Last Friday, with a week to go until the Tokyo Olympics, the AOC was knee-deep in final preparations, with one of the biggest Australian teams ever about to start arriving in the host city.
Within hours, there were two big stories that reminded us why these Games are different to any other in the modern era — and why the usual predictions about how the Australian team will do at the Olympics go straight out the window.
First came the announcement that Australia’s number one men’s tennis player, Alex de Minaur, tested positive for COVID-19. Suddenly he was into isolation and out of Tokyo.
This came on the back of Nick Kyrgios’s decision to pull out of the Olympic tennis team, in part because of injury and in part because of the IOC’s move to ban spectators in Tokyo. Kyrgios said: “the thought of playing in front of empty stadiums just doesn’t sit well with me.”
Later that day, after much speculation, the Opals’ most high-profile basketballer, Liz Cambage, announced her withdrawal from the Olympics, saying she had been having panic attacks about the thought of being in a COVID bubble to compete in Tokyo.
These cases all show why the key to the overall result may not be existing form, pre-Games rankings, or planning, or timing — but rather, who can adapt best to the “COVID normal” these Games are being played under.
As the host city struggles with a surge in COVID cases, and organisers acknowledge positive cases already in the athletes’ village, the possibility exists that individuals and even sporting teams could be isolated and ruled out during the Games.
Aside from the possible spread of the virus, there are unprecedented conditions that athletes will face — and that some (like Kyrgios) have opted to avoid by not competing.
The empty stadiums will be jarring for many — as a small example, the athletes in field events who are used to getting the crowd to clap them in for long jump, high jump and pole vault attempts will have to do without that motivation.
Then there are the restrictions on movement, the fact that athletes and team squads are being kept in silos rather than together, and that they will have to leave almost as soon as their events are over, meaning they can’t go and support their teammates.
The AOC flat out refuses to give medal predictions for Tokyo, after the athletes commission said that putting a number on golds or a position in the medal count was not helpful for those competing.
It all means we really don’t have a clue about what happens next.
Having said that …
What does history tell us?
When Australia does well at swimming, Australia does well at the Games overall.
In the five Summer Olympics from Sydney to Rio, Australia has won 218 medals, 63 of them gold. Of those, swimming has brought 22 gold, and a total of 73 — nearly a third of Australia’s entire medal haul.
The fact that just four golds came from the pool at Rio and London combined suggests those Games were not deemed successful overall.
Next most successful, with eight golds each in that time, are cycling and sailing, followed by four each for athletics and rowing, then shooting (three gold) and two each for diving, hockey and canoeing.
With swimming finals being held in the day rather than at night, the first big chances come on Sunday morning, day two of competition — Australia has a strong hand in the women’s relays, and the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay is a good chance in the last event of the day.
But young gun Elijah Winnington — who is in a 400m freestyle field without Sun Yang or Mack Horton — and who swam the fastest 400m freestyle time in the world this year at the Olympic trials, is capable of kicking Australia’s golden tally off an hour earlier.
The spotlight will be firmly on Ariarne Titmus, who will have the small matter of taking care of US superstar Katie Ledecky in the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle — although the first two are her big chances.
There is Kaylee McKeown, who broke the 100m backstroke world record at the Olympic trials, and is also a strong chance in the 200m backstroke — although reports suggest she is withdrawing from her other event, the 200 metres individual medley.
There are Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell in the women’s 50 and 100m freestyle, with Campbell still looking for a first individual gold medal in her fourth Games.
Aside from the 4×100 freestyle relay, Australia’s women are a chance in the 4x100m medley relay, possibly the 4×200 freestyle relay and then there is the new event, the mixed relay.
Other possibilities include Kyle Chalmers in the 100m freestyle and Zac Stubblety-Cook up against Russian Olympic Committee’s world record holder Anton Chupkov and Japan’s Shoma Sato in the 200m breaststroke.
Is Australia going to win all these gold medals? Almost certainly not. But if even half of these come in, then Australia will almost have matched its total golden output in Rio just from the pool.
In cycling, Australia’s best chance comes in the new event of BMX Freestyle, where Logan Martin is the new world champion and looking to do the double and make history in the process.
A rejuvenated Rohan Dennis is a strong show in the men’s road time trial after a bike malfunction ruined his chances in Rio, while Richie Porte could be a chance in the men’s road race if he has some energy left in the tank after the Tour de France.
There is also the question of Matt Glaetzer in the men’s individual sprint and the keirin on the track. He was top of the world prior to being diagnosed with cancer — now he is back in the mix, and a win from him in either event would be one of the stories of the Games.
In sailing, the issue is that Australia’s crews have missed out on a lot of competition due to COVID.
It’s possible that the European sailors — who have been able to continue training and competing together for much of the time — could sweep the board. But there are a few strong chances.
Matt Wearn — who knocked off the reigning Olympic champion Tom Burton for Australian selection in the men’s laser radial event. Then there are two crews — Mat Belcher and Will Ryan in the men’s 470 and cousins Jason Waterhouse and Lisa Darmanin in the mixed Nacra event — who will be trying to turn Rio silver into Tokyo gold.
In the new Olympic sport of surfing, Australia has two legitimate gold medal hopes in Steph Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons.
There is Jess Fox in canoe slalom, who is yet to win gold at the Olympics, and will have two chances this time, as the women’s kayak and canoe events will be held together at the Games for the first time. She has to be a shot for at least one gold if she produces her best.
In rowing, Australia has two strong chances to hit the top step of the podium.
The women’s four are the reigning world champions, while the men’s four have held their strong form through the last few years and are tipped to go close.
In tennis, Ash Barty comes in as the number one seed and newly-crowned Wimbledon champion in singles.
The two questions are: one, what energy does she have left after the gruelling grand slam competition; and two, how will her rival for the gold, Naomi Osaka handle the pressure of representing the host nation after her issues with the media.
She has to be a shot for at least one gold if she produces her best — and she is also partnering Storm Sanders in doubles.
The women’s rugby sevens team are defending champions from Rio, but they go in as underdogs against the New Zealand team this time round.
Then there are other medal chances like women’s featherweight boxer Skye Nicholson, Australia’s record-breaking men’s 1,500m runner Stewart McSweyn, Nicola McDermott and Eleanor Patterson in women’s high jump and Taliqua Clancy and Mariafo Artacho del Solar in beach volleyball.
There is always the chance of a medal chance turning into a surprise gold with a stunning PB, or a sport that doesn’t really get the attention, so the formline isn’t clear before the event.
Think Lauren Burns in Taekwondo and Simon Fairweather in Sydney or Chloe Esposito in Modern Pentathlon in Rio.
The size of the team doesn’t have an automatic correlation.
There were 150 fewer athletes in the team that went to Athens than the one that went to Sydney, but the 2004 team won only eight fewer medals, and one more gold.
Now, the Aussies go into Tokyo with 488 athletes, their second-biggest team ever — will the 78 extra team members on Rio make a difference, or is it just a number?
In Rio, Australia finished with eight gold medals and 29 medals overall, the lowest tally since Barcelona in 1992.
Who is under pressure?
Given the unique circumstances of these Olympics, who isn’t?
Titmus going up against Ledecky — an Olympic legend, swimming superstar and darling of the US media — must surely be feeling the heat.
But in terms of expectations, you can’t go past the Kookaburras; Australia’s men’s hockey team has long been a solid contender, but has only struck gold once, at Athens in 2004.
They have made four gold medal games — and enter this competition as the number-one ranked side.
The Boomers, too, have potentially the most exciting squad they’ve had at a Games, regardless of Ben Simmons’s absence.
They have never won a medal, despite talented teams over the years, going to the bronze medal game four times, for four losses.
In Rio, where they faced Spain in the semi-final, they went down 89-88.
The Opals, who have lost Liz Cambage and added Sara Blicavs, were regular medallists until four years ago — their best can put them in line for another final.
Both basketball teams go into the Games having beaten the United States in warm-up games; naturally, the expectation is both US teams will come out harder when the real stuff starts.
But knowing they can be beaten — the US men’s team also lost to Nigeria in the same series — means there is a feeling they might be gettable.
The bottom line
More than any other Games, we can’t really know where Australia will come on the medal table or how many golds the team will bring home.
An educated guess? In the region of Australia’s performance in Beijing — 14 gold and a medal total in the 40s — seems achievable. That would be a significant improvement on both Rio and London.
It will depend on who can cope with the odd conditions, who can generate a winning mindset without the cheers of the crowd, and, as always, who can produce their best at the right time.
Olympics are all about momentum. If the swimmers get things off to a flying start, that feeling could spread. We’ll all just have to wait and see.