TOKYO — Lighting the Olympic caldron, even at a Games somewhat deflated by the coronavirus pandemic, is one of the highest honors in sport.
Names as big as Wayne Gretzky and Muhammad Ali have done it, but so have an obscure archer and a 12-year-old schoolgirl.
So predicting who will do it at this year’s opening ceremony on Friday must be a near impossible task, right? Well consider that The New York Times correctly predicted in 2016 that Vanderlei de Lima, a marathon bronze medalist, would get the honor. In 2012, a group of unknown teenagers were chosen to light the caldron, but our pick of rower Steven Redgrave was the last prominent athlete to hold the torch, so we are taking partial credit.
Can we make it three for three? Here are the leading candidates — all of them Japanese, naturally — to take the most prominent role in Friday’s opening ceremony.
He is the most revered athlete in Japan, holder of the world record for home runs at 868. His arrival would electrify fans and perhaps transcend the somber feeling of an empty stadium because of pandemic restrictions. But he never participated in an Olympics, and that would seem to be disqualifying.
9. Hideki Matsuyama
This year’s Masters winner is actually doing some low-key campaigning for the job. “What an honor that would be,” he said. An active athlete is not normally chosen, but Cathy Freeman of Australia did light the caldron in Sydney in 2000, then went on to win the 400 meters a week later
8. Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi
Takahashi and Noguchi won Japan’s first women’s marathon golds back to back in 2000 and 2004, memorable feats in a country where long-distance running is very popular. One, or in what would be a nice touch, both, could light the caldron.
7. Naomi Osaka
One of the biggest names in Japanese sports right now, Osaka plans to participate in the tennis competition and would add star power to the opening ceremony. Once again, though, as an active athlete she has tradition against her.
6. The 2008 softball team
This squad shocked the favored United States in the last Olympic softball tournament until this year. There is precedence for an entire team to light the caldron: The 1980 U.S. hockey team did so in Salt Lake City in 2002. If you want to pick just one player from that team, the blazing fast pitcher Yukiko Ueno, who is still pitching at age 39, would be a likely candidate.
5. Tadahiro Nomura
Judo has earned Japan 39 gold medals, the most of any sport. But only one judoka from anywhere in the world has won three gold medals: Nomura, who won extra lightweight gold in 1996, 2000, and 2004.
Kitajima is often called the best breaststroker of all time, the winner of both breaststroke events in 2004 and 2008, a double-double that is unmatched by a man or woman.
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3. A veteran gymnast
Japan has won 31 golds in gymnastics, all by men. Any one of Sawao Kato (eight golds), Akinori Nakayama (six), Mitsuo Tsukahara (five), Takashi Ono (five), or all of them, could win the honor, depending on their health (all are in their 70s or 80s).
2. Shun Fujimoto
Fujimoto won just one gymnastics gold medal, but he did so in legendary fashion. He had injured his knee in the floor exercise, but despite great pain, he continued to compete to help his team win the gold medal. His often replayed painful dismount from the rings aggravated the injury even further, but he nonetheless stuck the landing.
1. Kaori Icho
Only five athletes have ever won the same event four times in any Olympic sport. Icho is the only woman to do so. She was unbeatable in wrestling from 2004 to 2016, and added 10 world championships as well. For her achievements, she has received numerous honors in her native country. The biggest of them all could be coming Friday night.