THE POSTPONEMENT OF THE OLYMPIC GAMES TOKYO 2020 GIVES SOME OF THE STARS OF THE YOUTH OLYMPIC GAMES (YOG) BUENOS AIRES 2018 AN EXTRA YEAR TO PREPARE FOR THEIR OLYMPIC DEBUT. HERE, WE HIGHLIGHT SOME OF THOSE PROMISING YOUNG ATHLETES WHO COULD SHINE IN TOKYO.
Few athletes made as big an impact at the YOG Buenos Aires 2018 as Japanese gymnast Takeru Kitazono. Then aged 15, Kitazono won five gold medals in six events, topping the podium in the all-around, floor, rings, parallel bars and horizontal bar. He followed that up with three gold medals at the 2019 Junior World Championships, underlining why he has been dubbed "Kohei No. 2", after Japanese gymnastics legend Kohei Uchimura. With Uchimura’s well-documented injury problems, 2021 could be the chance for Kitazono to inherit the crown for Japan’s men’s gymnastics team.
Since making waves at the YOG Buenos Aires 2018, where she won four medals – including gold in the 50m backstroke – Australian swimmer Kaylee McKeown has begun causing a stir on the senior stage. After claiming silver in the 200m backstroke at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju (Republic of Korea), McKeown had made an impressive start to 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic put her season on hold. The 18-year-old clocked a blistering 2:05.83 in the 200m backstroke in January, becoming the seventh fastest woman in history over the distance. At the same event, she also climbed to number nine on the all-time list for the women’s 100m backstroke, clocking 58.62 seconds. With another 12 months to improve, could 2021 be the year that McKeown eclipses compatriot Emily Seebohm – herself one of the finest backstroke swimmers in history?
Continuing his country’s fine tradition in the jumping disciplines, Cuban triple jumper Jordan Díaz produced one of the most eye-catching performances at the YOG Buenos Aires 2018, as he secured gold with a best leap of 17.14m. That would have been enough to clinch fourth place in the Rio 2016 Olympic final, but Díaz has since gone on to even greater heights (or lengths). In 2019, he clinched his first senior medal by winning silver at the Pan-American Games in Lima (Peru) and also extended his personal best to 17.49m – just 1cm shy of Volker Mai's world junior record, which was set way back in 1985. He’ll be 20 years old by the time he reaches next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo – and will clearly be among the favourites for a place on the podium.
Having won the 2017 World Junior Championships, rising Thai badminton star Kunlavut Vitidsarn entered the YOG Buenos Aires 2018 as the top seed for the men’s singles, but after cruising through the group stage suffered a quarter-final defeat to France’s Arnaud Merklé. A silver in the mixed team event meant that Vitidsarn did not leave the Argentine capital empty-handed, and he added to his growing medal collection the following month as he successfully defended his world junior title – beating YOG medallists Lakshya Sen and Kodai Naraoka en route to victory. In 2019, he defended the title again, becoming the first men's singles player to win three World Junior Championships, and claimed gold at the Asian Junior Championships, while he also stepped up to the senior circuit to win four BWF International Challenge tournaments. Despite climbing as high as 28th in the senior world rankings, qualification for the Olympic Games in 2020 would have been unlikely but, with an additional 12 months to climb the standings, Vitidsarn has every chance of making his Olympic debut in 2021.
Less than a year after winning YOG gold in Buenos Aires, Ukrainian high jumper Yaroslava Mahuchikh was already making a name for herself on the senior stage by claiming silver at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha (Qatar). The 18-year-old was only beaten on countback by 2010 YOG champion Mariya Lasitskene, with both clearing 2.04m, and was sure to be among the favourites at this year’s Olympic Games. By 2021, she could have already dethroned three-time world champion Lasitskene as the queen of women’s high jumping.
MANU BHAKER AND SAURABH CHAUDHARY
The mixed team 10m air pistol is one of three mixed team shooting events that will be held for the first time at the Olympic Games next year, and India’s Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary look well placed to challenge for the inaugural gold medal. Bhaker and Chaudhary won the women’s and men’s 10m air pistol events respectively at the YOG Buenos Aires 2018, and since then have paired up to dominate the mixed team 10m air pistol on the ISSF World Cup circuit, winning in New Delhi, Beijing, Munich and Rio de Janeiro in 2019 to secure a place at Tokyo 2020. The postponement of the Games looks unlikely to change their status as medal favourites.
Since winning bronze in the 800m at the YOG Buenos Aires 2018, Ethiopia’s Hirut Meshesha has already built on her experience to successfully make the step up to senior level. In 2019, the then 18-year-old beat a field of experienced rivals to clinch 800m gold at the African Games in Rabat (Morocco), clocking 2:03.16 to beat the likes of Ugandan Olympian Halimah Nakaayi, who went on to win last year’s world title in Doha. Meshesha also improved her personal best to 2:00.92 and will now look to lower her time even more before a potential Olympic debut in 2021.
Colombian diver Daniel Restrepo has already secured his place at Tokyo 2020 thanks to his victory in the 3m springboard at the 2019 Pan-American Games. Now, the 20-year-old – who won YOG gold in both the 3m springboard and mixed team events in Buenos Aires – will be aiming to use the extra year he has to prepare for his Olympic debut, to ensure he makes a big splash in Tokyo next year.
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