| By Carol Brennan |
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were hosted by Japan in July and August 2021 and provided the global television audience a respite from the ongoing barrage of news stories related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Summer Games were the first Olympics ever to be postponed, and all events and participants were subject to rigorous and proactive health measures to prevent outbreaks. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who took office in September 2020—six months into the pandemic—was a key figure in the decision to permit a spectator-free Olympics.
Suga was present at the opening ceremony on July 23, 2021, when the Olympic cauldron’s flame was lit by a torch carried by one of the world’s top-ranked tennis players, Naomi Osaka, who was born in Japan and competed in the 2020 Summer Games for her homeland. Earlier that summer, Osaka had won praise for her decision to sit out the 2021 Wimbledon Championships, forgoing potentially millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements but stating that her mental health was her top priority. That decision foreshadowed a similar media frenzy that happened in Tokyo when top U.S. gymnast Simone Biles—who won gold medals in three events at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics—announced she would be sitting out a team competition in Tokyo for reasons of both mental and physical well-being.
Both Biles and another phenomenally gifted U.S. athlete, swimmer Katie Ledecky, were born the same week of March 1997. Ledecky caused a sensation in 2012 at age 15 when she won a gold medal at the London Olympics in the women’s 800-meter freestyle. Four years later, she collected four new gold medals in Rio, and at the 2020 Tokyo Games added two more gold medals to her tally, in the 800-meter and 1500-meter freestyle events. Matching some of Ledecky’s splash at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre was her USA teammate Caeleb Dressel, who on July 31 set a new men’s world record time of 49.45 seconds in the men’s 100-meter butterfly. That gold-medal finish was one of four that Dressel left Tokyo with, but he still failed to match Australian swimmer Emma McKeon, who was the top medal winner across all sports at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Team USA athletes led the medal tally for the 2020 Summer Olympics, winning 113 overall and 39 gold medals. Next in the medal count was China, which produced 88 medalists, including 38 gold-medal recipients. The majority of China’s victories were in the television-friendly diving and gymnastics contests, but their athletes also demonstrated prowess in weight lifting and the curiously arcane shooting events. Requiring a significantly higher physical commitment were the long-distance running and track-and-field events, with Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge winning his second gold medal for the marathon; a trio of Jamaican standouts led by Elaine Thompson-Herah won all three medals in the women’s 100-meter event.
A few professional athletes from the United States were granted exemptions to compete in the Olympics. They included Kevin Durant of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, who played on the U.S. men’s basketball team that won a 16th gold medal. Disappointed but nevertheless proud of a bronze medal were the members of the U.S. women’s soccer team, whose standouts in Tokyo included National Women’s Soccer League talents Megan Rapinoe, Crystal Dunn, and Carli Lloyd.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics provided a few heartwarming underdog stories. Venezuelan triple-jump champion Yulimar Rojas set a new world record in her sport, clearing a distance of 15.67 meters. She came of age during a period of intense economic hardship and instability, as did Man Asaad, who provided Syria with its sole medal at the 2020 Summer Games, a bronze for one of the men’s weight-lifting categories, which was only the fourth medal finish for any Syrian athlete in the history of the Olympics.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics closing ceremony was held on August 8, 2021. International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, a lawyer who won a team gold medal in men’s fencing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, praised the athletes for their willingness to compete under strict biosecurity conditions due to COVID-19 and commended the host nation for showing extraordinary courage in welcoming more than 11,000 participants to the 2020 Summer Games.
You can read more about these Olympians and other athletes in Gale In Context: Biography.
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