You read it here first (maybe): who will light the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony

TOKYO – Lighting the Olympic cauldron, even during Games somewhat deflated by the coronavirus pandemic, is one of the sport’s top honors.

Names as big as Wayne Gretzky and Muhammad Ali have made it, but also 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 nearly an impossible task, right? Well, consider the New York Times correctly predicted in 2016 that Marathon bronze medalist Vanderlei de Lima would get the honor. In 2012, a group of unknown teenagers were chosen to light the cauldron, but our pick of rower Steven Redgrave was the last top athlete to carry the torch, so we’re taking some of the credit for that.

Can we do three for three? Here are the top contenders – all Japanese, of course – to play the biggest role in Friday’s opening ceremony.

He is Japan’s most revered athlete, holding the world record for home runs at 868. His arrival electrified fans and would perhaps transcend the grim feeling of an empty stadium due to pandemic restrictions. But he’s never been to an Olympics, and that would seem to be disqualifying.

This year’s Masters winner is actually doing a low-key campaign for the job. “What an honor that would be,” he said. An active athlete is not normally chosen, but Australia’s Cathy Freeman lit the cauldron in Sydney in 2000 and then won the 400m a week later.

Takahashi and Noguchi won Japan’s first women’s marathon gold medals in 2000 and 2004, memorable achievements in a country where long-distance running is very popular. One, or in what would be a nice touch, both, could light the cauldron.

One of the biggest names in Japanese sport at the moment, Osaka plans to take part in the tennis competition and would add star power to the opening ceremony. Again, however, as an active athlete, she has tradition against her.

This team shocked the favorite United States in the last Olympic softball tournament so far this year. There is a priority for an entire team to light the cauldron: the 1980 US hockey team did it in Salt Lake City in 2002. If you want to pick just one player from that team, the fast and lightning pitcher Yukiko Ueno, who is still throwing at 39, would be a likely candidate.

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-light gold in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

Kitajima is often called the best brewer of all time, winner of both breaststroke events in 2004 and 2008, a double-double unmatched by either a man or a woman.

Japan won 31 gold medals in gymnastics, all of them men. Any of Sawao Kato (eight gold medals), Akinori Nakayama (six), Mitsuo Tsukahara (five), Takashi Ono (five) or all could earn the honor, depending on their health (all have between 70 and 80 years old)).

Fujimoto has won only one gold medal in gymnastics, but he has done it in a legendary way. He had injured his knee during the floor exercise, but despite great pain, he continued to compete to help his team win the gold medal. His often-replayed painful exit from the rings further compounded the injury, but he blocked the reception nonetheless.

Only five athletes have won the same event four times in an Olympic sport. Icho is the only woman to do so. She was unbeatable in wrestling from 2004 to 2016, and also added 10 world championships. For her achievements, she received many honors in her native country. The bulk of them could arrive on Friday evening.

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