Rio 2016: Neymar, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and more – no shortage of Olympics talking points

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The Olympics are upon us. Fret not if you have nothing to say at the water cooler. Osman Samiuddin has what you should be talking about.

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Begin as you mean to go on

The opening ceremonies of the Olympics are like car crashes right? Nobody wants to watch them really but cannot help but be absorbed by them.

Remember the special effects in Athens, or the epic Beijing ceremony, thought by many to be the greatest ever? There was London, which was … surreal.

Well the word is Rio will play it down, in line with the economic conditions of the country. The event’s executive producer has already said it will not be an “opulent” ceremony and themes will focus on issues such as sustainability.

There is, if local reports are to be believed, an eccentric touch though: a skit involving the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen sees her being mugged. Organisers have angrily denied it but something that bizarre will make it impossible to not watch.

On a more positive note, keep an eye on the UAE delegation, where the flag-bearer will be Nada Al Bedwawy, 19, the female swimmer.


Can Bolt beat Gatlin?

Let’s be real about this. Of all the myriad events at the Olympics, this is the money-maker, the one that everyone – literally everyone – will be talking about and wanting to watch.

Two weeks of competition, four years (or more) of preparation, billions of sponsor and broadcast dollars and it boils down to less than ten seconds: Can Usain Bolt maintain his supremacy over Justin Gatlin?

Pencil in August 14 (early morning at 5.25am on August 15 in the UAE) in your diaries for the showdown.

It is not quite as simple as good v evil but as a rematch of the World Championships last year, it is tantalising. Bolt is recovering from a hamstring strain; Gatlin is 34 and has not run sub-9.8 this season. Oh, and throw in Bolt’s fellow Jamaican, the resurgent Yohan Blake into the mix too. Not to be missed.


Mirza to the fore

There is a fair bit of Emirati progress to keep an eye on and probably the best of the stories is that of Yousif Mirza, who takes to the road on Saturday, cycle underneath him and the pride of a nation on his back.

Mirza qualified for Rio outright by finishing second in the Asian Cycling Championships in Thailand last year, and he is rightly proud of having made it through qualification.

He is the first cyclist from the UAE to compete at the Games since 1996.

Expectations should be – and are – modest. The 241km course is a tough one, with a number of difficult climbs, and the field, chock-a-block with Tour de France riders is elite. Mirza’s target is to get into an early breakaway and take it from there.


Half-man, half-fish is back

That is right, Michael Phelps, the man with a wingspan to put commercial planes to shame, is back for his fifth Olympics. He is so obviously the greatest Olympian ever (18 gold medals and 22 overall) that he considers a haul of four golds in London four years ago to have been a disappointment.

Granted he was going through a tough phase in his personal life, but four years on, at 31, he is back. He has a child, is engaged to be married, is talking again to his father, has overcome another drink driving charge and, above all, is in love with swimming again. He will be competing in the 100m, 200m butterfly, the 200m individual medley and also in the 4x100m relay.


Hat-trick for Fraser-Pryce

It is the singular misfortune of Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce to have existed in the age of Bolt. Otherwise the Jamaican would be recognised with far more fervour than she currently is as one of the great female sprinters of all time.

At Rio Fraser-Pryce will be targeting a third consecutive Olympic gold in the 100m, and if she does, she will be the first woman to have done it.

She will also do it one night before Bolt aims for the same three-peat, and what’s more, she has matched Bolt medal for medal at the Olympics and the World Championships.

She has not been in great form this season though, a toe injury that refuses to go away causing disruption. She will be Jamaica’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony on Friday.


Golf? Really?

Here is a great conversation-starter: what is so Olympian about golf? Not much you may find is the answer, though some smart alec may wish to point out there is not much Olympian about the Olympics anymore.

Nevertheless golf is in at Rio, hardly the pinnacle prize its players aim for. Rory McIlroy has already dismissed the idea out of hand, admitting that he will not even be watching it.

Including him, the world’s top four players are not going to be there (ostensibly for worries about the Zika virus). It is the first time in over a century golf is back on the Olympics roster and it may not be around in four years’ time: already the IOC have said they will review its place.


Neymar and Brazilian redemption

The last time Brazil played a major competition game at home, well, let’s just say it did not end particularly well. They lost (and that is putting a kind spin on it) 7-1 to Germany in the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup and it propelled an apocalyptic bout of navel-gazing in the country.

The Olympic gold in football is hardly among the sport’s biggest prizes but try telling the captain Neymar and the Brazil side that – Neymar missed the Copa America to be ready for this.

Clearly it means something to them. Brazil have never won an Olympic gold, though in London four years ago they lost to Mexico in the final. The draw is kind – they open against South Africa, Iraq and Denmark. The final is on August 20.


The Russians are coming … or not

This will not be pretty. In fact, it could overshadow the entire Games with its un-prettiness. Already Russian track and field athletes have been banned from participation.

In other events though, individual federations have taken individual decisions on whether or not Russian competitors are to be allowed.

There is a total ban on Russian weightlifters for instance and bans on individual competitors in swimming, canoeing & kayaking, cycling, the pentathlon, rowing, sailing and wrestling. Judo, handball, tennis, volleyball, table tennis and shooting – among others – have cleared all Russian participation.

But already the Rio site office of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) has taken in 11 appeals from Russian athletes, the same number it handled through the entire London Games.

Expect, then, to read a lot of legalese through the Games.


Caster Semenya is back

In London, Caster Semenya’s silver medal in the 800m was one of the event’s most intriguing tales. She ran a weird and remarkable race, off the pace and in last place for the first lap but then surging magnificently over the final one only to have left it a little late. Some suggested that she lost deliberately, to avoid further unwanted spotlight in case of a win.

This time round she is far and away the favourite and there may not be a way to avoid the spotlight that comes with gold.

She has critics who believe that her hyperandrogenism, a medical condition that has led her to display excessive levels of testosterone, has been the reason for her success. Her natural advantages hardly seem to be her fault though and this time round, they may lead her to becoming an Olympic champion.


The Golden (almost-) Slam

Last year, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams came agonisingly close to pulling off a calendar grand slam each.

Neither is on course for one this year but an Olympic gold to go with multiple slams will take them close to the remarkable Golden Slam Steffi Graf completed in 1988 (all four majors plus gold in Barcelona).

Djokovic is heavy favourite, if for no other reason than that logical sequence demands it: he won bronze in 2008, silver in 2012 and here we are in 2016.

Williams, meanwhile, is the reigning gold medallist and if, as expected, she wins gold in singles and doubles, she will go past Reginald Doherty as the greatest tennis Olympian of all time.

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