After a year's delay, Tokyo finally played host to 17 days of elite-level sportsEric Zünder/Unsplash

For months, Tokyo 2020 looked like the Games that would never happen. Faced by a crippling lack of support from the Japanese public, perhaps they ought not to have done. The idea of an international sporting extravaganza staged against the backdrop of a global pandemic appeared trivial at best, downright reckless at worst. And yet, for the last two weeks, millions of us have been utterly captivated by extraordinary sporting feats and been given an unprecedented insight into the experience of athletes, allowing us to appreciate their resilience and humanity like never before. Having avidly consumed as many hours of coverage as possible, here are some of my personal highlights from a truly remarkable Olympics.

“The joy they brought to a tiny Pacific nation in the grip of a public health crisis represents everything the Olympics can, and should, be”

Top performers

With no Usain Bolt, Mo Farah or Michael Phelps, Tokyo felt less defined by a handful of global megastars than previous Games. However, there was no shortage of unbelievable performances. American swimmer Caeleb Dressel, eager to downplay Phelps comparisons, left Tokyo with a remarkable five gold medals, while Norway’s Karsten Warholm obliterated his own 400m hurdles world record to win one of the most gripping races in Olympic history. But for me, a couple of other athletes stood out. Siffan Hassan’s bid to win the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m titles saw her collect two golds and a bronze, an achievement unlikely to be replicated given the vastly differing demands of the three distances. Meanwhile, the women’s 100m race eclipsed its male equivalent, as Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah defeated a star-studded field to defend her title, breaking Florence Griffith Joyner’s notoriously faulty Olympic record in the process. She also threw in the 200m and 4x100 relay titles for good measure.

Most emotional moments

Track and field provided more than just individual victories. It was heartening to see such genuine camaraderie and friendship between competitors, epitomised by Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim, whose shared gold medal in the men’s high jump became one of the Games’ defining images. Away from the Olympic stadium, Anna Kiesenhofer’s victory in the women’s cycling road race shocked spectators and fellow competitors alike. The Austrian, who had neither coach nor professional contract before the Games, led from the start of the gruelling 137-kilometre event, with more accomplished competitors unable to bridge the gap. So unexpected was her victory that Dutch favourite Annemiek van Vleuten, who finished second, mistakenly celebrated winning the gold. Elsewhere, Fiji’s all-conquering rugby sevens team came together in spell-binding song after defending their Olympic title. The joy they brought to a tiny Pacific nation in the grip of a public health crisis represents everything the Olympics can, and should, be.

As with every global sporting event, images of victory and celebration are often accompanied by those of sadness and disappointment. On the track, it was so nearly victory for the British men’s 4x100m relay team, pipped at the line by Italy to deprive them of a most unlikely gold medal. With Jamaican sprinting in transition and the USA failing to qualify, they may never get a better chance. Dina Asher-Smith’s enforced withdrawal from the 200m event prompted a tear-jerking interview, in which she spoke with remarkable maturity and openness about the obstacles she had to overcome simply to reach Tokyo. The Olympics’ very nature requires athletes to peak at exactly the right moment in a four year cycle, but rarely has the difficulty of doing this been so eloquently and emotionally expressed. At just 25, she will have plenty more opportunities to challenge for an individual podium, and did at least return to win a bronze in the relay.

“In spite of everything, the Games provided a much needed reminder of sport’s capacity to show humanity at its best”

Notable controversy

The Olympics, in typical fashion, was not without its fair share of controversy. The Russian Olympic Committee stole the headlines, with the ‘banned’ nation racking up 71 medals, much to the dismay of athletes and commentators. Nobody wants to see innocent athletes punished, but when an entire state has overseen the most sophisticated doping programme in history, surely the only appropriate response is to discipline that state and ensure fairness for other competitors. Simply removing Russia’s flag and anthem from proceedings seemed a half-hearted sanction that suited nobody.

Biggest disappointment

It feels ungracious to gripe, but watching the pinnacle of these incredible athletes’ achievements play out in front of deserted venues prompted an inevitable degree of sadness, and instilled a renewed desire for those packed, joyous nights in London’s Olympic Stadium nine years ago that seemed to unite the globe for a few weeks of glorious sporting celebration. Spare a thought too for the Japanese public, who were cruelly denied that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spectate an Olympic event.

Team GB's performance

In raw terms, Tokyo was another hugely successful games for Team GB, with a haul of 65 medals comfortably surpassing the minimum target of 45. But such numbers never tell the full story: the rowing team had a games to forget, not so much for their performance as the unsavoury post-mortem which followed it, while no gold medal in athletics is disappointing.


Mountain View

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Overall, it has been encouraging to see success spread from traditional areas of dominance like track cycling, sailing, and rowing into fields as diverse as weightlifting and BMX. No nation won more medals across different sport-discipline combinations than GB’s 25, which puts the team in an excellent position to deliver further success in 2024. A special mention to Jason Kenny is also in order, whose stunning keirin victory on the final day cemented his position as Britain’s most successful ever Olympian.

Parting words

Nobody summed up this extraordinary Games quite like Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, already the greatest marathon runner of all time and now a double Olympic champion. His poignant post-race interview exuded both class and humility, particularly when he was asked what the event meant to him: “Tokyo 2020 has happened, it means a lot. It means there is hope. It means we are on the right track to a normal life […] That is the meaning of the Olympics”. In spite of everything, the Games provided a much needed reminder of sport’s capacity to show humanity at its best. If Tokyo 2020 comes to be remembered as the Games which symbolised the beginning of a return to normality, of hope rising from the ashes of a global pandemic, it will ultimately prove to be the most worthwhile Olympics of them all.