Tokyo 2020: best and worst of an incredible Games

We pick the most memorable performances and unforgettable incidents from the Summer Olympics

An Olympic Games like no other reached its conclusion on Sunday as the closing ceremony inside the Olympic Stadium brought the curtains down on Tokyo 2020.

Amid unprecedented restrictions and strict health and safety measures, the postponed Tokyo Games managed to get through 19 days of competition without any major hitches.

Before looking ahead of the Tokyo Paralympic Games, The National's sports desk has reviewed the Olympics, selecting their highs and lows from the Games.

Dominic Hart - Sports Editor

Biggest highlight

Success of the Games: After an extraordinary 18 months of a world in crisis, the achievement of managing to stage a successful OIympics was breathtaking. The Japanese public didn't want it, many athletes pulled out, and thousands of support staff and Games crew either decided not to show up, or were reluctant helpers. Yet against this backdrop, the Tokyo organisers managed a brilliant event, with all the drama and human achievement we have come to expect from the planet's best athletes.

Favourite gold medal performance

Gines Lopez (men's combined climbing): Okay, I'm a traditionalist and thought there was too much tampering with Olympic disciplines. I was wrong. Climbing was one of the new sports, along with surfing and skateboarding among others, and watching the speed climbers do their thing was utterly amazing and fully deserving of a place on the biggest stage of all.

Surprise of the Games

Ahmed Hafnaoui: One of the greatest joys of watching the Olympics is seeing the unexpected. The 18-year-old swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui surprised everybody, including himself, after winning the 400m freestyle gold. He was the slowest qualifier for the final, two seconds behind the heat's winner, which made the achievement even more remarkable. "I just can't believe it, it's amazing. I felt better in the water this morning than yesterday and that's it. I'm the Olympic champion now," was his shocked reaction.

Favourite human story

Sifan Hassan: Two golds and a bronze for Sifan Hassan. Most athletes train all their lives to be competitive at one event, so for the Dutch runner to win the 5,000m and the 10,000m and claim third in the 1,500m was out of this world.

Biggest disappointment

Mo Farah failing to even qualify: The Great Britain runner is a double-double gold medallist, winning the 5,000m and the 10,000m at both London in 2012 and Rio four years later. Watching him struggle, and fail, to make the qualifying standard for Tokyo was a sad end to a great career.

Biggest controversy

Germany's modern pentathlon coach Kim Raisner was barred from taking part in the men's individual competition after she punched a horse and urged rider Annika Schleu to "really hit" the horse when it refused to jump. Not exactly the spirit of the Games, and deserved punishment.

Jon Turner - Assistant Sports Editor

Biggest highlight

Yulimar Rojas smashes triple jump world record: Some track and field records get broken regularly, others stand for decades. The leading women's triple jump distance belonged in the latter category. That was until Rojas went charging down the track for her third and final jump in the final. The Venezuelan had already broken the Olympic record, and had all but wrapped up the gold, with her first attempt, but soared to a new world record of 15.67m with her third jump, obliterating the 15.50m set by Inessa Kravets in 1995. Rojas' is a real rags to riches story having grown up in a shack in Caracas. She leaves Tokyo as a queen of track and field.

Favourite gold medal performance

Anna Kiesenhofer (women's road race): Such was both the shock and dominance of Kiesenhofer's victory, silver medallist Annemiek van Vleuten - one of the most decorated champions in women's cycling - celebrated when she crossed the finish line convinced she'd won gold. In a race packed with UCI Women's World Tour stars, Kiesenhofer - an amateur rider and full-time mathematician and university lecturer - blew away the field to win by more than a minute and clinch Austria's first cycling gold since the 1896 Games.

Surprise of the Games

Mixed relay events: When I first saw that mixed relay events were part of the Olympic programme I was quick to dismiss them as a gimmick. How wrong I was, especially when the order got mixed up. Watching Nigeria's Samson Oghenewegba Nathaniel tear away from the women in the third leg of 4x400m relay before the male anchors of the other teams reeled in Patience Okon George was thrilling. But it was in the pool and the 4x100m relay when the format really shone as Great Britain's Anna Hopkin held off American star Caeleb Dressel to clinch gold for her team.

Favourite human story

Syria's Hend Zaza makes history: These Games have seen a number of young athletes become stars but few have been more inspiring than Syria's 12-year-old table tennis player Zaza. Her nation's flag-bearer at the opening ceremony, Zaza was the youngest competitor in Tokyo and while her involvement ended in the first preliminary round, she won millions of fans and embodied what the Olympic spirit is all about.

Biggest disappointment

USA 4x100m men's relay team: The USA always have enviable strength in depth for the men's 4x100m relay and in Tokyo it was no different. However, a shambolic semi-final - which American track legend Carl Lewis called a "total embarrassment" - saw the US finish sixth and well outside of qualifying for the final.

Biggest controversy

Tennis authorities refuse to budge: The heat and humidity in Tokyo was a hot topic of conversation throughout the Games and it was the tennis players who suffered more than most. With matches starting at 11am each day, it was not uncommon to see players take medical timeouts and complain of heatstroke and dizziness. Despite calls to start matches later in the day, the ITF initially refused to budge and it reached a point when men's world No 2 Daniil Medvedev said to the chair umpire during his quarter-final: "I can finish the match, but I can die. If I die, are you going to be responsible?" The ITF eventually pushed the start time in the later rounds but had already received widespread criticism for ignoring the players' wellbeing.

Steve Luckings - Deputy Sports Editor

Biggest highlight

Camaraderie of the athletes: Competition at the elite-level of any sport is notoriously fierce, so what a breath of fresh air it was to see athletes supporting and cheering one another - even with a gold medal at stake. The women's park skateboarding final featured a field of eight girls aged between 12 and 19. But their level of skill was surpassed only by the camaraderie and cheerleading every time a fellow competitor completed a successful run or needed a pick-me-up after a fall. In one of the most touching moments of these Games, skaters from Australia and Brazil rushed to comfort Japanese skater Misugu Okamoto, who went into the finals in the lead but kept failing to land one of her most complicated tricks in the finals. After Okamoto, 15, picked herself up and walked out of the bowl wiping away tears, other skaters lifted her onto their shoulders to celebrate her runs. The final podium had a combined age of 44, with Japan's 19-year-old Sakura Yosozumi edging out compatriot Kokona Hiraki, 12, and Britain's Sky Brown, 13 to win gold. In paying tribute to her friend Yosozumi, Brown embodied the true spirt of the Olympics: "Everyone did amazing, everyone was doing so good, I'm so proud of everyone. Just being on the podium with my really good friend is just insane."

Favourite gold medal performance

BMX racing: While skateboarding was making it's Olympic debut, BMX racing was included in on the roster for a fourth successive Games - and the men's and women's finals showed why it deserves to be part of future programmes for many more to come. Beth Shriever won gold minutes after Great Britain teammate Kye Whyte secured silver in the men’s event. Former teaching assistant Shriever, 22, needed crowdfunding to be able to go to Japan but she was lifted into the air by Whyte as the pair celebrated their historic achievements in Tokyo. She led from the first bend, holding off a late charge from defending champion Mariana Pajon of Colombia down the final straight. "I’m in shock. To even be here is an achievement in itself," Shriever said. "To make the final is an achievement in itself. To win a medal – honestly I’m so over the moon. It just means so much."

Surprise of the Games

Just how much I enjoyed most of the new events on the 2020 programme: the skateboarders have inspired me to have a run at France 2024, when I'll be 44; the gravity-defying sports climbers; the gnarly tricks in surfing; the reminder of how technique will always be king in karate.

Favourite human story

Too many to mention but a few: Hend Zaza of Syria for her message of hope; Sky Brown for overcoming horrific injuries to her skull and wrist to become Britain's youngest ever Olympic medalist; Yulimar Rojas becoming the first female Venezuelan Olympic gold medallist, shattering the triple jump world record and showing some good can come from Facebook's algorithms; Simone Biles for showing tremendous courage and mental fortitude to return to competition and open up the discussion over mental health; Dallas Oberholzer (South Africa) for showing me you're never to old to give up on your skateboarding dreams and Belarus sprinter Kristina Tsimanouskaya for refusing to fly home.

Biggest disappointment

Men's karate final: One of the new additions to the Games but karate already faces an uncertain future in the Olympics. As a former practitioner of the martial art it was one of the events I was most looking forward to. However, the decision to disqualify Tareg Hamedi for a high-kick that left his Iranian opponent sparko was bittersweet. In a discipline often criticised for being overly cautious, Hamedi's dominance in the men's +75kg final and spectacular finish of Sajad Ganjzadeh was exactly the shot in the arm karate had been looking for. While no one wants to see an athlete injured - and Ganjzadeh was well enough to climb the podium to collect his gold medal - it was actually the perfect illustration of the skill and technique needed to compete at this level.

Biggest controversy

Men's 100m final disqualification: Britain's Zharnel Hughes was disqualified from the men's Olympic 100m final after a false start. Hughes was set to be the first Briton to race in the men's Olympic 100m final since Dwain Chambers and Darren Campbell at the Sydney Games in 2000. However, jumping the gun cost the Briton a chance to contest the biggest race of his life. Surely on this stage there is room for two strikes before you're thrown out?

Matthew Kynaston - Sports Reporter

Favourite gold medal performance

Sifan Hassan's unprecedented treble: The sight of Hassan sprinting down the final 100m straight to win the 10,000m, having already bagged the 5,000m gold and a bronze in the 1,500m, will live long in the memory. To medal in all of these events is completely unprecedented, let alone winning two golds. To make her achievement even more incredible, she had to pick herself up having fallen in the final lap of her opening 1,500m heat, which she then won. Her exhausting Olympics schedule was appreciated by fans the world over, some of whom created the hilarious #SifansDayOff meme.

Surprise of the Games

Ahmed Hafnaoui: The Tunisian surprised even himself in winning gold in the men’s 400m freestyle. The 18-year-old had only just qualified for the final with the eighth fastest qualifying time. His gold-medal time of 3:43.36 was 2.32 faster than his swim in the heats. When asked if he was surprised by the result, he said: “Of course, it’s unbelievable. I didn’t believe it until I touched the wall and saw my face first.”

Favourite human story

Simone Biles winning bronze in the balance beam competition, having withdrawn from five of six of events, citing mental health issues. "I was proud of myself just to go out there after what I've been through," said Biles, who arrived in Tokyo having already won four golds and a bronze in Rio five years ago. "This one is definitely sweeter. I'll treasure this one a lot more after everything I have been through." Biles' withdrawal from the gymnastics events had sparked a global conversation about mental health, and the pressure and expectation that weighs on elite athletes and performers.

Biggest disappointment

Men's 100m final disqualification: In the most open men’s 100m final in decades, Team GB's Zharnel Hughes, the first Briton in a men's 100m final in 21 years, was disqualified for a blatant false start. "I'm really heartbroken right now," said Hughes, whose compatriot Reece Prescod also false-started and bowed out in the semi-finals. "I know for a fact I would have medalled. I know that for a fact. I was so ready. I just told myself to relax because the guys had run fast already. Sadly it was out of my control and that happened." Marcell Jacobs went on to win gold for Italy.

Biggest controversy

Men's kumite +75kg final: Tareq Hamedi's disqualification in the karate competition, having led and then knocked out his opponent, was a hard pill to swallow. Hamedi led Sajad Ganjzadeh by three points points when the Iranian leaned in to deliver a jab, which Hamedi defended and countered with a kick to the head, knocking Ganjzadeh unconscious. Thinking he had won Saudi Arabia’s first-ever Olympic gold medal, Hamedi celebrated and then watched as his opponent was carried off on a stretcher. The judges then ruled that his kick was not legal, and so was disqualified, awarding the gold medal to the Iranian.

Ajit Vijaykumar - Assistant Sports Editor

Biggest highlight

Allyson Felix capped her stellar Olympic career with a seventh gold medal, becoming the most decorated female track and field athlete of all time. Her win in the 4x400m relay took her Games medals tally to 11 in her fifth Games. And that’s not even the remarkable bit. Felix is 35 who became a mother in 2018 – after an emergency C-section due to medical complications. To come back and grab two medals – she took bronze in the 400m – is a stunning achievement.

Favourite gold medal performance

Neeraj Chopra: Only one Indian before him had won an individual gold at the Olympic Games. No Indian had won a medal in athletics in a century. For a country the size of India, it is a constant source of hurt. Neeraj Chopra’s javelin gold removed all that pain in Tokyo; his first throw in the final was enough for the title. He is now the biggest star in the country, and rightfully so.

Surprise of the Games

That the Games started and finished without any major glitches. The pandemic, the new virus variants, the last minute pullouts, the absence of crowds - the odds were stacked against the Tokyo Games. Just the successful conclusion of the Olympics alone made it a remarkable triumph of human endeavour, and we are not talking about the athletes.

Favourite human story

The world of sport obsesses about the next young talent. Events like gymnastics and swimming are basically dominated by teenagers. But is does not always have to be about youth. Andrew Hoy became Australia’s oldest Olympic medallist at 62 after clinching the equestrian silver. Just goes to show that where there is a will, there is a way … and even an Olympic medal at an age where people normally retire.

Biggest disappointment

The weather played a disproportionately big part in the outcome of many events. The extreme heat and humidity in Japan forced changes to schedules. Tennis player Daniil Medvedev asked who would be responsible if he died on the court. It was absolutely brutal for marathon and walk events. The Tokyo Olympics is regarded as one of the hottest in modern history, and that is not a record to be proud of.

Biggest controversy

The IOC was forced to intervene after Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was allegedly ordered to return to her country after she criticised coaches on social media. She instead gained asylum in Poland on a humanitarian visa. The world body then revoked the credentials of two Belarus coaches. Someone is going to make a movie about it.

Updated: August 9th 2021, 6:21 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS