Once you get past all the stories about crime, pollution, doping and Zika infections, the 2016 Olympics are sure to deliver in the same way the Games always do: Shattered world records and Phelps-like individual dominance, as well as shocking upsets and heartwarming tales of athletes whose mere participation is a victory. We remember wrestler Rulon Gardner for his shocking upset of Russian powerhouse Aleksandr Karelin, as well as Eric "The Eel" Moussambani, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who, thanks to his opponents' disqualification, swam his 100-meter freestyle heat alone, struggling to finish because he'd never even competed in a pool that big. Looking ahead to Rio, here are 15 underdog stories to watch, from those who might win gold to some runner-ups you'll root for anyway.
Due to the conflicts across the African continent and Syria, the International Olympic Committee created a 10-athlete team of refugees, six from Sudan, and two each from Syria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have stories of being orphaned, staying in camps, harrowing journeys to survival and, now, competing at the highest levels of track, judo and swimming. The team with "'no home, no flag and no national anthem," as IOC President Thomas Bach called them, will march in the opening ceremony just before Brazil, carrying an Olympic flag.
At 41, Chusovitinia is the oldest gymnast to compete in the Olympics, with Rio marking her seventh trip to the Games. She won a team gold in 1992 with the Unified Team, and a silver in the vault representing Germany in 2008. This year, she'll once again represent her native Uzbekistan. "I mean she's had a child, and to keep getting into a leotard and stay in such phenomenal shape, to be able to bear all that pounding over the years, I don’t know how she does it," her contemporary Kerri Strug said.
These names might sound familiar to NFL fans. Best, a running back who played two years for the Detroit Lions before retiring due to concussion issues, will run the 100-meter dash for St. Lucia, the island country where his father was born. He qualified in April by meeting the maximum time of 10.16 seconds, a far cry from the 9.79 speed Usain Bolt put up at the 2015 World Championships, so don't expect Best to come anywhere near contention. Still, the qualification made him the first-ever NFL player to make the Summer Games, before New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner made the United States Rugby Sevens team, a seven-man form of the game that's new to the Olympics in 2016. Despite recently signing a two-year contract extension, the Super Bowl winner got permission to take time off for the Games from head coach Bill Belichick.
The 13-year-old swimmer from Nepal is the youngest athlete competing in Rio, swimming the 100-meter backstroke. She survived the 2015 Kathmandu and donated winnings from her national championship victory to charities supporting the thousands of victims. She's both excited and humbled by the games: "My dad is coming with me to Rio, and my grandparents and friends at school are really proud but they are really good at their own things," she said in an interview.
Caster Semenya, a silver medalist in 2012 and the favorite to win 800-meter track Gold, made headlines for having to undergo gender testing in 2009 due to an abnormally high amount of testosterone in her body. The condition, known as hyperandrogenism, led to the International Association of Athletics Federations, track's governing body, to controversially implement rules on how much testosterone a runner could have to be eligible to still compete as a woman, because higher levels could give them an unfair competitive advantage. And while Semenya will be in the spotlight during the Games, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand deserves credit for allowing women with this condition to compete. When the Athletic Federation of India prevented her from competing in the 2015 Commonwealth Games due to the condition, Chand took her case to sports world's highest governing body, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, arguing that naturally occurring chemicals shouldn't be grounds for disqualification. She won the case, and the CAS suspended the IAAF's regulations for two years, paving the way for both women to run in Rio.
The 26-year-old Jamaican sprinter has the distinct disadvantage of competing against his friend and training partner – Usain Bolt. And while all eyes will be on Bolt's 100-meter showdown with American Justin Gatlin, how amazing would it be to see Blake, a two-time silver medalist in 2012, come out on top in the 100 or 200? After all, he's beaten his pal before, and he's three years younger.
The American team is supposed to dominate, led by three-time all-around World Champion Simone Biles, probably the most-hyped American athlete at the Games save for Michael Phelps. That will likely leave China and Russia fighting for silver, led by newcomer Shang Chunsong and 2012 all-around bronze medalist Aliya Mustafina. Out of the 10 women on both teams, nine of them have never competed in the Olympics, while the U.S. squad features 2012 standouts Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman. It might not be close, but injuries are common and you never know who will become the next Kerri Strug.
Even without LeBron James and Steph Curry, the U.S. men's team is stacked with stars, led by Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. The number 2 ranked Spanish team is coming off two silver-medal finishes by the Americans, losing by 11 points and 7 points in the last two Olympic finals. They have NBA stars in Pau Gasol and Ricky Rubio, but this year they'll be without Marc Gasol, limiting their chances. The French, meanwhile, are led by Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Gobert and Boris Diaw. Despite all this talent, both Euro teams might have to pin their hopes on the U.S. getting a team-wide bacterial infection.
A native of one of Rio's poorest favelas, the 24-year-old judoka was disqualified from the 2012 Games for using an illegal move, subjecting her to racial taunts from her countrymen. Outside of the soccer team avenging their last World Cup disappointment, there might be no better redemption story among Brazil's Olympians.
The German tennis star might have the best shot to stop Serena Williams from winning her fifth gold medal and second straight in singles competition. Though Serena's last Grand Slam loss came against Spain's Garbine Muguruza, that was on the clay surface of the French Open, while the Brazil games will have a hard court. Kerber lost to Serena on Wimbledon's grass, but beat her earlier this year on the Australian Open's hard court, so we'll give her the slight edge over Muguruza here.
This will be the fifth and final Olympics for the 32-year-old Zimbabwean, making it her last chance to be the first woman swimmer to earn eight individual medals. She'll compete in the 200-meter backstroke, an event in which she won gold in 2004 and 2008, but finished in sixth in 2012. Her medals make up seven of Zimbabwe's eight total.
Try saying these triplets' names three times fast. The 30-year-old Estonians will compete in the women's marathon, despite not getting into running until about six years ago. They'll likely finish a half-hour behind the winners, but it'll still be fun to cheer on the "Trio to Rio," supposedly the first set of triplets to compete in the Olympics.
It always a joy to see athletes win gold in front of their country, and if this Brazilian duo comes out on top, it'll mean they've taken down some tough competition and brought the Olympic title home for the first time in 20 years. They'll face top seed Brazilian duo Larissa and Talita, the number one internationally ranked Germans, Kira Walkenhorst and Laura Ludwig, and the always-dangerous Americans, Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross. The 37-year-old Walsh Jennings, of course, has won three straight golds, and this will be her last Olympics, though her first with the veteran Ross as her partner. It'll be a tough road, but it's highly possible that the young Brazilians win in their first-ever Olympics.
Timuani ran the 100 at a pace of 11.72 at the 2015 World Championships, so he's not likely to advance after the first round. What is fun about the 24-year-old is that he's the only athlete to in Rio representing Tuvalu, the small island nation with a population somewhere around 10,000. It's the only one-athlete country to compete in the Games this year.
The 30-year-old Hungarian swimmer has five medals to his name but no golds, thanks mostly to Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. His three silvers in 2008 were all just behind Phelps, and they'll face off one last time in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly events, making Rio Cseh's last time to be the bride instead of the bridesmaid.