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The Sports Report Olympics Edition: Super Saitama basketball stars and robots

United States center Sylvia Fowles is pressured by Serbia's Maja Skoric.
United States center Sylvia Fowles is pressured by Serbia’s Maja Skoric during the U.S. women’s basketball team’s Olympic semifinal victory Friday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Welcome to the Olympics newsletter, where we’re out of the blocks, through the first turn and fixing our eyes on the finish line.

Hopefully, we’ll pass the baton better than the U.S. men’s 4x100 relay team.

I’m Dan Woike, and before we talk about two breakout stars, let’s catch you up on what you need to know.

Olympic medal count

U.S. Olympic athlete tracker

Latest Olympics news and results

Friday and Saturday TV schedules

OK, so in my time out here at the Saitama Super Arena — a super name — there’s been one clear breakout star more than any other.

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Its name is CUE5, and it’s a basketball-playing robot that sort of looks like one of the costumes Kanye West was wearing during his “Donda” streaming event. Be sure to make a ‘Kawhi Leonard is already a basketball-playing robot’ joke because it’s perfect.

It opened the Olympic basketball tournament shocking the media in the building by hitting a free throw, a three-point shot and a half-court shot in just three attempts, a wonderfully unnecessary robotic achievement.

After a couple of rough outings, CUE5 expanded its games. Friday during the women’s semifinal, it dribbled up the court left-handed. Even though they’ve already seen the act A LOT during these Olympics (it’s either the robot or a jump rope/dance troupe), members of the American men’s team whipped out their phones to watch the robot hit all three of its shots again before the women finished off their win over Serbia.

As the Olympics get ready to wrap here in the next few days, I wonder what I’ll remember the most. Will it be Luka Doncic and his run with Slovenia, almost single-handedly leading them to a chance at a bronze medal? It might’ve happened had it not been for a blocked shot by Nicolas Batum right at the buzzer in the semis on Thursday night. Doncic has looked so unstoppable at times, it’s almost hard to wonder what his future could look like.

Maybe it’ll be Breanna Stewart announcing that she’s the future of U.S. women’s basketball with Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi headed out after five Olympics. Stewart’s been just a terrific all-around player and a great leader, fighting back from an Achilles injury to win a WNBA championship and now, maybe, another gold.

Or, I guess it could be Kevin Durant, the Americans’ best player, making sure their vulnerabilities weren’t fatal in these Games where a loss seemed more likely than ever.

But who am I kidding? It’ll be the robot.

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Track and field

Allyson Felix smiles after taking bronze in the women's 400 meters at the Tokyo Olympics on Friday.
(Francisco Seco / Associated Press)

Gary Klein on track and field: Allyson Felix, running the last individual race of her storied Olympic career, won the bronze medal in the 400 meters on Friday at Olympic Stadium.

Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas repeated as goal medalist in 48.36 seconds. Marileidy Paulino of the Dominican Republic took silver in 49.20. Felix, a five-time Olympian, finished in 49.46.

Felix has now won 10 medals, tying her with Carl Lewis for most by an American track and field athlete. She also eclipsed Merlene Ottey as the most decorated track and field Olympian.

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Jamaica won the women’s 400-meter relay gold medal and the United States earned silver on Friday night at Olympic Stadium.

Jamaica won in 41.02 seconds. The U.S. team of Javiana Oliver, Teahna Daniels, Jenna Prandini and Gabrielle Thomas finished in 41.45 seconds.

Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica, the 100-meters and 200-meters gold medalist, won her third gold medal of the Tokyo Games.

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Gary Klein on U.S. men’s track and field: It typically serves as a crowning achievement, a final opportunity to increase and celebrate an Olympic gold-medal haul.

Not this year. Not for this U.S. men’s track team.

As the Tokyo Games move toward their conclusion, Saturday’s 1,600-meter relay is shaping up as the last best chance for U.S. runners to avoid a gold-medal shutout.

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Winning any Olympic medal, of course, should be valued and celebrated. Incredible effort and sacrifice are required to make it to this global stage. These are, after all, the world’s greatest athletes.

“An Olympic medal is an Olympic medal,” Michael Cherry said after he finished fourth in the 400-meters final. “You want gold, but if you can come out with anything that’s great.”

But for the U.S. men’s team, there is no running from the fact that it has won zero gold medals in running events.

Ryan Crouser’s second consecutive gold medal in the shot put gave the U.S. men a grand total of one. Katie Nageotte’s gold medal in the pole vault increased the U.S. women’s total to four.

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Beach volleyball

Teammates April Ross, left and Alix Klineman celebrate a point during their gold-medal victory.
Teammates April Ross, left and Alix Klineman celebrate a point during their gold-medal victory in women’s beach volleyball at the Olympics on Friday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Nathan Fenno on beach volleyball: Some 1,300 days ago, the veteran and the newcomer cemented their fledgling partnership by touching sloshing water bottles together in a toast on a beach.

April Ross and Alix Klineman were an unlikely duo.

Though both had been raised in Southern California, Ross established herself as one of the world’s top beach volleyball players and captured two Olympic medals while the long-armed Klineman pursued the indoor game.

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The beach brought them together and, on a steaming afternoon at Shiokaze Park on Friday, the American duo won a gold medal at the Summer Games.

“I can’t fathom that it worked out the way it did,” Ross said. “It’s kind of a fairy-tale story.”

The victory over Australia’s Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho del Solar 21-15, 21-16, capped an undefeated run through the beach volleyball bracket for the Americans. In match after match at the temporary stadium, empty other than a scattering of officials and media members, the duo showed why the unexpected partnership in the early days has become the best in the world.

Women’s basketball

U.S. center Brittney Griner puts a spin move on Serbia's Dragana Stankovic.
U.S. center Brittney Griner puts a spin move on Serbia’s Dragana Stankovic during the second half of Friday’s game.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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Dan Woike on U.S. women’s basketball: Serbia was looking for a spark; instead, they made a dream come true.

Down big early to the U.S. women’s basketball team, 19-year-old Angela Dugalic checked in to make her Olympics debut, one of her final chances to compete in these Games before she plays for UCLA this winter.

In her country’s previous four games, she was engaged from the bench, cheering as the Serbians muscled their way into the semifinals. Around the village, she’d been stunned at how normal so many superstars would act.

Naomi Osaka and Luka Doncic both seemed so relaxed. Novak Djokovic spoke to her Serbian teammates with so much kindness that it felt like everyone had been friends for years.

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There were stars everywhere. And Friday, Dugalic got to see another wave of them all at once.

There was Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Brittney Griner, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Superstars in women’s basketball. Legends of the game.

“Basically, everyone on the team,” she said with a smile. “…I always imagined playing against them one day. I didn’t realize it was going to be so soon.”

Women’s volleyball

U.S. women's volleyball players celebrate their Olympic semifinal win over Serbia on Friday.
(Gary Ambrose / For the Times)
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Ben Bolch on U.S. women’s volleyball : The United States’ quest for its first gold medal in women’s volleyball might be about to end.

The Americans are one more victory away from their first championship in the sport after routing Serbia, 25-19, 25-15, 25-23, in a semifinal of these Tokyo Olympics on Friday at Ariake Arena.

Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” played during a timeout with U.S. up 17-12 in the second set, a fitting soundtrack to the good vibes surrounding the team.

Handball

Spain's Alicia Fernandez, right, tries to stop Brazil's Eduarda Amorim from taking a shot.
Spain’s Alicia Fernandez, right, tries to stop Brazil’s Eduarda Amorim from taking a shot during a preliminary-round game at the Olympics.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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Jorge Castillo on why there aren’t U.S. handball teams in the Olympics: It’s become a Summer Olympics tradition: Americans turn on their televisions to watch the Games and find a sport they don’t quite understand but know, just know, that the United States should easily dominate.

They’re baffled once they realize that the U.S. — men and women — again didn’t even qualify for a game they swear they played in gym class. They can’t fathom why the United States of America — boasting more elite athletes in team ball sports than any other nation on Earth — is so behind in team handball.

“I’ve heard it for about 50 years,” Dennis Berkholtz said with a laugh.

Berkholtz, 76, is an American handball pioneer. He was the U.S. men’s team captain for handball’s Olympic debut at the 1972 Munich Games, coached the men’s team four years later in Montreal, and served as USA Team Handball president from 1996 to 2000. Every step of the way, Berkholtz tried to awaken the supposed sleeping handball giant. Every time, the slumber continued.

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Until next time...

That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email us at sports@latimes.com. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.


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