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30 Europeans to watch at the Olympics

A 13-year-old skateboarder, a German policewoman, an Afghani woman cyclist attacked for daring to ride her bicycle... some of the most absorbing European stories at this Olympic Games.

GB Open Water Swimmer Alice Dearing at her home in Loughborough, England - Credit: Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The build-up to any Olympics tends to be dominated by the choice of host city. In recent times, the Summer Games in Sydney, Beijing and, of course, London were all overwhelmingly successful choices. Indeed, we now look back wistfully on 2012 as a hark back to a simpler time. Why couldn’t it always be like that?

By contrast, the Games in Rio and Athens proved to be cripplingly expensive and dogged by controversies. But there never has or will be anything like the Tokyo Olympics, which could be subtitled ‘The Silence of The Fans’.

The city recently entered a state of emergency. Although not quite as drastic as it sounds, this means no spectators will attend any one of 33 sports and 339 events across 42 venues as Japan battles to keep the Covid case rate low, coupled with delays in rolling out its vaccine programme.

For all the uncertainty surrounding Tokyo 2020, perhaps five-time gold medal-winning swimmer Katie Ledecky put it best when she recently said, “I know this is going to be kind of a made-for-TV Olympics. I hope that everyone around the world tunes in…and recognizes the beauty of the work that all of these athletes have put in for these five years.”

Once the Games begin, one hopes the headlines will be dominated by the athletes. For everyone tuning in, and to help you pretend that you’re an expert on Climbing, the medal chances of this Olympics’ Refugee Team or casually drop into conversation that Wilfredo Leon is ‘the Ronaldo of Volleyball’, we’ve selected 30 Europeans who could make those headlines in Tokyo, albeit for very different reasons…

British skateboarder Sky Brown – Credit: Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images for Laureus

1. Sky Brown (Skateboarding – GB)

What were you doing when you celebrated your 13th birthday? Sky spent it preparing to become Britain’s youngest-ever Olympian (the honour of ‘youngest competitor’ will go to 12-year-old Syrian table tennis player Hend Zaza). Skateboarding makes its debut at the Summer Games and Sky is one of the favourites to win a medal.

The fact she’s even competing is a minor miracle. Brown suffered serious injuries after a fall last year that put her in intensive care with multiple fractures. Her reaction to seeing the incident on video? “I thought it was kind of cool.” Kids, eh? What a bunch of snowflakes…

2. Saeid Fazloula (Canoe – Refugee)

Fazloula was born in Iran, now lives in Germany and represents the Refugee team. Forced to abandon his homeland after being arrested and accused of converting to Christianity, Fazloula’s crime was taking a selfie outside Milan’s Duomo Cathedral during the World Championships in 2015.

Through the support of a journalist, his coach, and a former Olympic gold medalist, Fazloula fittingly received confirmation that he could compete in Tokyo on June 20 this year, aka Refugee Day. He says, “You can be so successful when you get so much love from other people.”

3. Nino Salukvadze (Shooting – Georgia)

The 52-year-old from Tbilisi will make history when she breaks the record for most Olympic appearances by a woman. This is her ninth Games (the overall record is 10, held by showjumper Ian Miller). She will again be accompanied by her son and fellow shootist Tsotne Machavariani – they practice together as a makeshift range in the basement of Georgia’s Ministry for Sport.

Salukvadze won gold in 1988 but it’s the bronze she won at Beijing in 2004 that holds the greatest significance – it’s the only medal won by a woman since Georgia became an independent state.

Fencer Daniele Garozzo (L) of Italy – Credit: Photo by Lampson Yip – Clicks Images/Getty Images

4. Daniele Garozzo (Fencing – Italy)

Garozzo is studying to become a doctor and is also a police officer. A year after surprisingly winning gold at Rio, he underwent several operations for a collapsed lung. He’s since fully recovered and a bigger hindrance to his chances were Italy’s stringent lockdown measures, although he says it allowed to him prioritise his medical studies over fencing.

If Garozzo does successfully defend his title, hopefully he’ll take more care of his prize. Returning from Rio, he fell asleep on a train and the medal was stolen from his backpack. It was later found in a dustbin, and reunited with its owner after a woman contacted him through social media.

Triathlete Vincent Luis of France – Credit: Photo by David Aliaga/MB Media/Getty Images

5. Vincent Luis (Triathlon – France)

Eight years ago, Luis was preparing for ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in London. Then suddenly he had to lie down because his heart started racing. The race doctor also happened to be a renowned cardiologist and Luis was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. He says it’s like having an extra nerve in his heart.

Following surgery, Luis returned to action but then close friend and teammate Laurent Vidal died suddenly of a heart attack in 2015. Luis has channelled that loss and has gone on to win two World Championships.

6. Alice Dearing (Swimming – GB)

Dearing will become the first black woman to represent Team GB at swimming. The last black person to swim for Britain was Paul Marshall way back in 1980. After making the team, she said “It’s a really exciting moment for myself and for black history and black culture.”

Climber Janja Garnbret of Slovenia – Credit: Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

7. Janja Garnbret (Climbing – Slovenia)

As sporting nicknames go, ‘The Reincarnated Spider Monkey’ sounds like something scripted for Alan Partridge, but to watch climber Janja Garnbret in action is mesmerising. She has also spoken out about the growing problem of eating disorders among fellow climbers who want to be lighter and faster.

8. Wilfredo León (Volleyball – Poland)

Leon became a sporting icon in Cuba before he fled to Europe, to improve his opportunities and spend more time with his Polish girlfriend (now his wife). He has single-handedly transformed a national team, hardly famed for being a powerhouse in Volleyball, into one of the favourites for gold.

9. Blanca Manchón (Windsurfing – Spain)

Manchon made her Olympic debut aged 17 in Athens but was dropped by her sponsors in 2016 when she had the temerity to become a mother. They assumed, wrongly, that her career as a windsurfer was over. Manchon successfully returned to competition and says the only thing missing in her life is an Olympic medal.

French judoka Teddy Riner (L) with a training partner – Credit: Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images

10. Teddy Riner (Judo – France)

‘Big Ted’ is a superstar in France. At 6ft 8in, he’s one of the biggest figures at these Games in every sense. He went unbeaten for 10 years, but two defeats in 2020 prompted Riner to change his diet, address his addiction to sweets and cakes, and drop 26 kilos in a bid to win his third Olympic gold.

Poland’s Maria Andrejczyk competes in the Javelin – Credit: Photo by Lukasz Szelka/AFP via Getty Images

11. Maria Andrejczyk (Javelin – Poland)

Andrejczyk was 2cm away from winning a medal in Rio. Then, in 2017, she began suffering from persistent headaches and couldn’t sleep properly. Tests revealed she had osteosarcoma – a form of bone cancer. Fortunately, the treatment didn’t require chemotherapy and meant no more sleepless nights. In May, she produced the third-longest throw of all time.

12. Serghei Tarnovschi  (Canoe – Moldova)

To quote the old Fosters ad, Tarnovschi’s presence at these Games is “about as welcome as a rattlesnake in a lucky dip”. He received a four-year ban in 2016 for taking a banned substance and was stripped of his bronze medal. It is only because the Tokyo Games were delayed that he can compete this time around.

Paul O’Donovan (right) with Fintan McCarthy – Credit: Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images

13. The O’Donovan Brothers (Rowing – Ireland)

The O’Donovans unlikely road to silver medal success at Rio – their coach was a volunteer  – helped propel them to stardom in Ireland. Paul distilled the art of rowing as ‘close the eyes and pull like a dog’. As things stand, Paul will race in the double-sculls, with Gary on reserve.

Swedish pole vaulter Armand Duplantis – Credit: Photo by CHRISTINE OLSSON/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

14. Armand ‘Mondo’ Duplantis (Pole Vault – Sweden)

Duplantis is the product of an American pole-vaulter and a Swedish heptathlete. His brother is a Major League Baseball player, and his younger sister is prodigiously good across a range of sports. As for Mondo, he could end up dominating the Pole Vault for the next decade.

15. Auriol Dongmo (Shot Putt – Portugal)

Dongmo became a mum in 2018 and the experience has had a transformative effect on her results. She said, “I now have an extra motivation to fight not only for myself but also my son.” Following her return to action in 2020, she’s set six national records and could become the first Portuguese to win a medal in a throwing event.

Sifan Hassan gets the World Record at Fanny-Blankers-Koen-Stadium on June 6 – Credit: Photo by NESimages/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

16. Sifan Hassan (5,000m & 10,000m – Holland)

Born in Ethiopia, Hassan fled to Holland as a 15-year-old refugee. At first, she juggled athletics with training to become a nurse but eventually had to choose one over the other. In June, Hassan obliterated the world 10,000m record by more than 10 seconds.

17. Leon Reid (200m – Ireland)

On June 2, Reid appeared via a video link at Bristol Crown Court along with 17 other defendants and pleaded not guilty to eight charges relating to drug and firearms offences. He is currently on bail and his trial is scheduled for November 29. Tokyo must feel like a haven away from his troubles back home.

18. Sandra Perkovic  (Discus – Croatia) 

Who says sports and politics don’t mix (other than Natalie Elphicke)? The Discus Queen – now that’s a proper sporting nickname – is a two-time gold medallist and a politician. She put politics on hold to compete at the Olympics but says “I want to be the voice of young athletes and people who need help.”

19. Abdulrashid Sadulaev  (Wrestling – Russian Olympic Committee)

One million Instagram followers can’t be wrong. The man known as ‘The Russian Tank’ is also a devout Sunni Muslim. In 2019 he was banned for four months for turning up to a medals ceremony wearing a t-shirt with the image of Imam Shamil, leader of the Caucasian resistance to Imperial Russia in the 1800s.

Afghan refugee road cyclist Masomah Ali Zada – Credit: Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

20. Masomah Ali Zada (Cycling – Refugee)

Ali Zada grew up under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and a regime that believed women should not have the right to cycle. She was stoned and attacked when spotted out on her bike and would subsequently claim asylum in France. Zada says that she uses cycling as a way to express freedom of choice.

21. Katinka Hosszu (Swimming – Hungary)

Hosszu became the first swimmer to win a million in prize money. She has also become a successful CEO, despite encountering sexism in the boardroom. She recalled that after doing a presentation, one of her investors came up to her and said “I would rather take you dancing.”

Luka Doncic waves to the fans as the Slovenian basketball team arrives at Ljubljana Airport – Credit: Photo by Luka Dakskobler/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

22. Luka Doncic (Basketball – Slovenia)

Doncic has led Slovenia towards becoming the best Basketball nation in Europe. His LD77 logo is set to grace a new version of Air Jordan’s and the Dallas Mavericks point guard became the youngest player in NBA history (aged 22) to record a triple-double on the road in the playoffs. Yes, that really is a thing.

Gymnast Nina Derwael of Belgium – Credit: Photo by Davor Javorovic/Pixsell/MB Media/Getty Images

23. Nina Derwael (Gymnastics – Belgium)

The sport has been devastated by reports of abuse suffered by gymnasts. Derwael is coached by Yves Kieffer and Marjorie Huels who have publicly apologised over their treatment of their gymnasts. However, both will accompany Derwael to Tokyo, who has defended their methods, essentially saying that the ends justify the means.

24. Darya Klishina (Long Jump – Russian Olympic Committee)

Russia is banned from these Games owning to numerous cases of alleged state-sponsored doping. Klishina is one of a small group of track and field athletes allowed to compete as the ROC because she lives in America. If she pulls off a shock and wins gold, the Russian national anthem will not be played.

25. Lisa Unruh (Archery – Germany)

When not competing around the world in the top archery events, Unruh is also a police officer. Indeed, both Germany and Italy run programmes in which organisations and state agencies sponsor athletes to help them pursue a career in sport and, in return, they become part-time employees.

26. Benedetta Pilato (Swimming – Italy)

Pilato was 14 when she broke the national record for 50m breaststroke, which also catapulted her into the all-time top 10 list. This year, at the grand old age of 16, she set a new world record at the European Championships in Budapest and has just signed a lucrative contract with Speedo.

Denmark’s goalkeeper Niklas Landin Jacobsen (C) lifts the trophy after the 2021 World Men’s Handball Championship final – Credit: Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images

27. Niklas Landin Jacobsen (Handball – Denmark)

If you thought Italy’s goalkeeper at the Euros was good at shot-stopping, wait till you’ve seen Jacobsen in action. In 2019, he became the first goalkeeper to be chosen as World Player of the Year. The Danes’ superstar is Mikkel Hansen who reportedly earns $2.5m a year from his club contract with Paris Saint-Germain.

28. Elena Kulichenko (Long Jump – Cyprus)

As a result of Russia’s Olympic ban, Kulichenko moved to Cyprus and gained citizenship in March so she could compete at the Games. She told TIME Magazine, “I got hundreds of messages on Instagram calling me a traitor.” Aren’t the people behind the doping the villains here?

29. Viktor Hovland (Golf – Norway)

Norway has never produced a decent men’s golfer, until now. Hovland could also be playing in this year’s Ryder Cup. He’s become a sensation back home. A recent USA Today headline screamed, “How popular is Hovland back in Norway? Even grandmothers stay up to watch him”.

Pentathlete Laura Asadauskaite of Lithuania – Credit: Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images

30. Laura Asadauskaite (Modern Pentathlon – Lithuania)

Asadauskaite outdid her husband, who took home a silver medal in this event back in 2004 and bronze in 2008, by winning gold at London 2012. She also has a degree in Administration and European Union Policy, and probably knows more than many sitting MPs about how the EU works.