Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony
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7 incredible things that made Tokyo 2020 a memorable Olympics

How the Tokyo Olympics surprised us and the things we’ll look back on in years to come

Emma Steen
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Emma Steen
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Let’s be honest: holding the Tokyo Olympics under these strange circumstances was no simple matter. Athletes struggled with training amid Covid-19 restrictions and the question of whether it was appropriate to host such a large-scale global event under the pandemic is still heavily debated. But to some extent the Games provided some much needed distraction after a long year and a half of doom and gloom. 

While this year’s Olympics were far from what we had in mind while gearing up for the long road to Tokyo 2020, the Games still surprised us in many ways. Yes, there were epoch-making milestones like when Hidilyn Diaz won the Philippines' first ever Olympic gold medal, or when Elaine Thompson Herah became the fastest woman in the world after winning gold in the 100-metre dash. But now, more than ever, the Olympics have become so much more than the medals. 

Through unprecedented acts of goodwill, sportsmanship and grace under pressure, there were plenty of moments we learned from, moments that uplifted us, and moments that inspired us in this year’s Olympic Games. This is the legacy we’ll look back on for years to come.  

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Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty ImagesMiho Nonaka of Team Japan (L) and Brooke Raboutou Team The United States of America compete during the Sport Climbing Women's Combined Final

New sports gave the Games a youthful relevance

This year’s Olympics saw the introduction of four new sports. They not only made the Games more exciting to watch but also gave the Olympics a more youthful feel with the inclusion of surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing (karate also made its Olympic debut this year). 

Some aspects of these new Olympic sports raised eyebrows for their controversial approach to scoring; the sport climbing competition, especially, was criticised for including speed climbing in its combined event. Nevertheless, these new additions are likely to inspire the younger generations to take up sport while generating more respect for the skills required to excel in these non-traditional sports.

Tokyo Olympic women's skateboarding
Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images(L-R) silver medalist Kokona Hiraki, gold medalist Sakura Yosozumi, bronze medalist Sky Brown

Tokyo Olympics proved that you can achieve greatness at any age 

Speaking of skateboarding, the athletes competing at the sport’s Olympic debut made headlines for featuring some of the youngest Olympic champions in history. Cocona Hiraki of Japan, who is only 12, and 13-year-old Sky Brown of Great Britain had the world in awe when they took the silver and bronze medals in the women’s park final. They became the new faces of the Olympic Games and at the same time helped diversify the pool of today’s sports champions.  

If watching all these Olympic child prodigies make history before finishing school had you feeling old, you’re not alone. That said, the Olympics aren’t about how much one can accomplish by a certain age. Equestrian rider Andrew Hoy – Australia’s first eight-time Olympic champion – also happens to be the nation’s oldest Olympian at the age of 62. Hoy has lived a decorated career, so his victories in winning an additional silver and bronze medal this year shouldn’t come as a surprise.

These Olympians’ participation in the Games reinforce that your age doesn’t really matter when it comes to striving to be your best.

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Photo: Michael Kappeler/Getty Images(L-R) Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi from Italy

A show of grace and kindness: Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi sharing gold 

It was the final competition of the men’s high jump with Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi going head-to-head for first place. Both men had successfully cleared the 2.37-metre jump, but were struggling to clear the next jump at 2.39 metres. 

After an agonising few hours, the athletes were told they would have to undergo a tie-breaking jump off to decide who wins gold. Rather than agreeing to a final fight, the athletes opted to share the first place title, making for a rare two-person gold medal victory.

Evidently, after all these months of having to train amid a pandemic, and the hoops they had to leap through to reach this moment, both men were certain that the other was just as deserving of a gold medal. 

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Greater LGBTQ+ representations 

This year’s Olympic Games saw more openly LGBTQ+ athletes than ever, serving as a landmark of change in the world of sports. Upon winning the gold medal in the mens’ synchronised diving event, Tom Daley from Team GB gave an emotional victory speech expressing how he hoped that any young LGBTQ+ individuals watching him would be reminded that they are not alone and can achieve anything. 

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard didn’t come away with any medals for the women’s 87kg category for weightlifting, but for Hubbard, the battle was already won. The athlete had fought long and hard to be allowed to participate as one of the first openly transgender competitors at the Olympics and was able to achieve her goal before announcing her retirement at the age of 43.

Another proud moment for the LGBTQ+ community was when Team Canada scored the winning goal in the women’s football final. One of the team members, Quinn (who only goes by one name) became the first transgender and non-binary athlete to win an Olympic gold medal.

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Simone Biles’ decision to prioritise her mental health  

As the world’s most decorated gymnast of all time, Simone Biles of Team USA was expected to take another clean sweep for gold in the Tokyo Olympics, so fans were all the more surprised when the athlete announced her decision to withdraw from the team gymnastics finals. While the move might have been met with disappointment in previous Games, Biles was celebrated as a hero for prioritising self care and standing up for herself in the global revolution of mental health. 

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Photo: Elsa/Getty ImagesTeam Japan pose with their gold medals on the podium after winning the Men's Épée Fencing Team Gold Medal Match against Team ROC on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

Japan persevered in these trying times, with a record gold medal haul 

As the host country, Japan’s success in winning more gold medals this year than in previous Games was particularly momentous. 

Some competitions, like the inaugural karate events or the reintroduction of baseball and softball, were a chance for Japan to celebrate its prowess in the nation’s most beloved sports. Other gold medal wins, like Nishiya’s victory in women's street skateboarding, were unexpected moments that helped boost the final tally to a whopping total of 27 gold medals for the country. 

That said, Japan’s accomplishments are far greater than the record-breaking number of medals. After weathering a barrage of trials and tribulations in the lead-up to hosting the Games, the miraculous way Japan was able to pull through and come out on top is worth more than the medals.

All the heartwarming human stories that went viral 

Though we weren’t able to view the Games live from the stadiums, fans were compensated for the missed opportunities with enough viral images of Tom Daley crocheting (while watching the women’s 3m diving final) to keep us going through the bad days. 

Athletes took to social media in their down time to show us that they are not so different from us after all. From fawning over ‘the best gyoza’ at the Olympic Village cafeteria to mischievous deeds like testing out the cardboard beds, it was endearing to see this other side of the athletes outside of their competitive mode.

There were the everyday kind souls, too, like this endearing man who showed up at the Olympic Village every morning without fail, holding a motivational sign for the athletes that read ‘Even if you don't get a medal, you're still the best!’. These feel-good moments helped connect the world in these trying times, and just like that, the Olympics transcended broadcasting networks and event schedules with little acts of humanity that spoke loud volumes.

Olympics
Photo: Youka Nagase

At a time when the world couldn’t have felt more apart, the Tokyo Olympics brought us all together, cheering for triumphant achievements and greatness, albeit for a short 16 days. And for that, we thank you, Tokyo. 

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