After 2 weeks of frenzied excitement, Tokyo 2020 has finally come to an end. I am sure most of you followed the Olympiad with much interest and would surely have witnessed Italy’s stunning performances in the high jump and sprints, Caleb Dressel’s feats in the pool and Tom Daley’s moment of glory on the diving platform. However, the Olympics is also a platform for lesser-known sports to have their moment in the spotlight and as in every Olympics every athlete has their own story to tell. So, here is a look at some of the unsung heroes of the Tokyo Olympics and a look at moments of motivation, sportsmanship and endeavor that might have gone under the radar but deserve a stage of their own.
Anna Kiesenhofer rides to victory
It is not often you would think that a PhD holder in mathematics would be in the hunt for Olympic gold but Austrian cyclist Anna Kiesenhofer was a rare exception, and boy did she make full use of it. As a mathematician and researcher in Lausanne she was not among the pre-race favourites but she formed a breakaway at the very start of the race and never gave up the lead she built on the peloton despite not being part of a professional cycling team since 2017. Coming second to Kiesenhofer was Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands who has a story of her own to tell. She crashed heavily while in the race lead in the 2016 Rio Olympics and suffered injuries so severe that her team-mate was worried she had died after seeing her on the side of the road. Despite suffering three spinal fractures she was back on her bike within 10 days of the accident and would go on to win world championships in both the road race at time trials. At the Tokyo Olympics she would follow on from her silver medal in the road race with a dominating time trial performance, finally winning her first Olympic gold.
Sportswomanship at the skateboarding rink
Skateboarding has been a welcome addition to the Olympic programme and has been dominated by some of the youngest athletes on show in Tokyo. In one of the more heartwarming moments of the games, Misugo Okamoto, one of the favourites for the Women’s park discipline fell on her final run, putting her out of medal contention. Seeing Okamoto in tears however her fellow competitors immediately consoled her and lifted her up on their shoulders on one of the moments of the games and a true embodiment of the Olympic spirit.
While the medallists in the Women’s Park event had a combined age of 44, skateboarding is not just a young man’s or women’s game. Dallas Oberhozler from South Africa is a unique personality with some remarkable stories to tell including one where he was nearly eaten by a jaguar in the Amazon rainforest. He was joined by a fellow 46 year old in Rune Glifberg of Denmark, one of the greatest skateboarders in history who came out of retirement to make a final appearance at the Olympics.
Mijain Lopez’s 4-peat
It is hard enough to imagine winning a single Olympic gold, but just try to imagine defending your Olympic title successfully, and then doing it again and then once more for good measure. That is exactly what Mijain Lopez of Cuba, widely regarded as the greatest wrestler of all time achieved at the Tokyo Olympics. He won gold for the fourth consecutive time in his discipline in the Olympics, a feat which has never been emulated by any other wrestler cementing his status at the top of the pantheon and becoming just the 5th Olympian to win a single discipline in 4 consecutive games.
Japanese siblings win gold in Judo
Hifumi Abe and Uta Abe are a pair of Japanese judokas who were considered to both be medal favourites in the Men’s 66kg and Women’s 52 kg respectively. They also happen to be siblings and as the schedule dictated they would be competing in their respective events on the same day. And for the first time in the Olympics, two siblings would go on to win gold on the same day in an individual sport and bring two more golds for the home nation.
Israeli surprise in gymnastics
Israel is not usually the name that first springs to mind when one thinks of gymnastics, and truth be told Israel has never been a prolific presence at the Olympics, only winning one gold medal prior to 2021. However, this Olympics would change all that with Israel winning two more golds with one going to Artem Dolgopyat with gold in the Men’s floor exercise in artistic gymnastics and the other going to Linoy Ashram in the Women’s individual all round event in rhythmic gymnastics.
The Oldest republic in the world creates history
San Marino is a tiny country situated inside the Italian borders with a population of just over 33 000 which is more well known for being the oldest continuing republic in the world and as such is not the first country that comes to mind when thinking of Olympic medals. Therefore, it was with some surprise when Alessandra Perilli became the first medallist from the country with a silver in the Women’s trap shooting becoming the smallest country in Olympic history to win a medal at the games. However, this was not enough and they would increase their medal tally from zero to three in the space of a single Olympics. Perilli would team up with Gian Marco Berti to win silver in the Mixed trap team before Myles Amine would also go on to win a bronze on the wrestling mat.
In addition to San Marino, the Tokyo Olympics would turn out to be a historical occasion for Bermuda as well with Flora Duffy winning gold in the Women’s triathlon making Bermuda the smallest IOC member to ever win gold at the Olympic games.
The Dictator cements his place at the top
Ma Long, considered by many to be the greatest table tennis player of all time with the nickname to match, cemented his place at the very top following his gold medal in the Men’s Singles at the Tokyo Olympics, become the first men’s player to ever defend the title. Ma Long would display his legendary skills, especially in an engrossing semi final against Dmitry Ovtcharov before going on to win the final against compatriot Fan Zhendong. He would later win his 5th Olympic gold with a third consecutive victory in the Men’s team event
French surprise in the Volleyball
Before the Tokyo Olympics if one had to ask who would win the Olympic gold medal, the usual suspects would be the teams of Brazil, Poland and Russia. France were far from favourites and have never so much as reached an Olympic quarterfinal. The group stages did not give any substantial proof that France would be medal contenders as well, given that they won two and lost three of their group matches and barely sneaked through into the quarter-finals. However, once they reached the quarterfinals they found a whole new level of performance, beating World No.2 Poland in a close quarterfinal encounter, before dominating Argentina in the semis, setting up a final against the Russian Olympic Committee. The ROC were favourites going into the gold medal encounter but France would shock them with some beautiful volleyball, rushing into a 2-0 set lead, one set away from glory. Russia fought back in the third and fourth sets however, tying the match 2-2 and with momentum on Russia’s side it seemed like the end of the road for France. However they would seal a stunning upset in the deciding set, winning the gold medal for the first time in their history.
Charlotte Worthington goes where no woman has ever gone before
BMX has been part of the Olympics programme since 2008 but 2021 was the first time that BMX freestyle would feature in the Olympics. It was the chance for some of the best riders in the world to showcase their daring stunts and tricks on a specially made arena. Going into the Women’s event Hannah Roberts of the USA was considered the favourite and she cemented this status with a stunning score of 96.10 in her first of two runs and most fans considered the gold medal race to be done and dusted.
However, Charlotte Worthington of the United Kingdom had other ideas. After falling in her first run her second run was her last chance for an Olympic medal and she went all out, becoming the first woman in history to land a 360 degree backflip in competition, putting up an unbelievable score of 97.50 to snatch the gold away from Roberts at the very last second.
Aditi Ashok tees off
India had perhaps the most successful Olympic campaign in their history with a stunning gold medal for Neeraj Chopra, both the mens and womens hockey teams hinting at a return to the glory days of Indian hockey and further medals in weightlifting, badminton, wrestling and boxing. However, Aditi Ashok, despite just missing out on an Olympic medal deserves a special mention of her own.
Ranked 200th in the world going into the Women’s golf competition few people expected Ashok to be in medal contention, especially given that Covid-19 had left her weakened earlier in the year leading to a drop off of almost 15 yards off the tee. Given that she was already not amongst the top of the power rankings this meant that she lost almost 40 yards off the tee to elite competitors such as Nelly Korda and Lydia Ko and this surely should have meant Ashok was out of medal contention.
However, in reality she was in the mix for an Olympic medal up until the very last hole of the competition, ultimately just missing out on the medals and finishing in 4th place, just one stroke short of the silver and bronze medal holders. However, this takes nothing away from what was a valiant effort in trying circumstances.
Jason Kenny- Britain’s most successful Olympian
Jason Kenny became the most successful British Olympian in history, winning his seventh gold on the cycling track with gold in the Men’s Keirin passing the total of six previously held by fellow cyclist Sir Chris Hoy. It remains to be seen if Kenny’s wife, Laura Kenny will be back in 2024 for a shot at her husband’s title as most successful British Olympian as she currently has 5 gold medals, after becoming the first ever female winner of the Madison race.
Never giving up
Finally I think its worth shining some light on two stories that embody the Olympic spirit perfectly. First, in a story that was widely reported, Simone Biles withdrew from the Women’s All-Round team final in the gymnastics arena citing mental health issues leading to a lack of spatial awareness and risk of injury. This decision drew praise from several competitors and viewers, lauding her bravery in putting her mental health at the forefront despite the expectations of an entire nation. This led to her pulling out from several individual finals as well. However, she would keep on trying behind closed doors to get her mind in a place where she could compete and this culminated in a well deserved bronze medal in the Women’s balance beam.
In another story, this time from the 50km race walk, the longest athletics event in the Olympics and a gruelling ordeal in hot and humid conditions. Japanese race walker, Masatora Kawano of Japan was considered as a potential medallist but his dreams of Olympic glory seemingly shattered as the brutal conditions took hold, with Kawano collapsing mid race from exhaustion and even vomiting on the road. To all watching, this seemed like the end of the road for Kawano, but he would go on to pick himself up from the ground and continue until the very end, ultimately finishing sixth in a stunning show of determination.
I know that these stories are just a glimpse of all the wonderful stories that the Tokyo Olympics have gifted us and there are countless more tales that deserve their own moments in the spotlight. I hope these stories shone a light on some of the more underappreciated stories from the Olympics and what it truly means to be an Olympian and the wonders of the human spirit!