From a global perspective, the international sports calendar has been about as good as it gets this summer. The Women's World Cup. The ICC Cricket World Cup. The International Champions Cup. And some all-time performances at the tennis and golf majors. But today the calendar reminds us that one year from now kicks off perhaps the largest sports spectacle of them all: the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
It is at this 365-days-out marker where the stories begin about not only excitement, exuberance and anticipation, but at the same time uneasiness, distress and outright fear. The past several Olympic cycles have been marred by concerns about terrorism, Zika, street crime, geopolitical warfare and the long-term financial, social and environmental impact of the Games. It has often all but overshadowed the original purpose of the Olympics: to peacefully bring the world together in celebration of athletic achievement.
But with one year to go until Tokyo welcomes the world next July, the narrative feels different this time. There are no stories about athletes being told to keep their mouths closed while competing in feces-contaminated waters. Or concerns about suicide bombers infiltrating the opening ceremonies. These Games aren't being held 40 miles from one of the most tension-filled strips of land in the world.
Instead, the chatter is about Japanese technology. More cost overruns. And the athletes. The Olympic spotlight will be there for the taking for anyone who wants it, as this will be the first Summer Olympics in 20 years without Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. It is once again likely to be an Olympics dominated with stories of the American woman, be it Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles or the U.S. women's soccer, basketball and softball teams. Tokyo will bring the return of baseball and softball. And with it the introduction of competitions in karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing.
In addition to the U.S. men's basketball team filled with NBA stars, Tokyo will debut a half-court 3-on-3 competition. But don't dream about LeBron, Steph and Anthony Davis destroying the world. The U.S. squad that won the first 3-on-3 World Cup in June was led by two-time Purdue All-American Robbie Hummel.
As for the host city, Tokyo isn't immune from concerns. Yes, it is one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world, but there are worries about not having enough accommodations for visitors. And in July 2018, Tokyo experienced a heat wave of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), killing more than 30 people and hospitalizing thousands more. There is concern that with humidity levels that often approach 55 to 60 percent on summer afternoons, Tokyo might be the hottest Summer Games in history.
Beyond that is a problem that seemingly no Olympic host in recent history has figured out how to avoid: cost overruns. Even amid cuts, the budget has reportedly ballooned to more than $25 billion, four times what was originally proposed.
Still, the Japanese are buying in. Literally. While numerous events in Brazil in 2016 and Pyeongchang in 2018 were plagued by an embarrassing number of empty seats, Japanese residents scooped up more than 3.2 million tickets for 2020 events during the initial ticket release earlier this month, prompting officials to plan another release of tickets in August. Unlike Brazil and Russia from Olympics past, the Japanese aren't using the Olympics as some sort of chest-puffing political propaganda to prove their strength as a global player. Instead, they want to show the world how the country is recovering from the devastating 2011 tsunamis and use their legendary hospitality to show off a unique, bustling, world-class city that looks nothing like it did the last time the Games were there, 56 years ago.
We asked ESPN reporters from around the world to address key questions one year out from the Tokyo 2020 Games. You can read more from our U.S. writers below and from our global writers here.
Organizers expect the Games to cost around $15 billion. Some estimates say it could balloon to $25 billion in the end. Does this model have a long future?
Wayne Drehs, ESPN Sr. Writer: Of course not -- and the IOC knows this. It's the reason the IOC awarded both the Paris (2024) and Los Angeles (2028) Summer Games at the same time two years ago. It's the reason the organization is accepting joint bids from multiple cities or even countries for future Games. It isn't a surprise that Tokyo is over budget. Expect the same from Beijing for the 2022 Winter Games. But if L.A. can't keep its costs down leading up to 2028, the Olympics will have a serious problem.
Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Sr. Writer: No. I believe the Games will have to shift to a rotational model, with a designated location on each continent, so cities aren't building one-off facilities.
Jesse Washington, ESPN/The Undefeated Sr. Writer: I'll see your $25 billion and raise whatever you like. Money is no object for nations seeking status and prestige. Plus, don't get me started on the crony capitalism that creates an enormous appetite for this type of spending. The current model is going nowhere.
Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN Sr. Writer: I haven't believed this model has a future for years, and yet, countries still buy in to the concept and the price tag -- and oftentimes, their people and economy suffer. I'm a fan of the idea of rotating venues. (Say, rotating the Summer Games between Barcelona, Munich, Los Angeles and Sydney, countries that still maintain the venues that housed previous Olympics.)
Elaine Teng, ESPN The Magazine: We've been saying for years that the Olympic model is unsustainable, and yet somehow countries keep signing up to host. My former boss and I used to joke that they should designate an Olympic Island, and just do it there every time. IOC, are you listening?
There won't be a Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt in these Games. In your eyes, which athlete or event is going to capture the spotlight in Tokyo?
Drehs: She doesn't have the most magnetic personality or some inspiring rags-to-riches backstory, but with Katie Ledecky it doesn't matter. She might just be the greatest athlete on the planet, dominating in the water in a way that can only be described as Phelpsian. The addition of the 1,500 meters to the women's program along with mixed relays gives her the potential to win seven golds in a single Games, a feat topped only by Michael Phelps in Beijing in 2008.
Ford: I may be influenced by events this summer, but the women's soccer tournament could be of keen interest, especially if it's the last big event for Megan Rapinoe and other veterans. The Japanese team had an early exit and will be looking for a result. Katie Ledecky will be going for an unearthly number of swimming medals, and a healthy Simone Biles would command everyone's attention for obvious reasons.
Washington: Dominant women will play out many compelling storylines in Tokyo. Simone Biles wants to seal her incredible legacy in her final Olympic Games. So does the sprinter Allyson Felix. The U.S. women's soccer team is a hashtag waiting to happen. For the men, swimmer Ryan Lochte, infamous for his Rio misbehavior, returns to the water. And if the young sprinter Matthew Boling makes it to Tokyo, he will be the first white American athlete in recent memory in one of the world's marquee sporting events.
Roenigk: But there is a Simone Biles! The 2016 Olympic all-around champion captured the spotlight four years ago, and she isn't stepping out of it any time soon. Biles is the greatest gymnast in history and one of the greatest athletes of her generation. No matter their nationality, fans will flock to her events for the chance to see Biles perform in person -- and gymnastics fans will tune in to see what new skills she will perform.
Teng: Frankly, I'm excited for the post-Phelps/Bolt world. Time for new stars! All eyes will still be on Simone Biles, who continues to be superhuman even when dealing with such human travails as kidney stones. How many more records can she break? What new skills can she dream up?
After a scandal-ridden four years that nearly collapsed USA Gymnastics, how will the U.S. team respond when it returns to the sport's biggest stage?
Drehs: There will be plenty of lip service given to USA Gymnastics' plans to focus on the present and future and not dwell on its dubious past. But is that even possible? Everything from pre-Olympics training to staff around the team should -- and will -- be different. Maybe the athletes will feel unburdened now that many of them have shared their stories. More important than continued international dominance will be building a culture the athletes can feel proud of and comfortable within. Will that be good enough if the end results don't include gold? We shall see.
Ford: This is a near-unanswerable question. We may get a good indication at the world championships in October, but we know from past history that the composition of the team often comes together late in the cycle.
Washington: With the same resilience and courage the athletes showed in surviving and publicizing the organization's horrific culture of sexual abuse and cover-ups. Medals would be a storybook ending to the journey.
Roenigk: The U.S. will still field the best team in the world, anchored by the best gymnast on the planet, and be heavy favorites for gold. Under new national team coordinator Tom Forster, they also might do something the U.S. women weren't known for under the Karolyi regime: enjoy the experience.
Teng: Team USA will still dominate Tokyo, even with questions surrounding Forster's experience. Biles will continue to be the best gymnast in the world, and younger gymnasts like Morgan Hurd, who became world all-around champion the year Biles did not compete, will shine.
Baseball and softball return to the Olympic program for the first time in 16 years. Will the sports stick, and why or why not?
Drehs: Depends what you mean by stick. We will see both sports in the 2028 Olympic lineup in Los Angeles. But sadly I think that might be it. I love both sports. Heck, I coach elite travel softball. But are they truly global games? Do they connect with the younger audience that the Olympics are trying to reach? It's a split. Baseball has by far the greater reach globally. And I think softball connects with a younger audience, especially in the U.S. Is that enough to keep both sports on the program? Sadly, I'm skeptical.
Ford: Absolutely. Japan is the perfect place to showcase baseball, and the ambience will be nuts. Softball, like most women's team sports, will have improved in depth and quality since its last appearance. I think they stick this time.
Washington: Not likely. The games are slow. Too few people around the world play. They require a specialized and expensive equipment. India already has cricket. Look, baseball is struggling to remain relevant in the United States. If Americans are falling out of love with their national pastime, the rest of the world will swipe left.
Roenigk: Earlier this year, the Paris 2024 organizing committee invited the sports of skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing, all part of the package of sports added to the 2020 Games, to return in 2024. It did not recommend the return of karate, softball or baseball in favor of breakdancing, which was contested at the 2018 Youth Olympics. The IOC also announced it was limiting the number of competitors in Paris to 10,500, which makes the addition of team sports difficult. I don't see the organizers in Los Angeles reversing that course.
Teng: Well, we already know baseball and softball are not going to be at Paris 2024, so unless they are huge hits next summer, Tokyo 2020 will be a blip in their Olympic history.
Surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and karate all will debut with the goal of energizing and entertaining a new, younger Olympic audience. Which will have the biggest impact?
Drehs: Here's the thing: You can pick any sport you want to target a younger audience, but it doesn't mean it's going to work unless you engage the younger audience to watch. And I don't just mean on television, which most kids don't consistently watch. I'm talking Twitter, Snapchat, Instastories, on-demand highlights. This is how you reach the younger audience. I guess I didn't even answer the question. Sorry. I'll say sport climbing.
Ford: Surfing will be the most dramatic, especially for TV audiences, and although geared toward a younger demographic, it should appeal across generations.
Washington: Skateboarding, because it has a compelling and accessible culture behind it. There's a music, fashion and social-media element to the lifestyle. Anybody can do it recreationally. Expect the snowboarder-turned-skateboarder Shaun White to bring his massive global following to this Olympic event.
Roenigk: If there are good waves, surfing will make the biggest splash. Much like tennis, the sport already boasts boldface, international stars and it flaunts an aspirational lifestyle that will be a draw to landlocked sports fans. As the sport has become more aerial and athletic, its contests have become thrilling to watch for even the action sports illiterate.
Teng: I recently became obsessed with Japanese-American climber Ashima Shiraishi, and I think audiences will be, too. At 18, she's already racked up a list of accolades that start with "youngest person to climb this" or "first woman to climb that." And what better place to headline her sport's Olympic debut than her parents' home country?
We've learned not to be surprised by much while covering the Olympics. What would actually surprise you next summer?
Drehs: An Olympics where the main storylines are the performance of the athletes, not the scandals swirling all around them. The Tokyo Games are off to a good start with little talk about terrorism, security, government corruption or the human rights issues that plagued previous recent hosts. But at the Olympics, it only takes one Ryan Lochte, one corrupt Olympic official, one athlete caught doping to take the spotlight away from those who deserve it most: the athletes. An Olympics about the actual Games? That would be a surprise.
Ford: Climate change, environmental impact and sustainable events will be front and center. Athletes rights' issues are coming to a head. The IOC has two solid host cities lined up in Paris and Los Angeles, but bids are getting more problematic. I will be surprised if these Olympics don't turn into a referendum on what future Games should look like.
Washington: If no American athletes make political statements on the medal stand.
Roenigk: For the media buses to run on time. That's a joke (sort of), but the saying, "How you do one thing is how you do everything," applies here. Having covered the past seven Games, I've found that the smoothness of the shuttle system is emblematic of the overall organization of the event.
Teng: I would be shocked if none of the sports was delayed or cancelled or otherwise impacted by the oppressive heat. We talk about climate change more with the Winter Olympics, but as we've already seen in soccer and tennis, summer sports are not immune.