New state laws are scheduled to take effect on July 1, but there are vanishingly low expectations for a deal in Washington in the coming days.
WASHINGTON — Congress is not expected to move this month to override a crush of state laws that, as soon as July 1, will challenge the N.C.A.A. rules that have kept college athletes from making money off their fame.
The absence of an accord, or even a clear timeline for one, by the start of July would be a blow to the N.C.A.A. and its most influential and wealthy conferences, which have spent many months and millions of dollars seeking intervention from Washington. Although an agreement could still emerge this year, the prospects for a federal measure to advance before the state laws have gone from a long shot toward essentially nonexistent.
“I know that that date is imminent, so I think it’s probably safe to say something is not going to make it through the halls of Congress by that date,” Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington and the chair of the Senate committee that has been examining college sports issues, said after a hearing on Thursday. “But I do think that the deadline is continuing to put pressure on us to produce what that agreement could look like, and so I’m still hopeful that before we adjourn for the July Fourth recess, we’ll be able to say what the shape of that looks like.”
Any coast-to-coast baseline standard that might be in effect early next month, though, will almost certainly have to come from the N.C.A.A. itself. With more state laws scheduled to come into force in the months ahead, public officials and college sports executives alike believe that changes or waivers to N.C.A.A. rules would amount to a stopgap.
On Capitol Hill on Thursday, when the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation met for the second time in eight days to hear testimony about college sports, the divide between congressional negotiators was clear with a glance at the dais: Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the panel’s ranking Republican, was absent. On Wednesday, Wicker, who has particular influence because of the Senate’s 50-50 split, announced a survey of college athletes “to solicit their views on what they would like to see” in a federal measure. Responses are due on June 25, around the time senators are expected to leave Washington for a recess that is tentatively scheduled to last until July 12.
Asked in an interview outside the Senate chamber on Thursday afternoon whether he saw a path to a deal by the end of this month, Wicker replied, “It would be a surprise to me at this point.”
Even before word of Wicker’s survey this week, hopes for rapid legislation were dim because senators have been divided on the breadth of any bill. Democrats have been urging far-reaching legislation that would include, for example, greater health care guarantees for athletes. Some pressed for schools to share revenues with players. Republicans have balked at some of the ideas, and they have also sought legal protections for the college sports industry.
“What we need to do is pass a targeted bill that deals with the issue at hand and leave the more complex issues of benefits and health care, extended scholarships for later,” said Wicker, who added, “Once we agree on the scope, we can pretty much get it done.”
But it has been clear for months that lawmakers, including some of Washington’s fiercest skeptics of the N.C.A.A., were in nowhere near as much a rush for action as college sports officials.
Those athletics executives have operated for years with a bedrock principle — that athletes should play in exchange for no more than the cost of attendance — under mounting siege. In 2019, a law to let college athletes hire agents, cut endorsement deals and monetize their social media platforms cleared the California Legislature and the governor’s desk with ease.
That measure is not currently scheduled to take effect until 2023. California’s move, though, sparked a stampede in other statehouses to similarly subvert N.C.A.A. rules. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas have laws that are scheduled to take effect on July 1. Illinois could very well join them then, and still more states have measures set to come online in the coming years. None of the proposals that have become law call for schools to pay athletes directly.
Squeezed in state legislatures, college sports officials looked to Washington for relief and argued that a national standard was vital. Despite sustained lobbying, no legislation has moved beyond a committee.
Without the federal law it has craved, the N.C.A.A. will have just a handful of options, none of them particularly appealing to many executives. One possibility would be to approve a set of new rules, or perhaps a waiver of existing policies, as soon as next week to let athletes have more financial opportunities as the state laws begin to take effect. That approach, though, could prove a fleeting salve: Some state laws that are expected to go into effect later are designed to give players more rights to benefit from the use of their names, images and likenesses than the N.C.A.A. has signaled it might grant on its own.
Another strategy would be litigation. Although the college sports industry prevailed in a case in the early 1990s after Nevada threatened N.C.A.A. procedures, experts have warned that a legal fight this time could involve multiple fronts with, in turn, scattered results. Even if the N.C.A.A. or its allies could win, many executives fear that courtroom battles over the precise nature and scope of expanded rights for players would harden public opinion against a juggernaut that has spent most of its recent history embattled for one reason or another.
One approach, of course, would be to do nothing at all. But that would expose the N.C.A.A. to the very danger it has long warned about: different rules for different states and schools, imperiling fair play and recruiting and assuredly provoking an uproar on campuses that might be left behind. Commissioners have predicted a recruiting arms race of sorts, with states trying to one-up each other with laws and benefits that could prove more enticing to prospective college athletes.
The N.C.A.A. did not immediately comment on Thursday.
In written and oral testimony on Thursday, senators heard arguments in support of broad changes around the rules that keep athletes from earning money off their renown.
“By freeing student-athletes from their fears and concerns about extra benefits and rules like that, N.I.L. legislation also has the opportunity to help student-athletes become entrepreneurs and create their own opportunities in an arena they already know well: their sports,” said Kaira Brown, a sprinter at Vanderbilt. Each of the four witnesses, the ranks of which included three current or former college athletes, expressed support for federal legislation.
“What we want to avoid is such heavy restrictions that athletes cannot actually monetize their N.I.L. as they would like to,” said Sari Cureton, who played basketball at Georgetown and noted, “It’s our bodies that have built this industry.”
But now the college sports industry is bracing for an era they expect will be marked by chaos and uncertainty. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, was skeptical. He was also unsympathetic to the executives who could be scrambling in the weeks ahead.
“Their hopes are dashed, but their hopes were always futile with the mind-set that they had,” he said in his office. “They have failed to see the broader interests of the athletes. They’ve approached it from a very narrow standpoint of what works for them and not for the athletes.”
China Wins Gold in Swimming Relay, Beating the U.S. and the Favored Australians
China won a surprise victory in the women’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay, setting a world record of 7 minutes 40.33 seconds and beating both the United States, which took silver, and the heavily favored Australians, who settled for bronze.
Race visualization is shown at 12x speed.
Katie Ledecky continued her Olympic odyssey by earning a second silver medal in Tokyo as part of the U.S. team, adding to her gold in the 1,500 freestyle.
Ledecky swam the final leg for an American team of Allison Schmitt, Paige Madden and Kathryn McLaughlin. She took to the water in third, but raced past Australia to finish 0.4 seconds behind China, claiming silver for the United States.
Australia was a big favorite behind Ariarne Titmus, and came looking to lower the world record of 7:41.50 that it established in 2019. She swam the opening leg, and handed her teammates a spot in second, behind China. Emma McKeon put the Aussies ahead of China midway through the race, but China soon took the spot back.
Titmus had won gold in the individual 200 and 400 freestyles, ahead of Ledecky both times.
Australia’s swimmers had already won the 4×100 free relay on Sunday, setting a world record.
Ledecky has spent a career raising gold-or-bust expectations, and is now swimming with the curse of having to explain that she does not win every race. In Tokyo, so far, she has a gold and two silver medals, plus a fifth-place finish.
Daiki Hashimoto Wins All-Around Gymnastics Gold for Japan
TOKYO — Daiki Hashimoto is just 19, but he is already Japan’s leading men’s gymnast, the heir apparent to his idol, Kohei Uchimura, the greatest gymnast of his generation. Appearing in his first Olympics, Hashimoto turned in a stellar performance in the team event this week that nearly secured Japan a gold medal.
On Wednesday night, Hashimoto secured his fast emerging reputation when he came from behind to win the gold medal in the individual men’s all-around event. After a stellar performance on the high bar, the last of the six segments of the program, Hashimoto pumped his fists as cheers went up in the Ariake Gymnastics Center.
Hashimoto stood with a Japanese flag draped over his shoulders while he waited to find out what color medal he had won. When his score was announced and he vaulted into first place, Hashimoto waved the flag and pumped his fists again. He was officially Japan’s next great gymnast, surpassing Uchimura, who won gold at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.
“Five years ago, I didn’t imagine myself standing here,” Hashimoto said. “The Olympics wasn’t even a realistic goal for me at the time, it was only a dream. And now that dream has come true and I’ve become a champion.”
Expectations for Hashimoto were high, but he faced stiff competition from Sun Wei and Xiao Ruoteng of China, and Nikita Nagornyy of Russia, whose own performance in the team event knocked Japan out of the top spot.
Early on, Hashimoto appeared poised to meet those expectations when he turned in stellar performances in the floor and pommel horse portions of the program. But in the third segment, the rings, Hashimoto faltered, creating an opening that his rivals charged through. Sun and Xiao held the top two spots through the middle portion of the program.
But Hashimoto wasn’t done. In the second-to-last event, the parallel bars, Hashimoto turned in a superb score of 15.3, narrowing the gap, but still found himself in fourth place behind Xiao, Nagornyy and Sun.
In the final event, fans booed when Xiao scored just 14.066, enough to take the lead, but not enough to separate him from Hashimoto and Nagornyy. When Hashimoto stepped up to the high bar, the last competitor, Nagornyy knew the end was near.
“I told him he could do it,” the Russian said. “He’s very good on the high bars.”
Indeed, Hashimoto executed a more difficult series of moves that pushed him back into the lead for good. After he nailed the dismount, Hashimoto smiled, confident he’d done enough to win.
His victory capped an emotional week for the Japanese team of first-time Olympians. Uchimura, a seven-time Olympic medalist, entered these Games as an individual event specialist in the horizontal bar. But Uchimura, 32, fell during the qualifying round, ending his career on a disappointing note.
By winning a gold medal, Hashimoto is bound to turn into a pop star much like Uchimura before him. He took up gymnastics at the age of 6, influenced by his older brothers. In high school, he was outperforming many of his older competitors. His coach gave him the nickname “Mr. Infinite” because of his stamina.
Like Uchimura, he has also shown a knack for changing his program on the spot to incorporate more difficult moves as a way to move up the standings. On Wednesday, on the biggest stage, Hashimoto showed again he is capable of vaulting past his biggest competitors.
“I want to not be satisfied with what I have now and keep on aiming higher,” he said.
Enya Toyama and Tariq Panja contributed reporting.
Tokyo's Summer Heat May Help Sprinters Run Faster
Tokyo was deemed to be too hot for marathoners, but there’s evidence that the heat helps sprinters. A little rain might not hurt, either.
Marathoners are the NASCAR racers of running, trying to keep their radiators from boiling over during 26.2 miles and more than two hours on the road. Sprinters don’t have the same worries about heat and humidity. They are dragsters, generating massive power and searing speed then pulling the parachute after a few seconds.
The men’s and women’s Olympic marathons will be held in Sapporo, Japan, 500 miles north of Tokyo, to escape the smothering blanket that is Tokyo’s average August weather: a high of 88 degrees, low of 77; humidity at 73 percent; a “feels-like” temperature or heat index of 101.3 degrees.
But when the men’s and women’s sprints begin Friday (Thursday night in the United States), most competitors will embrace the hot weather, reveling in conditions that Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic champion sprinter and long jumper, calls “the Caribbean without the breeze.”
“Ninety-nine percent of sprinters love it, especially Americans,” said Lewis, now an assistant track and field coach at the University of Houston. He might have added, so do Jamaicans, the world’s other dominant sprinters.
Historically, top performances from 100 meters to the metric mile, at 1,500 meters, and field events like the long jump have mostly come in July and August, the hottest time of the year, when major international competitions are held.
If the past is any guide, some extraordinary results could occur in Tokyo, perhaps especially in sprinting and jumping performances enhanced by many factors, including rapid muscle contraction in the heat and, to a lesser extent, the physics of reduced air resistance.
“You need those muscles to fire at a rapid rate,” said Rai Benjamin, an American hurdler and sprinter who is a gold medal candidate in the men’s 400-meter hurdles. “When you’re cold and stiff, it makes for you to be more cautious. Although sometimes you don’t want to be, subconsciously it’s in the back of your mind, ‘OK, its cold out here I don’t want to hurt myself.’”
There is another weather-related phenomenon, widely discussed but little understood, in the track and field world: A handful of astonishing record performances, in Tokyo and elsewhere over the past half century, occurred just before or after stormy weather.
“If it rains right before a race, I’m going to run fast,” said Noah Lyles of the United States, the Olympic favorite in the men’s 200 meters.
Coincidence? A correlation between performance and stormy weather, when the atmosphere becomes electrically charged with molecules known as negative ions? No one knows with any certainty.
Purported cardiovascular, respiratory, psychological and cognitive benefits of exposure to negative ions have been a matter of scientific debate for a century. Enthusiasts sometimes call them “vitamins of the air.” Research has been inconsistent. Some skeptics dismiss the supposed benefits as pseudoscience.
“If someone would come up with actual information, that would be interesting,” said Lance Brauman, who coaches Lyles and other Olympic favorites in Clermont, Fla., in the Orlando area. “These guys are neuromuscular machines. Anything that would stimulate the electrical system of the body would theoretically help.”
Performance advantages for sprinters in hotter weather are relatively small, gains of 1 to 2 percent, scientists say. Other factors like altitude, biomechanics and doping are considered more impactful. The outcome of races in Tokyo could depend on a number of influences: Top runners competing head-to-head. Advanced shoe technology. The absence of energy from spectators, banned by the pandemic-related regulations. Reaction to the starting gun. The length and frequency of strides. The amount of force exerted into the ground. The hardness or springiness of the track. The speed and direction of the wind.
Not all athletes respond to heat the same way. But it will play a role. And in sprinting and jumping events that can be decided by a hundredth of a second or a quarter of an inch, tiny benefits might help make the difference between winning a gold medal or no medal at all.
“That could be the small margin of performance that will make you faster and put you on the podium,” said Olivier Girard, an exercise physiologist at the University of Western Australia who studies sprinting and heat. “Tokyo is supposed to be the hottest Olympics in history, so surely we might see something interesting.”
At the last major international track and field competition held in Tokyo, the 1991 world championships, Mike Powell set a world record of 29 feet 4 ½ inches in the long jump that still stands. Lewis, who engaged Powell in an epic jumping battle, also set a world record there of 9.86 seconds at 100 meters. That record has been broken repeatedly since then but remains a landmark. For the first time, six sprinters ran below 10 seconds in the same race.
Hotter temperatures help boost the short-term power output needed for world-class sprinting. There is probably an optimal temperature range in skeletal muscles for unleashing the energy-producing molecule in cells known as adenosine triphosphate, or ATP; for activating motor nerves and for quicker muscle contractions that increase the rate or frequency of a sprinter’s strides, scientists say.
“Those slightly warmer temperatures like 80-90 degrees are going to be much better than 60-70 degrees for that,” said Robert Chapman, an environmental physiologist at Indiana University and the director of sports science and medicine for U.S.A. Track and Field, the national governing body.
The top American sprinters, and many international stars, train in the hot weather of Florida, Texas and California. Jamaica has a similar climate for speed. Heat serves as a passive warm-up device for muscles, so it does not take as long to get them limber with pre-race exercises, athletes say.
“When it’s warmer weather, I’m able to focus firmly on my race plan and tactics,” said Trayvon Bromell of the United States, a gold medal favorite in the men’s 100 meters. “When it’s cooler, I feel that my mind drifts to making sure my body is warmer first. It leads me to build a different pre-race plan.”
Hot, humid air is also less dense than colder air and slightly reduces drag. This helps explain baseballs traveling farther when hit in hotter weather. As the temperature rises, gas molecules in the air move faster and farther apart, lowering resistance to moving objects. And contrary to what many people think, humid air is lighter, not heavier, than dry air because water vapor displaces weightier nitrogen and oxygen molecules.
In places near sea level, like Tokyo, the combination of heat and humidity should result in about a 3 percent reduction in air density (as compared to a 25 percent difference between sea level and the 7,300-foot altitude in Mexico City, the site of the 1968 Summer Olympics), Chapman said.
“Would a 1- to 3-percent change in air density end up affecting performance? It has to,” he said. “It’s just a question of what’s the magnitude and how does that magnitude compare to the 57 other things that can influence an athlete’s performance from mental to physical to everything else?”
The main concerns for sprinters in Tokyo will be remaining properly hydrated and rested; staying out of the sun as much as possible and expending as little energy as necessary to advance through the preliminary rounds.
They might also want to pray for rain.
At the 1968 Olympics, Bob Beamon’s startling long jump, which broke the existing record by nearly two feet, came just before a storm. So did Wyomia Tyus’s world record in the women’s 100 meters. Clearly, altitude influenced those performances. But Powell’s jump that broke Beamon’s record in 1991 also came before a storm, in Tokyo, which is only 130 feet above sea level.
Usain Bolt of Jamaica first broke the world record in the 100 meters following a rainstorm at a meet in New York before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A light rain followed the setting of his current world record, 9.58 seconds, at the 2009 world championships in Berlin, observers said.
“My focus was always on executing the race and I didn’t care too much about the weather,” Bolt said.
In the 1970s, Soviet and East German scientists found no positive effect of negative ions on physical performance, said Alfred Nimmerichter, an Austrian exercise physiologist. His own 2014 research on negative ions and cycling found no increase in oxygen consumption.
“From the gut, I would say the performance versus storm relationship is coincidental, at least from a physiological standpoint,” Nimmerichter said.
Other research has variously suggested that exposure to negative ions could elevate mood and alertness, reduce stress and stimulate the fight-or-flight response by increasing the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles.
Skepticism remains. Lewis recalled that he was long-jumping in Indianapolis in the 1980s during stormy weather when a man excitedly approached his father and said, “Oh my God. He’s got to jump again. The ions are right. I was in Mexico City and it was just like this for Beamon.”
And what did his father tell the man?
“Dude, seriously, get out of my face.”
Dutch Officials Say Isolating Athletes Not Allowed 'a Moment of Daylight' in Tokyo
Claire Moses and
The Dutch delegation said it was unhappy about the quarantine conditions for those who tested positive for the coronavirus, two officials said during a news conference on Tuesday. They said they would raise their concerns with the International Olympic Committee, as well as the Dutch ambassador in Japan.
Six members of the Dutch delegation, including at least two athletes, tested positive for the coronavirus, they said.
“They’ve lost their Olympic dream, and then they’re being put in terrible circumstances,” Maurits Hendriks, the technical director for the Dutch Olympic Committee, said, adding that those quarantined “weren’t allowed to see a moment of daylight.” He called their rooms “little boxes.”
A part of the Dutch delegation left the Netherlands for Tokyo on July 17 on a KLM flight, according to the Dutch broadcaster NOS. Several coronavirus measures were in place then, according to the officials, but people tested positive regardless.
“So you ask yourself, where do you get infected? It could be before leaving, while at the airport, in the airplane, but also at arrival in Japan,” Mr. Hendriks said.
Mr. Hendriks told the NOS that he had asked Olympic organizers for months about what the protocols would be in this situation. “We would’ve wanted to know this beforehand, so we could’ve done something about it,” he said.
According to the Olympic playbooks, athletes with positive P.C.R. tests are to be isolated at designated facilities, though the location and length of isolation vary depending on the severity of the case. Japan’s health authorities require a 10-day quarantine at facilities outside the Olympic Village, and multiple negative P.C.R. tests before discharge, an I.O.C. official said in an email.
Lydia Jacoby Upsets Lilly King in 100-Meter Breaststroke
TOKYO — As expected, an American woman was edging ahead in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke on Tuesday morning.
But the American was not named Lilly King, the defending Olympic champion and world-record holder. Instead, in the race of her life, Lydia Jacoby, a 17-year-old Alaskan, tapped the wall first and then gazed toward the scoreboard at the Tokyo Aquatics Center. It took her a nanosecond to register the result.
“Insane,” she said.
Race visualization is shown at 4x speed.
Swimming has delivered surprises at the Tokyo Games, and Jacoby’s gold medal performance ranked among the most shocking so far. The first Alaskan to compete in Olympic swimming, she trains with her local club, the Seward Tsunami Swim Club, which is not to be confused with the usual powerhouse programs from California and Texas.
On Tuesday, against the very best in the world, Jacoby proved that geography did not seem to matter that much at all.
“I think that me coming from a small club and a state with such a small population just shows everyone that you can do it no matter where you’re from,” said Jacoby, who will be a senior in high school this fall.
Classmates and friends cheered her on from afar at watch parties in Seward — and went bonkers when she chased down Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa in the closing meters. (The videos went viral within minutes.)
King, 24, claimed the bronze — an anticlimactic result for one of the sport’s most outspoken personalities. Despite having aimed to become the first woman to win two gold medals in the event, she said she was pleased with her race.
“And so excited for Lydia,” said King, who had not lost a race in the 100-meter breaststroke since 2015. “I love to see the future of American breaststroke coming up like this and to have somebody to go at it head-to-head when we’re in the country.”
Another relative upset played out in the men’s 100-meter backstroke, an event that Americans had won at every Olympics since 1996. But Ryan Murphy, the defending Olympic champion, got off to a slow start and finished third behind a pair of Russians, Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Kolesnikov.
Murphy said he was not disappointed.
“That was my best swim of the year, so it’s nice to be able to do that in the pressure-packed final,” he said, adding: “Shoot for the stars, land on the moon. That’s kind of what it is. Winning an Olympic gold means you’re the best in the world. Being third in the world is no slouch.”
King had made waves at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro for engaging in a personal rivalry with Yuliya Efimova of Russia, a six-time world champion. Ahead of Rio, Efimova had served a 16-month suspension for doping, then was allowed to compete despite failing another drug test.
King was highly critical of that decision. After outswimming Efimova in the Olympic final, King splashed water in Efimova’s lane. (King later said it was unintentional.)
Yet in the run-up to the Tokyo Games, King continued to be outspoken about cheating, expressing concern about spotty drug-testing protocols during the pandemic.
On Tuesday, there was no apparent controversy — only good vibes. King was finishing up her interviews in the media area when Jacoby arrived.
“Off to you, kiddo,” King told her. “No international incidents today.”
Mona Mc Sharry
Ariarne Titmus defeats Katie Ledecky in the 400-meter freestyle.
In one of the most anticipated showdowns of the Tokyo Games, Ariarne Titmus of Australia defeated Katie Ledecky of the United States in the 400-meter freestyle, beating the reigning champion by two-thirds of a second.
“Surreal,” Titmus said, still breathing heavily several minutes after the triumph. “It’s the biggest thing you can do in your sporting career.”
Race visualization is shown at 5x speed.
Ledecky, the world-record holder in the event, came in as something of an underdog. Titmus beat her at the world championships two years ago, when Ledecky was sick. And she’s been faster than Ledecky at the distance this year.
Titmus is the only swimmer to beat Ledecky in a distance race at a major meet and had put a target on her rival’s back, saying at Australia’s Olympic trials that the U.S. champion wouldn’t have things “all her way” in Tokyo.
“I fought her tooth and nail,” Ledecky said, doing what she almost never does: explain a loss. “She swam a smart race.”
Titmus backed up the talk in the pool on Monday morning, overpowering Ledecky down the stretch in one of her signature events.
Ledecky went out fast, building a lead of nearly a full body length through the first half of the race. Then she flipped at the 300-meter mark and realized that Titmus had nearly pulled even. Coming off the last turn, Titmus inched into the lead, and Ledecky had the fight of her Olympic swimming life on her hands. She churned as hard as she could in the final 15 meters, but Titmus had just a little bit more.
Ledecky has long been considered nearly untouchable at any distance of more than 200 meters.
But swimming is the ultimate sport of one-upsmanship: One swimmer sets a seemingly unmatchable standard, only to see a new collection of competitors match it far sooner than anyone anticipated.
That is what has happened with Titmus, a 20-year-old Tasmanian, who has come on like a force of nature in the last three years, testing Ledecky’s fierceness as a competitor as it rarely has been before. On Monday, that fierceness was on full display as Ledecky put up a fight, but Titmus had just enough to outlast her in the final meters.
“I wouldn’t be here without her,” Titmus said of Ledecky when it was over. “She set an amazing standard.”
Ledecky is also competing in freestyle races at 200, 800 and 1500 meters at the Games, but Monday is a day at the office unlike anything she has experienced. With preliminary heats in the 1,500 and the 200 meters scheduled for Monday evening, there was little time for sulking about second place.
“I was right there,” she said.
U.S. Women's Water Polo Is the Toughest Team at the Olympics
The U.S. women’s water polo team won Olympic championships in London and Rio. A one-year delay of the Tokyo Games merely gave them more time to improve.
TOKYO — There is never a shortage of strong American teams heading to the Olympics. The women’s basketball team has won six consecutive gold medals, and the men’s team three in a row. The larger-than-life personalities on the World Cup-winning women’s soccer team have captured the news media spotlight, and the women’s gymnastics team, led by Simone Biles, is a heavy favorite in Tokyo.
But one of the best United States squads is one you may have never seen: the U.S. women’s water polo team.
The team won the Olympic championship in 2012 and 2016. And the last three world championships. And the last three world cups, the last six World Leagues and the last five Pan American Games. Between the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, in fact, the team won 128 games, while losing only three.
And the Americans don’t merely win their games, they dominate in them. The United States beat Italy in the 2016 Olympics, 12-5, and thumped Spain in the last two world championships, 11-6 and 13-6. And those were the finals. In preliminary rounds, 20-goal victories are not unusual.
On Saturday, they got their Olympic Games started with a 25-4 win over Japan. Even when the U.S. does stutter, it normally doesn’t last long: On Monday, the team was tied with China, 6-6, at halftime. China only managed one more goal, though, and the U.S. pulled away to win comfortably, 12-7.
Even their opponents acknowledge their clear superiority. “I feel honored because it is my first Olympic game, and we played it with the United States, which is the strongest in the world,” Yumi Arima of Japan said after Saturday’s demolition.
Deep and talented, the U.S. team boasts two true superstars. Maggie Steffens, 28, the captain, is perhaps the best women’s player in the world, the scorer of the most goals and the winner of most valuable player honors at both the London and Rio Games. Her teammate Ashleigh Johnson, 26, might be the world’s best goalkeeper. The first Black woman to play on the American team, she had the top save percentage in her first Olympic Games, in 2016.
She is also a geographical exception: While, as a group, the players are mostly Californians, Johnson is a Floridian who became a first-team all-American at Princeton. “I’m an outsider in a lot of ways,” she said. “Water polo isn’t a very popular sport in Miami.”
What Johnson and all of her teammates have, though, is the kind of multidimensional intelligence that is vital in their tactical, fast-shifting sport.
“You’re playing three games when it comes to water polo,” said Steffens, who has undergraduate and master’s degrees from Stanford. “You’re playing the overwater game, that fans can see. You’re playing the underwater game that no one can see — you have to be calm while underwater there is all this chaos.
“And the third is the mental game: mental toughness, resilience, but also intelligence. Water polo is like a moving chess board. Every time you think you’ve solved the problem, there’s another moving piece.”
In most years, the United States measures itself against a standard that few of its rivals ever approach. But over the past year, it may have gained an unexpected benefit from the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Normally, the United States women get together only in summers, and for 15 months leading to an Olympics. This time, because the Tokyo Games were delayed for a year, 15 months turned to 27.
That kind of extended togetherness has created a sixth sense among the players, Johnson said. “If you can anticipate and read what your teammate is planning to do, and meet them where they are, before they get there, that’s a huge advantage,” she said. “Moments when maybe they’re struggling, and you can step in and help, that just builds a depth of trust. It’s really hard to play against that.
“If your team is a group of six or seven women who can act as one, then you might be unstoppable. That’s pretty cool.”
Can this year’s team lose? The pandemic has led to disadvantages, too, as games against international opposition have been postponed and canceled. That means the United States played only four international games in 2020. Because of that, there may be things about opponents that the American players simply do not know, and won’t know until they’re in the water together.
“The journey has been a bit rocky,” said Coach Adam Krikorian, who also led the United States in London and Rio. “It’s worked against us at times. It’s tough when you’re just competing against each other.”
As the wait for Tokyo went on and on, though, even his super team risked losing its edge. Krikorian acknowledged that during the pandemic he sometimes had trouble motivating the players, some of whom had put their lives on hold to train for the Games, and then been asked to do so again. Several members of the team are well into their second decade of elite competition.
“Consistency and camaraderie can lead to complacency,” he said. “All of us having struggled over motivation, especially over the last 15, 16 months.
“Add to that, we’ve had so much success, and it’s natural for us to relax a little bit. One of my main responsibilities is to keep this team on edge. I’m blessed in that they are incredibly competitive, so it doesn’t take a whole lot to get them going.”
Steffens said she motivated herself by setting aside her two previous gold medals. “Our team this year — that team has never won an Olympic gold medal,” she said.
Acknowledging that the team’s early games may include blowouts, and even more opportunities for the team to let down its guard, Johnson said she and the other players had discussed focusing not on the scoreboard but on the game plan, and on the smaller battles and victories, whatever the score.
“Every type of game has its own little mental battle,” she said. “When there’s a huge score disparity, it’s not necessarily reflective of the team. We’re looking at the best tools of the other team, and trying to take those away.”
Said Krikorian: “I go into every game thinking that there’s a good chance we may lose. That allows me to stay focused. I would like to think there’s a trickle-down effect.”
If there’s a team that might be able to match the United States in Tokyo, it could be Australia, the only opponent to defeat the United States since the Rio Games. The U.S. players and coaches pointed to the physicality of the Australians, as well as the veteran leadership of Bronwen Knox, who will be playing in her fourth Olympics.
But even that rivalry has hardly been a close competition: In 22 encounters against Australia since Rio, the U.S. is 19-3.
Until they are knocked off their perch, the U.S. stars are prepared to take on all comers. They know, they said, that it is the only way the sport they currently dominate will grow.
“South Africa, this is their first time,” Steffens said of other potential new rivals. “When they go home, guess what the little girls can feel? They say, ‘I can beat her, I can go to the Olympics one day.’ That’s what’s going to grow the sport, especially for women.
“I think about Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, some of the powerhouses of men’s water polo. Why can’t they be powerhouses of women’s water polo?”
And despite their own team’s record of success, the players know the United States has room to grow, too.
“Water polo is concentrated in California,” said Johnson, the Princeton graduate from Miami. “There is so much untapped talent in the U.S. that has yet to be seen. We want all of the best to be representing our sport.”
If that happens, imagine how good the U.S. team will be.
U.S. Men's Basketball Loses to France in Olympic Opener, 83-76
SAITAMA, Japan — The United States men’s basketball team fell to France, 83-76, in its opening game of the Olympics on Sunday night at Saitama Super Arena, remaining on unsteady footing after taking a rocky path to Tokyo.
The Americans shot only 36 percent and were outscored badly in the third quarter, 25-11, when they blew an 8-point halftime lead and fell behind for good.
Evan Fournier, who played for the Boston Celtics last season, led France with 28 points. Jrue Holiday, fresh off winning the N.B.A. title with the Milwaukee Bucks, scored 18 for the United States less than 24 hours after landing in Tokyo.
Men’s Preliminary Round Group A
Since late June, when their 12-man roster was announced, the Americans have experienced multiple waves of upheaval.
Bradley Beal was removed from the roster and ruled out of the Olympics on July 15 after testing positive for the coronavirus. The next day, the team lost Kevin Love, who was struggling with a leg injury. Last week, Zach LaVine was forced to miss the team’s flight to Tokyo and had to join the group later in the week after being placed in virus-related protocols himself.
And the three players who appeared in the N.B.A. finals — Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Holiday — did not join the team at their hotel in Tokyo until early in the morning on Sunday. U.S. Coach Gregg Popovich had indicated leading into the tournament that he would have to be ready to adjust playing time based on how players were dealing with jet lag and fatigue.
Personnel issues aside, the team had not looked great on the floor. It lost two consecutive exhibition games in Las Vegas, falling to Nigeria and Australia in a three-day span. Before those losses, the men’s national team had lost only two games in total out of 56 played since 1992.
Still, the United States remains the heavy favorite to win the tournament and collect the 16th gold medal in the program’s history.
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