Tokyo Olympics: The highs and lows of the Games that almost never were

By Sports Desk August 07, 2021

It was by no means certain the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics would even go ahead, such was the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

But go ahead they did and now here we stand on the eve of the closing ceremony in the Japanese capital.

They have certainly been a Games like no other and we all hope future Olympics will not be held under such unusual circumstances, and judging the success of Tokyo 2020 is no easy feat given the measures to do so are too arbitrary.

Having said that, here are the highs of the Games and some of the lows, too.

The highs…

WARHOLM AND MCLAUGHLIN HAMMER THE HURDLES

Karsten Warholm revelled in bringing the "wow" factor to the men's 400m hurdles, and rightly so. The Norwegian became the first man to break the 46-second barrier – running an astonishing 45.94 seconds to smash his own world record, five weeks after breaking a benchmark held by Kevin Young for 29 years. A day later, Sydney McLaughlin battered her own world record in the women's race, clocking in at 51.46s.

VAN VLEUTEN'S HEARTWARMING TRIUMPH

Five years ago in Rio, Annemiek van Vleuten was on course for victory in the women's cycling road race until a high-speed crash left her with minor fractures to her spine. To make matters worse, the Dutchwoman made headlines for celebrating what she thought was victory in the same event here in Tokyo – only to realise she had finished second behind runaway winner Anna Kiesenhofer. But finally, her golden moment arrived in the women's time trial – at the age of 38 years and 293 days, she became the third-oldest woman to win Olympic gold for the Netherlands.

SWIMMING STARS PROVE THERE'S LIFE AFTER PHELPS

Michael Phelps is an Olympics legend and no one can lay claim to more than the 23 golds or 28 overall medals he accrued over between 2004 and 2016. But a stellar cast this year proved swimming is in a very strong position. Emma McKeon took home seven medals (including four golds) – the joint-most of any woman at a single Games – while Ariarne Titmus' 200m and 400m free double was memorable, particularly her win over the great Katie Ledecky in the latter race. Caeleb Dressel took five golds to show his potential as Phelps' heir apparent, while Adam Peaty stunned again for Great Britain. It was some week in the pool.

THOMPSON-HERAH DOES THE DOUBLE-DOUBLE

Elaine Thompson-Herah announced herself to the world stage with a 100 and 200m sprint double at Rio 2016 but injuries in the intervening years stemmed her momentum a little. However, she peaked at the perfect time in Tokyo and backed up her double from Brazil – becoming the first woman to repeat on the 100 and 200m. Indeed, only Usain Bolt had ever previously done so.

THE AZZURRI'S GOLDEN HOUR

There was a shock in the men's 100m final where the unheralded Marcell Jacobs started the post-Bolt era with gold. That followed on from countryman Gianmarco Tamberi having minutes earlier shared high jump glory with Mutaz Essa Barshim. There were hugs aplenty as Italy, surely celebrating their greatest night at an Olympics, won two athletics golds at the same Games since Athens in 2004.

NEW EVENTS CATCH THE IMAGINATION

One of the most fascinating aspects of any Olympics is the new sports and categories that get added to the programme. At Tokyo 2020, skateboarding, surfing and climbing have all attracted new and younger audiences to the Games – while the addition of mixed triathlon and the mixed 4x400m track relay have been successes.

BILES' INSPIRATIONAL MESSAGE

On the one hand, the fact we saw so little of Simone Biles and some of the reprehensible bilge aimed her way over the decision to pull out of the women's team event after just one rotation and then miss four individual events can be seen as a negative. But, on the other hand, the fact that she came back to take bronze on the balance beam and use her platform to promote the importance of protecting mental health has to be seen as a high. It takes bravery and courage in her position to speak on such matters. Kudos to you, Simone.

And the lows…

EMPTY STADIUMS AN ENDURING IMAGE

Let's start with the obvious here and something that has been spoken about pretty relentlessly. The absence of fans has had a huge cost on the atmosphere at these Games. Magical moments and career peaks played out in front of huge, empty stadia has undoubtedly been a huge negative. Many will take the fact we got here and managed to hold a Games at all as a positive. And it is. But at times, the whole thing felt a bit… meh.

TENNIS' HEADLINE ACTS FAIL TO DELIVER

With so many of the top male players opting to skip Tokyo, there was a big focus on Novak Djokovic and the next checkmark on his quest for a rare Golden Slam (only Steffi Graf has ever done it). The Serbian fell short, dropping out at the semi-final stage then getting a little stroppy. Big things were also expected of Naomi Osaka – a home hope and the 'face of the Games'. She made it as far as round three before going down to Marketa Vondrousova.

THE TSIMANOUSKAYA SAGA

One of the ugliest stories to emerge from the Games was the story of Belarusian runner Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who refused to board a flight after allegedly being taken to the airport against her will following her public criticism of her team's organisation on social media. Tsimanouskaya competed in only one event and claimed she was entered into a 4x400m relay despite never racing in the discipline, suggesting that was a result of members of the team being considered ineligible due to not completing enough doping tests. The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation indicated Tsimanouskaya feared for her life upon returning to Minsk. The country is under the authoritarian leadership of president Alexander Lukashenko, whose son Viktor heads the national Olympic committee (NOC). Both men were banned last December from attending Tokyo 2020. The whole thing has been really rather unsavoury.

Related items

  • Tedesco refuses to point finger as Lukaku struggles in Belgium's shock Euro 2024 defeat Tedesco refuses to point finger as Lukaku struggles in Belgium's shock Euro 2024 defeat

    Domenico Tedesco refused to place the blame on any individual performance as Belgium slumped to Euro 2024 defeat against Slovakia, with Romelu Lukaku missing a host of chances.

    Ivan Schranz's seventh-minute finish in Frankfurt proved the difference on Monday as Slovakia stunned the world's third-best side in their tournament opener.

    Belgium forward Lukaku produced a profligate showing, spurning a pair of glorious first-half chances before seeing two goals disallowed by the VAR as Tedesco's side chased a late equaliser.

    Lukaku accumulated an expected goals (xG) tally of 0.82 throughout the Group E meeting, with that total far greater than the entire Slovakia team combined (0.59).

    Yet Tedesco, who suffered a first defeat in 15 games since replacing Roberto Martinez as Belgium boss, did not pinpoint specific players when discussing Belgium's downfall.

    "For me, it hurts a lot," Tedesco said. "I don't want to point the finger at people. You can be sure we will speak about many things but we will do it internally and not through the media.

    "I knew we would lose one day but unfortunately it was today. Honestly, there is not much I can say to the team to improve.

    "We created many chances, big chances. Of course, if we take one, then it makes the game easier."

    When pressed on Lukaku's form in front of goal, Tedesco defended the former Chelsea and Manchester United striker.

    "Romelu has been playing for Belgium for a long time," the Red Devils' head coach said. 

    "He knows how to score goals, I don't need to tell him that. He is a top-class player with great character."

    Lukaku saw his first effort ruled out for an offside after Amadou Onana's headed knockdown before his late finish was again overturned as Lois Openda was deemed to have handled in the build-up.

    "It's tough to speak," Tedesco continued. "If we had won I could tell you more about my opinion.

    "But we lost and I want to be seen as a fair manager so I don't say anything. We have to trust these guys. I trust the VAR. If they decide it's handball, we have to accept it."

    Belgium's defeat leaves Group E wide open after Romania hammered Ukraine 3-0 on the same day, with Tedesco's side needing a response against Edward Iordanescu's team on Saturday.

    Another loss would push Belgium further towards an unlikely group-stage exit, though Tedesco wants to use the Slovakia disappointment as motivation.

    "Naturally everyone is disappointed but you can harness that," he said. "You can make use of it. I always said our group would be very tricky and shouldn't assume that we will go through."

    Belgium captain Kevin De Bruyne was also frustrated as his side suffered their first group-stage defeat at the European Championship since losing 2-0 to Italy in 2016.

    The Manchester City star said: "It is a pity. The first 20 minutes we were really good and we made such a mistake for which we were punished.

    "In the second half it was better, we upped the tempo. We deserved to win but did not score and that is the way it is. Apart from a few other chances we didn't give much away.

    "We adjusted some things at half-time and then played well. We pushed, we created chances. We certainly deserved to at least a draw because we didn't play badly."

  • Keane backs Foden to deliver after criticism from England's Euro 2024 opener Keane backs Foden to deliver after criticism from England's Euro 2024 opener

    England must stick with Phil Foden despite an "off night" against Serbia in their Euro 2024 opener, according to Manchester United great Roy Keane.

    Foden created just one chance in Sunday's 1-0 victory as the Manchester City star moved to the left flank, making way to accommodate an attack of Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane.

    The 24-year-old still managed 19 passes in the final third, only bettered by match-winning team-mate Jude Bellingham (24), but failed to register a single shot in an unusually quiet outing.

    Former United midfielder Keane has no doubts over Foden's ability, however, and lamented critics calling for his dropping from Gareth Southgate's starting XI.

    "This idea that you should start taking him out of the team, Phil Foden is an amazing, fantastic player who has had a great season," Keane said on ITV on Monday.

    "OK, he was quiet last night but he is entitled to an off night. Don't be writing this kid off. He has got so much talent. You stick with him.

    "You can talk about tactics and systems until the cows come home. Foden and these quality players will produce. He had a quiet night. Relax, everyone. He will be fine."

    Bellingham stole the show as his 13th-minute header from Saka's deflected right-wing cross proved the difference.

    Real Madrid's Champions League-winning midfielder also became the first player to score for the Three Lions at both the World Cup and European Championship while playing his club football outside of England.

    Kane was another to be kept quiet by Serbia, though the England captain had a late header expertly pushed away by Predrag Rajkovic.

    Keane insists Southgate's plethora of talent will always deliver in some form, though, whether it comes from Kane, Bellingham, Foden or any other player.

    "They have got to stay calm with it all," Keane added. "Because they have three or four world-class players, when Kane or Foden are having a bit of an off-night, players like Bellingham will step up.

    "It might be Foden or Kane in the next game. That is the beauty of having four or five world-class players."

    England head to Frankfurt on Thursday to face Denmark, aiming to extend their embryonic lead at the top of Group C before their final meeting with Slovenia.

  • Alcaraz turns focus to Queen's and Wimbledon after French Open glory Alcaraz turns focus to Queen's and Wimbledon after French Open glory

    Carlos Alcaraz is not wanting to dwell on his French Open triumph as the Spaniard prepares for Wimbledon by featuring at the Queen's Club Championships this week.

    The 21-year-old secured his third major title this month after overcoming Alexander Zverev in a five-set final thriller at Roland-Garros.

    Alcaraz is the youngest player in the Open Era to win the singles title at three different grand slams, with the Australian Open the only one missing from the set.

    The world number two has one thing on his mind, however, as Alcaraz turns his focus to the grass-court challenge awaiting at Queen's, and subsequently the next major Wimbledon.

    "We have to be focused on the tournament that we are playing right now," Alcaraz said. "Roland-Garros was a fantastic two weeks for me, a dream come true lifting the trophy.

    "But right now my mind has to be here on the grass to be ready. As soon as I can to play good tennis and to get ready for Wimbledon.

    "Right now my focus is on the grass and then after that, my mind will be on clay again to be at my best for the Olympics."

    Just a year ago, Alcaraz headed to Queen's with only four ATP wins on grass.

    A year later, the big-hitting youngster is getting ready to defend his title in the Wimbledon warm-up tournament before attempting to go back-to-back at the next major.

    "I have more matches in my bank on grass and now with the great run I had last year at Queen's and Wimbledon, I know a little bit on how to play and understand the game a little bit on grass," he added.

    "I am more mature playing on this surface. The first practice I have done here, my movement wasn't as good as last year but it is a slow process, so I have to be really focused in every practice and every match."

    Alcaraz took the fewest main draw appearances of any player in the Open Era to win titles on grass, clay and hard courts.

    He celebrated that French Open glory with a tattoo of Paris' Eiffel Tower on his left ankle, before jetting off for further toasts to his success.

    Asked on his plans after Paris, Alcaraz said: "I had a few days off. I went to Ibiza with a group of friends. I had fun. It was a great time celebrating Roland Garros and I just had fun.

    "For me as a player, I need this kind of thing. Every player is different but for me to reach my best tennis I have to separate the professional part from the personal part.

    "I have some days off to forget a little bit that I am a professional player. Being with my friends and family means I can rest a little bit."

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.