In case you’ve been living under a rock, it’s likely that you’ve at least seen or heard some of the hype surrounding the Summer Olympic Games in Rio. Unfortunately for the Brazilian city, much of the buzz leading up to the games has been negative: Zika. Doping. Pollution. Poverty.
Yet 56 percent of Americans plan to tune in for at least part of the competition, according to a new NBC News/Survey Monkey poll.
Even if you are not a diehard fan of gymnastics or track and field, there are plenty of intriguing storylines and inspirational stories worth following at this year’s Olympics. And if you’re still not convinced, at the very least the games should provide a small respite from the non-stop barrage of 2016 campaign headlines.
As you watch the Olympics and/or participate in post-competition conversations around the water cooler at work, these are the burning questions that should be answered when the dust settles in Rio.
1. How’s the water?
By now most Americans have heard that Rio’s water has a little bit of a pollution problem. OK, maybe a huge one. Fears of the impact that raw sewage, as well as severe strains of bacteria and viruses in the water there could have a significant impact on sailing, rowing, canoe, triathlon and marathon swimming events. Although some athletes are reportedly taking precautions to stave off potential infections, the problem may be too systemic to not have serious consequences.
2. Can Russia rally?
Probably no nation heading into the games is grappling with worse headlines than Russia. Besides the constant controversy swirling around their prime minister, Vladmir Putin, allegations of illegal doping has sidelined their entire track and field and wrestling teams and a huge chunk of their rowing team. Although the country avoided a total suspension from the games, they will need to have a strong medal showing to overshadow the steady stream of bad press.
3. Will Michael Phelps cement his status?
The 18-time gold medalist is already viewed as the greatest Olympian of all time, but that hasn’t prevented him from becoming a polarizing figure. He’s made more tabloid headlines in the last several years for his activities outside of the pool instead of his swimming, and some have even questioned whether he should be the flag bearer for the U.S. This Olympics, likely his last, will provide a great opportunity for Phelps to further establish his legacy and remind viewers and fans of his undeniable talent and skill.
4. Should Ibtihaj Muhammad be the real face of Team USA?
Forget Michael Phelps or Gabby Douglas. The runner-up for the role U.S. flag bearer was Muslim American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who will likely stand out at this year’s games because of commitment to wearing a traditional headscarf in accordance with her faith. Muhammad, who will be the first American athlete to compete in a hijab, has become a powerful counterpoint to the controversial religious rhetoric of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has repeatedly proposed that Muslims be banned from emigrating to the United States amid fears of terrorism.
5. Is politics going to intrude on the Olympics?
The Olympics usually coincide with a relatively fallow month in presidential politics, but this general election race has defied expectations and tradition so routinely, that no reprieve from the partisan bloodsport should be presumed. With Trump’s incendiary comments on international relations coupled with a deluge of advertising on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign, viewers and athletes in Rio may have no escape from the drama. Also, amid Black Lives Matter protests, there may be a demonstration on par with the symbolic gesture that scandalized the 1968 games in Mexico City.
6. Does the ‘Dream Team’ have anything else to prove?
With the exception of 2004’s disappointing line-up, the NBA stars who have made up America’s basketball team since 1992 have been incredibly dominant, so much so that gold medals are expected, not just anticipated. In theory, this year’s team should be on cruise control, but a paucity of big name stars (Steph Curry, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are just a few of the marquee names sitting out this year) has lent some drama to the competition. And although Team USA is still likely to blow away their competition, the sudden death nature of the games lends itself to must-see TV.
7. Can Katie Ledecky live up to the hype?
Although she is only 19 years old, Katie Ledecky is widely expected to be a huge force in women’s swimming at Rio. And while predictions that she may take home eight gold medals seem presumptuous at this point, there is no question that her dynamic performances to date suggest fans should expect big things from her. The Olympics of course have a long history of producing over-hyped sensations that fall short (Lolo Jones anyone?) but if she rises to the challenge, she could supplant Phelps as America’s best swimmer. “You can tell she is very goal oriented, and for me it brought me back to kind of what I was like way, way, way back in the day,” Phelps himself told USA Today this week. “Every time she gets in the water, it’s like a world record.”
8. Why isn’t the displacement of locals a bigger deal?
Somewhat floating under the radar as the Rio Games kick-off is the reality that not everyone in the city is happy with the impact the Olympics are already having. Thousands of citizens are said to have been forced to leave their homes, while a Comité Popular report last year accused the city of numerous human rights and civil liberties violations. The games, which are said to be costing the Brazilian government upwards of $12 billion, may be a huge spectacle, but the deeply impoverished native people appear to be paying a painful price for it.
9. Is Simone Biles about to be America’s sweetheart?
The gymnastics competition is iconic for producing wildly popular stars at every Olympics — think Mary Lou Retton, Keri Strug and Gabby Douglas. This year there is tremendous excitement building around pint-sized dynamo Simone Biles, who has been dazzling audiences with her flawless execution and unconventional floor routines. While competition in this field is expected to be fierce, Biles is by far the favorite to help Team USA bring home an all-around team goal medal for the second Olympic Games in a row.
10. Who is the world’s fastest human, Usain Bolt or Justin Gatlin?
Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is a six-time gold medalist and a worldwide record holder in multiple events. Going into the 2016 games, he is both the man to beat and an athlete on a quest — to become the first runner to take gold in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay competitions in three subsequent Olympics. His biggest competition may be American Justin Gatlin, who has been dogged by doping controversies in the past, but who has emerged as Bolt’s chief rival. Bolt is already talking trash too, in a recent interview he pledged that Gatlin will “feel his full wrath” in Rio.
11. Does golf belong in the Olympic Games?
The 2016 games mark the first time since 1904 that a sport largely associated with elites has been a part of the competition. The absence of some of the sports most recognizable faces (like Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson) may be the least of the games’ problems though. The course being used is sandwiched between two lakes which are reported rife with wild animals (including 40 capybaras) and some participants have admitted to being ignorant about the Olympic format of the game.
12. Can Ashton Eaton bring sizzle back to the decathlon?
The decathlon has lost of lot of its star power and cache since Caitlyn Jenner (formerly known as Bruce Jenner) dominated the event back in 1976 and became a Wheaties box fixture. Ever since the Dan and Dave debacle of the 1992 games, decathletes have taken a backseat to bigger stars in more specified sports. But Ashton Eaton, who took home the gold in 2012, has a chance to break out this year in Rio. “There was the Daley Thompson era, then the Dan O’Brien era, then the Tomas Dvorak era, and now we are ushering into an era where if Ashton is on and healthy, he is going to be tough to beat,” former Olympic decathlete Trey Hardee told NBC News this month.
13. What will the games mean for Latin America?
It’s hard to believe that since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, South America has never played host to them — until now. The Rio games are arriving at a time where Latin America’s global influence is growing in ways both big and small — from the first pope from the region to the ongoing debates over immigration in the U.S, which are inspired in part by emigration from that part of the world. In the same way that the Beijing games had an impact on perceptions of China, the Rio games could either help or hurt Latin America’s image around the world.
14. Will USA women’s soccer continue to dominate?
The USA women’s soccer team has had one of the longest and most successful runs in all sports (three straight Olympic goal medals, and a World Cup title last year), which makes them the squad every other country loves to hate. This year off-the-field disputes over equal pay almost derailed the team from participating in this Olympics at all, but ultimately USA will compete, and anything less than another gold would likely be seen as a huge disappointment for some of the most formidable athletes, male or female, on the planet.
15. Is the Zika virus going overshadow the competition?
For many Olympics watchers fear and paranoia about the Zika virus — which poses especially serious consequences for women who are either pregnant or trying to be — has overshadowed the games. Some major athletes have pulled out citing Zika concerns, and although authorities are said to be taking extra precautions to protect Olympians and attendees and the World Heath Organization has given the games a green light, there has been little reassurance for people traveling to a region that is an undeniable hotspot for the disease. With the already ever-present threat of terrorism looming, Zika could provide an unwelcome source of tension for what ideally should be a celebratory atmosphere.
16. Who will win (and lose) the opening ceremonies outfit competition?
Team USA’s parade of nations uniforms feature polo-pony-logoed blazers and red-white-and-blue boat shoes. They’d be big winners on the Vineyard if not in Rio. We’ve done worse, though many observers note that when the blazer is buttoned, the sweater underneath connotes the Russian flag, not the Stars and Stripes. So which nation will take home the gold for best — and worst — in show? Tune in to NBC at 7:30 p.m. ET Friday to find out.
Bonus question. Have the U.S. Olympic swimmers already won the gold?
Watch this and then decide: