A decade in the making and a year delayed due to Covid-19, the 2021 Olympics are wrapping up in Tokyo. The gloomy backdrop didn’t break the Olympic spirit, though, as records fell and athletes shared moments of triumph and solidarity. Here are 10 of the most memorable moments.
Fireworks over a mostly empty stadium at the opening ceremony
On Friday, July 23, the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics began in a nearly empty stadium with pink fireworks bursting into the air after a countdown.
Japanese Emperor Naruhito and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, both masked, cheered on the athletes before taking their socially distanced seats.
“Today is a moment of hope. Yes, it is very different from what all of us imagined. But finally we are all here together,” said Bach in the opening speech.
Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka received the Olympic flame from a torch relay through the stadium and lit the Olympic cauldron.
Osaka, who was returning to the court after walking out of the French Open in May, said firing up the cauldron was “undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life”.
Simone Biles wins two medals despite stepping away from most of the competition
US star gymnast Simone Biles, 24, arrived in Tokyo seeking to become the first woman in more than half a century to retain the all-around title. Many hoped she could leave with a career haul of nine Olympic golds, equalling the record set by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina in Tokyo in 1964.
But it was not to be. On July 27, Biles dropped out of the women’s gymnastics team final after one disappointing vault, saying she had to focus on her mental health. She then missed four out of five individual events, citing the “twisties”, a condition where gymnasts lose the ability to orient themselves in mid-air.
Biles didn’t entirely miss her chance to medal in Tokyo, though. She returned to claim bronze on the balance beam, adding to the silver she helped win in the team event despite her early departure. Altogether, the US won six gymnastics medals in Tokyo, including two golds: Sunisa Lee in the all-around and Jade Carey in floor exercise.
Team USA finds its new swimming superstar in Caeleb Dressel
Captain of the US swim team Caeleb Dressel proved himself a fitting heir to the legendary Michael Phelps. At just shy of 25 years old and already crowned world champion 13 times, he racked up five out of six possible gold medals in Tokyo, competing seven days straight and sometimes more than once in the same day.
Among other titles, Dressel was crowned world’s fastest swimmer with a lightning 21.07 seconds in the 50m freestyle before helping the US men shatter their own world record in the 4x100m medley relay.
Australia’s Emma McKeon was just as impressive, smashing records in the pool and matching the record for the most decorated female athlete at a single Games ever. At four gold and three bronze, she tied with Russian gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya (1952).
And Dressel’s US teammate Katie Ledecky was not far behind, winning two gold and two silver medals. Still, the US underperformed from their 33 medals and 16 golds in Rio, while Australia tripled their Rio count to win nine swimming golds in Tokyo.
Belarusian sprinter Tsimanouskaya flies to exile in Poland
In a dramatic standoff midway through the Games, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said team officials tried to force her to fly home early after she criticised them on social media.
She avoided leaving at that moment, and instead left for Poland a few days later after the country offered her a humanitarian visa. Tsimanouskaya said she feared for her life if forced back to Belarus, which has been wracked by political upheaval and a crackdown on dissent after disputed elections that returned strongman Alexander Lukashenko to power last year.
The International Olympic Committee then stripped two Belarusian coaches of their accreditations and kicked them out of the Olympic Village over the incident, while Tsimanouskaya’s husband joined her in Poland to start a new life there.
France beats Japan on its home turf to win gold in team judo
It was a big disappointment for France when heavyweight Teddy Riner had to settle for bronze in judo, after losing his quest for a record-tying third consecutive Olympic gold to Russian athlete Tamerlan Bashaev in the quarterfinals.
So it was all the more thrilling to see the team make a comeback the next day in the team final, beating Japan 4-1 in the first mixed team event ever held in the Games.
Japan had previously won nine gold medals, one silver and one bronze in the judo in Tokyo — a record haul since it became an Olympic event for men in 1964 and for women in 1992.
But in the grueling team final, Riner and his teammate Sarah Leonie Cysique shone, leaving Japan to walk away with the silver, while two bronze medals were awarded to Germany and Israel.
Japan beats the land of baseball at its own game
In another one of its favourite sports, Japan walked away the undisputed champion. After the women’s team beat the US team 2-0 in softball on July 27, the men’s team did the same in baseball on August 7.
Japan, whose previous best was a silver at the 1996 Atlanta Games, edged the US 2-0 in the baseball final to finally bring the gold to a country where baseball borders on a religion.
The Japanese beat the US twice on the way to the title, and team manager Atsunori Inaba said his players had done it their way.
“By winning the gold medal, Japanese baseball has shown its strength to the world,” said Inaba, who was part of the Japan team that finished fourth at the 2008 Beijing Games – the last time baseball featured at the Olympics.
The sport will not be returning at Paris 2024, in what US manager Mike Scioscia calls “an incredible oversight”.
Japanese 13-year-old wins inaugural women’s skateboarding gold
Japan also stood out in skateboarding, one of the new Olympic sports this year along with surfing, rock climbing, karate and 3×3 basketball.
Early on in the Games, Japan’s Momiji Nishiya became one of the youngest individual Olympic champions in history when she won the inaugural women’s skateboarding gold at the age of 13 years and 330 days.
Nishiya finished ahead of Brazil’s Rayssa Leal – who at 13 years and 203 days could have become the youngest ever individual Olympic champion – and Japan’s Funa Nakayama, 16.
Teen and tween skaters also dominated the women’s park competition, with hometown heroes Sakura Yosozumi and Kokona Hiraki cinching gold and silver, while Britain’s Sky Brown took bronze. The average age of the women’s skateboard medalists was 14.
Veteran vert skater Rune Glifberg, who, at 46, was the oldest to compete in Tokyo, said the teenage girls sweeping the medals showed how far the sport still has to go.
“Women’s skateboarding is only getting started,” he said. “It’s one step at a time and skateboarding is always progressing and that’s why we’re here.”
US women shine on the track while men fall short
Perhaps the greatest letdown for the US in Tokyo, though, was the men’s performance in athletics. Coming in heavily favoured, the US men failed to win an individual running gold medal for the first time in Olympic history.
Not so for the women, with 19-year-old Athing Mu winning the 800m and Sydney McLaughlin breaking her own world record to claim the title in 400m hurdles. But none walked away with as many medals to her name as 35-year-old sprinter Allyson Felix, who is retiring from the Olympics with 11 titles. That makes her the most decorated runner in US history, and the second most decorated in the world after Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish distance runner who won 12 between 1920 and 1928.
In Tokyo, Felix starred as the headliner on a 4x400m relay win alongside Mu, McLaughlin and hurdler Dalilah Muhammad.
After an especially bitter 4x100m relay, the US men also redeemed themselves in the 4x400m, winning their only Tokyo gold in the race on Saturday.
High jumpers share the gold
It was a touching moment of camaraderie in the most high-stakes of sports competitions.
Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy were leading in the men’s high jump on August 1 after both clearing 2.37m on their first try. But both missed all three attempts at clearing the Olympic-record height of 2.39m.
What happened next was an act of sportsmanship and solidarity but also the cementing of a friendship. They shared gold.
“When we both ended up at that 2.37, the referee came to explain to us and I just turned and asked him, ‘Can we have two golds?’” Barshim recalled. “And he’s like, ‘Yes.’ And he was trying to actually continue and explain at that moment. We didn’t really care. I looked in [Tamberi’s] eyes. He looked at my eyes. And we started celebrating already.”
‘I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion’
Tokyo saw more publicly out LGBTQ athletes compete than ever before, by a long shot: at 181, according to the website Outsports, the number was more than triple that at Rio 2016. Many seized on the opportunity to bring a message of equality to a global audience.
“I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion,” British diver Tom Daley, 27, told reporters after winning gold alongside Matty Lee in the synchronised 10m dive. “When I was younger I didn’t think I’d ever achieve anything because of who I was. To be an Olympic champion now just shows that you can achieve anything.”
US athlete Raven Saunders, 25, made a more visual display of pride and protest after taking silver in the shot put. Standing on the podium, the self-described “Flaming Gay” lifted her arms above her head to form an “X” with her wrists. Asked what that meant, she said, “It’s the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”
Tokyo also saw transgender athletes compete – and win – for the first time. While Laurel Hubbard made an anti-climactic entry in women’s weightlifting, after a storm of controversy over her participation, footballer Quinn became the first openly transgender, non-binary athlete to win an Olympic medal after Canada beat Sweden in the final on August 6.
Shock victory for Italian sprinter Lamont Marcell Jacob
Italy took a Covid-19 gamble when it allowed a small group of elite athletes to train through the pandemic while much of the world was in lockdown. That gamble paid off handsomely in Tokyo, where the country set a new medals record.
Perhaps the most exciting was that won by Lamont Marcell Jacob in the 100m. Jacobs became the first Italian in history to be crowned champion in the blue riband event of the Olympic track and field programme after powering home in a blistering 9.80sec.
The 26-year-old Jacobs erupted as he crossed the finish line and leapt into the arms of compatriot Tamberi, who only moments earlier had clinched a rare shared gold medal for Italy in the high jump along with Qatari world champion Barshim.
French win handball and first-ever volleyball medals
From BMX to the pole vault, France had its share of disappointments in Tokyo. In the end, only four French athletes – Romain Cannone in fencing, Clarisse Agbegnenou in judo, Jean Quiquampoix in shooting, and Steven Da Costa in karate – won gold in individual events.
In team sports, though, France had its breakthroughs, reaching five finals and winning three. On the second-to-last day in Tokyo, the men’s handball and volleyball teams claimed back to back golds. In volleyball, it was the team’s first-ever Olympic medal. And in the very final hours of competition on Sunday, the women’s handball team followed up by beating the Russian Olympic Committee in a tense rematch.
It was a welcome consolation after France narrowly lost to the US in another heated rematch the day before: the men’s basketball final. Still, walking away with the silver and memories of a stunning upset victory against the US in their opening group game, Les Bleus can keep their heads high as they look ahead to the next Olympics, in just three years, on their home turf.