The Experts’ Picks for Must-Watch Olympic Events
We asked the experts at our sister brands for their picks for the must-watch events they absolutely won't miss. Use this guide to plan your viewing schedule.
The Olympics start tomorrow and there are a lot of events to watch—like 7,000 hours of coverage airing in the U.S. across 339 events in 33 sports. It is literally not possible to watch all of that coverage during the Games (July 23 to Aug. 8), even if you stayed up 24 hours straight for all 17 days and did nothing but watch Olympics.
So you’ve got to prioritize. But how do you decide what to tune in for? (After you watch triathlon, of course.)
This is where we enlisted the help of the experts. We asked the editors at our sister brands, who know everything about cycling, running, climbing, the outdoors, surfing, what’s hot, and what’s not. We even enlisted a swim expert to tell us what in the water-packed swim schedule we should set our DVRs for. Here are their picks for the must-watch, cannot-be-missed Olympic events.
Final: Tuesday, Aug. 3 (7 p.m. – 9:55 p.m. JST)
Athing Mu, a 19-year-old American, is in contention to win the gold medal in the 800 meters. Mu completed her first year at Texas A&M University and promptly went pro at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, signing a multi-year contract with Nike. Now the top of the podium seems like it could be hers for the taking, though some of her biggest competition might come from her own U.S. teammates, American record-holder Ajee’ Wilson and world championship silver medalist Raevyn Rogers. The thing about the 800 meters? No matter who is competing, the event is always dramatic. Part strategy, part strength, part pure speed. Cuba’s Rose Almanza comes in with the fastest time (1:56.28), but odds are it’ll all come down to a thrilling last 50 meters in the final round.
– Erin Strout, senior editor, Women’s Running
Saturday, Aug. 7 (7 p.m. – 10:20 p.m. JST)
Trying to decide what event I’m most looking forward to at the Olympics is like trying to choose an ice-cream at Ben and Jerry’s — every race has its own great flavor that I don’t want to miss. But I do have an answer: the women’s 10,000m, which I’ll be watching at 4 a.m. MT on Saturday morning, Aug. 7. Why? The best face-off, plus Emily Sisson. Up front, we get to see the showdown between the Netherland’s Sifan Hassan, who broke the world record for the distance on June 6, and Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey, who lowered that record two days later. If that rivalry isn’t enough, we have the privilege of seeing U.S. runner Emily Sisson at her peak. I’ve been a fan of Sisson since I watched her dance away from the field at the Nebraska State Cross Country Championships in her freshman year in high school. She’s proven since to be one of the most consistently-improving U.S. runners of this generation—until the marathon trials in Atlanta, the race she told me she had been focused on since 2015. There, however, she fell off the pack and eventually out of the race. Flash forward 15 months and she not only won the U.S. Trials but made a statement, running away from the field and breaking Deena Kastor’s 17-year-old Olympic Trials record despite 85-degree F heat. Sisson has two top-10 finishes in the 10,000m at World Championships, and the stamina, experience, and determination to be in the hunt through the finish. Regardless who wins, this is going to be a race to remember. (See the full in-depth breakdown of the 10,000m contenders here.)
– Jonathan Beverly, editor-in-chief, PodiumRunner
Looking for more track guidance? Check out Women’s Running’s viewers guide and PodiumRunner’s in-depth breakdowns of the contenders in each of the key races: 800m, 1500m, 5,000m, 10,000m
Cross-Country Mountain Biking
Men’s finals: Monday, July 26 (7 p.m. JST)
Women’s finals: Tuesday, July 27 (7 p.m. JST)
As someone who rides my bike exclusively to have a good time and see nice places, cross-country racing in the Olympics baffles me just enough to be fascinating. Riders will lap a winding course that looks like intestines packed into a city park somewhere around seven times (the final count hasn’t been settled yet). It’s the opposite of how I ride, where I like to ride, and why I like to ride—but the general shape of the sport is more or less the same, which means I can watch and just barely grasp how incredible these athletes are. Diving? Don’t have a clue what it takes to make a body do that. Gymnastics? No way. But riding a bike on a trail? That’s something I can (sorta) relate to. It also helps that I have massive girl crushes on the favorite women athletes, so it’s easy to cheer for whoever’s in the lead.
– Abigail Barronian, associate editor, Outside Magazine
Get a full breakdown of the women’s mountain bike races, including American favorites Kate Courtney and Haley Batten from our sister mountain bike magazine, BETA.
Women’s Road Race
Sunday, July 25 (1 p.m. JST)
With track, mountain biking, road cycling, and BMX, it’s almost impossible to choose just one must-watch Olympic cycling event. I’ll try and be succinct: I’m giddy to see if French phenom Loana Lecomte can continue her unbelievable winning streak in the cross-country MTB. The 21-year old has won four World Cup races this summer—will she be at the top of her game in Tokyo or too fatigued? The women’s road race is also bound to entertain. The Dutchies are the ones to beat, with world champ Anna van der Breggen set to retire at the end of the year and former world champ Annemiek van Vleuten hoping to avenge a tragic experience at the Rio Games, the women in orange have four legitimate cards to play along with teammates Marianne Vos and Demi Vollering. Finally, I can’t wait to see American Hannah Roberts dominate the inaugural freestyle BMX event. The 19-year-old is a favorite for gold, and she’s already an inspiration to so many non-traditional athletes.
– Betsy Welch, senior editor, VeloNews
Want more on all those cycling races mentioned? Check out VeloNews’ guide to road, track, and mountain bike.
Women’s 400m freestyle
Monday, July 26 (10:30 a.m. – 1:05 p.m. JST)
American Katie Ledecky and Australian Ariarne Titmus have both been on fire in recent years. The shorter events favor Titmus and the longer events favor Ledecky, but the 400m free is where we will likely see a very close and very fast race between the two fastest women to ever swim the event. If I had to pick one event, it’d be their showdown. If I get a bonus pick, I’d say the new mixed medley relay. Each team includes two women and two men, with the order as backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle, but unlike the triathlon mixed relay where men and women race each other, in the swimming mixed medley the athlete order is at the team’s discretion. So there is a lot of strategy involved and it’s likely we’ll see men and women go head to head and major lead changes. This could be a very exciting and fun event!
– For this we tapped an outside expert in Haley Chura, pro triathlete, many-time swim course record holder, former NCAA swimming national champion with the University of Georgia, and competitor in the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.
Mixed Team Relay
Saturday, Aug. 1 (7:30 a.m. JST)
OK, yes, obviously I’m going to be glued to the individual races and I will 100% be yelling at my TV for Flora Duffy in the women’s race. But the relay is going to be very new and exciting. With each athlete doing a mini-triathlon that’ll take about 20 minutes before handing off to the next person, it’ll be fast and exciting and probably a little bit brutal too. What happens if you mess up your transition? Your whole country hates you. (Kidding, kidding.) I also have it on good authority the U.S. team is ready to take on the French in the relay and stop their dominance. Plus, it’ll be Friday evening primetime in the U.S.—perfect viewing.
– Kelly O’Mara, editor-in-chief, Triathlete Magazine
Check out our full guide to the Olympics.
Aug. 3 and 4 (5 p.m. JST)
Aug. 6 and 7 (5:30pm JST)
While we’re stoked to watch all of the events, we’re most looking forward to the bouldering competitions. It’s slower than speed climbing, but equally thrilling to watch—none of the head-to-head racing, but more creativity and acrobatics as athletes attempt to top out incredibly complex problems. Each of the Olympic climbers have to be incredibly well-rounded to excel in all three disciplines (speed climbing, lead climbing, and bouldering), which makes us all the more excited about Colin Duffy, who’s achieved that versatility at the young age of 16. He hails from Boulder, Colorado, where he trains with Olympic teammate Brooke Raboutou. Duffy, the youngest climber on Team USA’s roster, qualified for the Olympic team by winning the 2020 IFSC Pan American Championship, and could create a ruckus for the stiff international competition. No pressure, kid. (But really, no pressure. Just have fun and chalk up more if you need to.)
– Ariella Gintzler, senior editor, and Jeremy Rellosa, reviews editor, Outside Magazine
With climbing as a new Olympic sport this year, there are a lot of things to be excited about. Check out Climbing’s 10 Things to Watch for at the Olympics for more insight.
Canoe & Kayak
Men’s/Women’s Canoe/Kayak Sprint
Sessions 1-6: Aug. 2-7 (9:30 a.m. JST)
Women’s Canoe Slalom
Finals: July 29 (3:45 p.m. JST)
Growing up in Minnesota means you are obligated to learn to canoe on one of the state’s 10,000 lakes. Some of my earliest memories are canoe epics in the Boundary Waters with my dad, so the sport will always have a special place in my heart. This Games is a big one for canoeists. For the first time ever, women can compete in their own canoe sprint and slalom events. I can’t wait to watch the athletes hit the water, and I’m most excited to celebrate gender parity in canoeing this Olympic season.
– Abigail Wise, digital managing director, Outside Magazine
Surfing: Men’s & Women’s
Sessions 1-4: July 25-27 (7 a.m. JST)
Bronze/Gold medal matches: July 28 (8 a.m. JST)
The best and worst part about watching competitive surfing is the ocean: waves are highly unpredictable. Poor conditions make for a boring fan experience, sure, but when they’re good nothing is more exciting than watching athletes perform tenuous feats on a dynamic liquid playing field that always has the last say. Luckily, the forecast is looking pretty good.
– Will Taylor, gear director, Outside Magazine
You can also check out the full Tokyo schedule and see all of our Olympics coverage here.