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Rio 2016 Preview: Brazil braces itself for the biggest Games ever and could still produce the best

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Sport has seldom seemed as serious as in the run-up to Rio – but the Games are about to begin!

After all the outrage engulfing these Olympics – first the economic and political turbulence, next the water pollution and lagging preparations, then the doping scandal and the Zika virus – you could be forgiven for forgetting that the greatest sporting show on Earth is finally upon us.

Barring any further catastrophes, the Olympic Games actually kick off in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, taking the largest multi-sport event in the world to South America for the first time.

Despite its many problems, where could be better than the city of carnivals to host the biggest party on the planet?

In fact, they have already broken records. Athletes from the largest number of countries in the history of the Olympics will come together in Rio, including debut entrants Kosovo, South Sudan and Team Refugee, ten athletes who have fled civil wars in their own countries.

Athletes like the Syrian teenager Yusra Mardini, who swam for her life in the Aegean Sea and is now about to swim at Rio 2016.

There are heroes in waiting: pioneering athletes aiming to win a first medal for their nation at these Games, such as the Kosovan judoka Majlinda Kelmendi and Bosnian middle-distance runner Abel Turka, who are both shouldering monumental expectations for their respective Balkan states.

There are departing legends: champions who hope to bow out in style, such as swimming sensation Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, and the Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt, targeting a unique ‘triple-triple’ of three sprint titles that he has held since Beijing 2008.

As for Great Britain, a combination of returning London 2012 heroes and promising new talents form part of the largest Team GB travelling delegation for 24 years.

For equestrian showjumper Nick Skelton, Rio 2016 will be a record seventh Olympic Games, having first competed at Seoul 1988, whilst Sir Bradley Wiggins will bid to become Britain’s most successful Olympian with an eighth medal.

At the other end of the spectrum, 207 of the 366 British athletes are set to appear for the first time (down to the youngest participant in the contingent, 16-year-old Durham gymnast Amy Tinkler), each desperate to contribute to perhaps the most successful overseas Olympics for Team GB.

Across 17 days of competition, Rio 2016 will feature more sports than any previous Games after the addition of rugby sevens and golf, which last appeared at the St Louis Olympics in 1904.

Indeed, there are too many to accommodate after the opening ceremony, so the football, archery and equestrian disciplines will have already got under way by the time the Olympic cauldron ignites.

The 28 events will unfold at a whole rostrum of venues in the so-called postcard capital of Brazil, from Copacabana beach to the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain and, in another Olympic first, the opening ceremony will not be held within the athletics track but in the Maracanã Stadium. The world will be watching the spiritual home of football from midnight (UK time) on Saturday morning.

The social issues are a deep concern and the scrutiny must continue until long after the Games have gone. These two weeks, though, are rightly about the athletes, their inspiring struggles to reach the global stage and the stunning results.

In line with the Olympic mantra, there is every chance that the 10,500 competitors will go faster, higher, stronger than ever, delivering an unforgettable fortnight.

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