and athletes at the AAA or AA level. The women's softball team, though, is looking to reclaim the gold medal after a loss to Japan in 2008 forced them to have to settle for silver after winning three straight golds from 1996 until 2004. If there's a team to watch this year, it's the U.S. women's softball team.

7. Four new sports making their Olympics debuts

Four new sports will be making their debut in Tokyo: skateboarding, sport climbing, surfing and karate. In skateboarding, athletes can compete in one of two disciplines: park or street. Sport climbing, which is on the rise around the world, features a combined format that includes three events: bouldering, speed climbing and lead climbing. Meanwhile, surfing will feature only short boards, and karate will feature two different disciplines. The first, known as kata, is a solo event focused on form and technique, while the second, called kumite, involves sparring between two individuals.

8. The Karolyis are not involved in any way

Much like swimming, women's gymnastics is one of the most popular sports of the Summer Olympics. The U.S. has won the team gold three times (1996, 2012 and 2016) and has captured the all-around title five times, with four of those being consecutive wins from 2004 until 2016 (Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles). Bela and Marta Karolyi, who coached Romania's Nadia Comaneci before defecting in the 1980s, have been widely credited with transforming the U.S. into a gymnastics powerhouse. The 2020 Games will be the first time since 1988 that neither of the Karolyis will be involved in the women's team.

Bela was named the head coach of the Olympic team in both 1988 and 1992, and Marta took over beginning in 1996, leading the Magnificent Seven to the team gold in Atlanta. After 15 years as the U.S. national team coordinator, she retired following the 2016 Games in Rio. While it's hard to argue the Karolyis coaching methods didn't achieve results, allegations of verbal and psychological abuse from several former gymnasts were made against the duo over the years. This, in addition to the fact their infamous ranch in Texas — which had been named the women's national training center in 2000 and an Olympic training site in 2011 — was the site of numerous sexual assaults perpetrated by former team doctor Larry Nassar, has left a stain on their legacy.

Heading into Tokyo, the U.S. women are still expected to dominate, and they're doing it without the influence of the Karolyis. Led by Simone Biles — regarded by many as the greatest gymnast of all time and the only returning member from Rio — the team also includes Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum. Two others — Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner — will compete individually and not part of the team. While the Karolyis helped to pave the way to greatness, these six women will ultimately determine their own fate in Tokyo, beginning a new chapter in American Olympic gymnastics history in the process.

Catch all the action from Tokyo across NBC's many channels, including NBC, USA, CNBC and Golf Channel, or stream them via Peacock, the NBC Sports App, and NBCOlympics.com. A full schedule of events can be found on the Olympics website and NBCOlympics.com.

By Kaitlin Thomas

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