In this year of political divisiveness and mud-slinging, the Rio Olympics will provide a welcome 17-day holiday from the presidential election — a chance for all Americans to root for the same team.
The 555-member U.S. team headed to Rio is poised to make history and once again top the medals chart. Four years ago in London, Americans won 46 golds and 104 medals overall. China and a Russian team depleted by doping suspensions will likely finish second and third, respectively, in the Olympic medals race.
Team USA includes 263 men and 292 women, the most women ever to compete for any nation in Olympic history, breaking China’s mark from eight years ago.
“Sport, and the Olympic movement in particular, has always had a unique ability to inspire our nation and united the world,” said USOC CEO Scott Blackmun. “These Olympic Games will be no different in that regard as 555 Americans rise to their best and make our nation proud. I am especially excited for the historic achievement of our women’s delegation, which is a true testament to the strength and growing number of women’s sport opportunities in the United States.”
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The U.S. women’s basketball team seeks a record sixth consecutive gold medal and is on a 41-game win streak dating to the 1992 Olympics. With Geno Auriemma coaching a roster that includes Breanna Stewart, Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Sue Bird and Tina Charles it is hard to imagine anything but another gold.
Meanwhile, the men’s squad led by coach Mike Krzyzewski and NBA stars Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony will aim for its third consecutive title and 15th overall.
Anthony, one of the more outspoken players on social issues, says he hopes the team can use the Olympic platform to promote racial harmony and a reduction of gun violence in the United States.
“The timing could not have been any better for us as a country, having a chance to come together and being united,” Anthony said, “then go over there on the biggest stage you can possibly play on and have that voice and represent something that is bigger than us as players.”
The U.S. women’s soccer team, winner of the 2015 World Cup, hopes to become the first women’s World Cup champion to win the Olympics the following year.
In rowing, there is no team more dominant than the U.S. women’s eight team, which has not lost an Olympic or world championship title in the past 10 years. And the women’s gymnastics team featuring 4-9 and 104-pound dynamo Simone Biles has won every world and Olympic title since 2011.
Biles, a 19-year-old Texan, has won three consecutive world all-around titles and has the difficulty, power, athleticism and poise to come away from Rio with five gold medals — team, individual all-around, floor exercise, beam and vault. If she wins even three, she’d become the most decorated American gymnast in history.
Many experts say Biles is not only the best in the sport right now, she’s the best ever.
“She may be the most talented gymnast I’ve ever seen in my life. … I think she’s unbeatable,” 1984 gold medalist Mary Lou Retton told NBC.
Said Nastia Liukin, the 2008 Olympic champion: “She’s the most talented gymnast I’ve ever seen in my life and, obviously, the Olympics will seal the deal.”
Making her fourth Olympic appearance, track and field star Allyson Felix is the team’s most accomplished female athlete with four gold medals and six overall. Serena and Venus Williams are competing in their fourth Olympics and are each going for a record five medals.
As always, Team USA will also rely on swimmers and track and field athletes for its medal haul.
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals, could win two more in the 100 fly and the 200 IM. But the swimmer expected to be the breakout star is Katie Ledecky, who has never lost a final of a major meet and has the 11 fastest times in the world in the 800 freestyle. The 19-year-old from Washington, D.C., could win gold in the 200 free, 400 free, 800 free and the relay.
On the track, sprinter Justin Gatlin, the silver medalist at the world championships, recorded the two fastest 100-meter times in the world this year at the U.S. trials (9.8 seconds and 9.83). And right on his heels was Trayvon Bromell. Gatlin took the 100-200 double at trials and will challenge Bolt for gold in both events.
Another American expected to stand atop the gold-medal podium is decathlete Ashton Eaton, the 2012 Olympic champion. He set the world record at the world championships with 9,045 points, and though he fell short of that at trials because of sore hamstring with 8,750 points, he remains the man to beat. Joe Kovacs is a favorite in the shot put.
The hurdles are another area where the U.S. team has high expectations. On the men’s side, Kerron Clement and Michael Tinsley are contenders in the 400 hurdles.
Brianna Rollins is a gold-medal contender in the 100 hurdles, and Dalilah Muhammad is a favorite in the 400 hurdles. Also watch for 16-year-old hurdler Sydney McLaughlin of New Jersey. And in the high jump, keep an eye out for 18-year-old Vashti Cunningham, the daughter of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham.
Americans will likely pick up a gold medal (or two) in beach volleyball, as they have every four years since the sport was added to the Olympic menu in 1996.
And it’s a safe bet to assume that boxer Claressa Shields, with a 74-1 record, will defend her Olympic middleweight title.
The Olympics get under way with soccer matches Wednesday and the Opening Ceremonies on Friday at the legendary Maracana Stadium. As the U.S. delegation enters the stadium for the Parade of Nations, count on chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” from the American fans in the audience, and big smiles from the fans watching on TV at home. Americans united behind a common team, at least for 17 days.