2021 Tokyo Olympics: Defining Moments of the Olympic Games - Rolling Stone
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Defining Moments of the Tokyo Olympics

Competition and kindness (and a bit of quotidian humor) amid a pandemic made for the most unforgettable games in recent memory

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 07: Thomas Daley of Team Great Britain is seen knitting before the Men's 10m Platform Final on day fifteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on August 07, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Tom Daley knitting before the Men's 10m Platform Final on day 15 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on August 7, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

At a time when politics and disease are dominating headlines, the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games managed to create space for athletes and fans to come (virtually) together and celebrate sport. The pandemic created a lot of fears ahead of time, but as of now, it appears Covid-19 was contained better than anyone could realistically hope for. 

Tokyo Olympics: Closing Ceremonies of 2021 Games

Instead, the major storylines coming out of Japan were often ones of kindness or surprise victory, albeit sometimes ridiculous (remember the boat that drove into the start of the men’s triathlon?). Even despite a rocky start, the U.S. won the medal count in the end, with 39 golds and 113 total. 

There are so many individual moments worth spotlighting, but instead, we’re focusing on how the Olympics shifted from years past and what will likely remain at the forefront as the Paralympics begin August 24th, and beyond that, the Beijing Winter Games in 2022 and the Paris Summer Games in 2024.

Below are some of the defining trends from the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. 

“Can We Have Two Golds?”

With those words, Muta Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy both won first place in the high jump. It all started when the pair tied in the final round and remained so after a jump off. Instead of continuing to battle it out, the pair opted to share the top of the podium. While no one else tied for gold medals in the games, sportsmanship abounded with dozens — if not hundreds — of examples over 17 days of competition. Perhaps the most poignant was USWNT forward Megan Rapinoe going over to congratulate Canadian player Quinn, the first openly transgender athlete to win a gold medal, just days after Canada had beaten the U.S. in the women’s football semifinals. 

Athletes Shine on Social Media With Normalcy

Nothing sparked more joy on social media than Tom Daley and his knitting. While the diving superstar (who won gold in the synchronized 10 meter platform and bronze in the individual event) had already started knitting beforehand, his creations during the games were so popular they ended up being featured in Vogue. Elsewhere, Tyler Downs hit up Simone Biles on TiKTok and Leslie Jones continued her love for the Olympics on Twitter, pushing for underappreciated sports like artistic swimming. 

Mental Health Becomes an Integral Part of Athleticism 

America was shocked when it woke up July 27th to find out its star athlete, four-time gold medalist Simone Biles had withdrawn from the competition indefinitely. With the help of Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps, the gymnast pushed a conversation around mental health and cementing it at the crux of athlete safety moving forward. Even with her winning a silver in the team event and bronze in balance beam individual apparatus, the G.O.A.T. said her third-place finish was the most meaningful. “I didn’t really care about the outcome,” she told NBC. “I was just happy that I made the routine and that I got to compete one more time.”

Losing Is Still an Opportunity for Victory

Cat Osterman’s post-match interview was a master-class in pushing through the tears to accept defeat. Winning silver is never easy, but the softball captain refused to let the moment pass by. “To all the little girls, keep dreaming the dream,” she told aspiring young athletes around the globe. Over in the pool, Katie Ledecky and Lily King showed grace and class despite losing events in which they were the favorites. And then there was Molly Seidel, perhaps the most excited bronze medal winner of the Games. “I’m so tired,” she told her family just after winning. “Please drink a beer for me.”

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