Skip to main content

Here's Why the Swimming Finals Are Held in the Morning at Tokyo Olympics

It's not by chance that most in the U.S. get to watch in primetime.
Very Olympic Today

Very Olympic Today is SI’s daily Olympics newsletter. You can receive each issue for free in your inbox by subscribing here. To continue reading the newsletter at every day, along with the rest of our Olympics coverage, readers can subscribe to here.

On Day 2 in Tokyo, swimming retook its usual place in the primetime TV lineup, and the first medal session was a great reminder of why it does so every four (or five) years.

In the first final, the U.S. took gold and silver in the men’s 400 meter IM. Chase Kalisz built a big lead on the breaststroke and held on for the gold, and Jay Litherland made up ground on the freestyle to climb into the No. 2 spot on the podium.

In the men’s 400-meter free, Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui won an unlikely gold from lane 8 and gave us the type of reaction that makes people love watching sports.

In the women’s 4x100-meter free, Team USA’s Simone Manuel battled Canada’s Penny Oleksiak on the final leg, a rematch of their tie for gold in the 100-meter free in Rio. This time, Oleksiak took home the silver for her team and Manuel took bronze.

There was drama, there was star power, there were upsets. It totally delivered. There’s a reason people get so into swimming on this stage. And Team USA took home six medals in all, a U.S. record for Day 1 of Olympic swimming.

If you’ve been battling the time difference to follow the Olympics from the United States, and you thought to yourself, “Wow, we’re lucky the swimming is at night again like it usually is!” … well, you should know it’s not exactly luck. It’s money, of course.

Major swimming competitions are made up of the heats in which swimmers qualify for the finals, and the actual finals themselves. Typically, the heats are held during morning sessions and the finals are raced at night. This is true of the Olympics too, just not in 2020. Because when NBC pays $7.65 billion to broadcast the Olympics in the U.S., they pay for the right to have a premier event like swimming in the hours when their audience is going to watch it. Nice perk!

The same was true of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Remember Michael Phelps’s pursuit of eight gold medals? Americans saw those finals at night, too. Just like the finals in Sydney, Athens, London and Rio. But for Beijing and Tokyo, the sessions were flipped on the ground locally.

It can have a real impact on the swimmers, too. For some more context, here’s a story by Rick Maese in The Washington Post about USA Swimming’s prep for “the Tokyo twist.” And here’s a story from Reuters in 2018, when it became apparent the schedule would be finalized that way, in which the Japanese Swimming Federation expressed disappointment about the way the event would cater to the American audience.

I’m not enough of an expert to debate the impact it has on the actual swimmers, but you can see how it could be off-putting for a host country (and, I suppose, the rest of the world) to cede such influence to the United States. On the other hand, money is nice. These are business decisions, and I don’t think anyone pretends otherwise.

You can form your own opinions about the right thing to do. But we should all at least be aware of why the swimming finals schedule is once again favorable for the U.S.’s primetime audience, no matter how it affects everyone else.


While You Were Sleeping


The headline here is women's gymnastics, because everything Simone Biles does is going to make headlines. Team USA competed in the women’s qualifications, and it was not perfectly smooth across the board. Biles bounced entirely off the carpet at one point during her floor exercise and then stumbled again on her dismount from the balance beam. Of course, her place in the all-around final was never in doubt, and it helps that her routines have such a high degree of difficulty.

The surprise of the night was that Jade Carey was in position for Team USA’s second spot in the all-around after three rotations (she was particularly great on the uneven bars), but that spot ultimately went to Suni Lee.

Russia had the highest team score, but next time will have medals on the line.


Team USA won a thrilling extra-inning game against Australia around 11 p.m. ET that many people were probably awake for. The overnight development is that Japan’s win means the two favorites entering Olympic play are now guaranteed to meet in the gold medal game.

Backing up to Saturday’s action, the Americans and the Aussies went into extras in a scoreless tie. Team USA still hadn’t allowed a run all tournament. In the Olympics, extra innings begin with a zombie runner on second base. (The rule that was controversially added to MLB in 2020, and then even more controversially kept in MLB in 2021, has long been a part of softball.) That runner came around to score, but Amanda Chidester plated two with a single in the bottom of the inning to pull out the win. Monica Abbott threw a complete game with 13 strikeouts and 126 pitches. She and Cat Osterman have been lights out all tournament on the mound.

Because the U.S. and Japan are both undefeated, they have clinched the top two spots in the standings. However, they still have their final group game against each other first. The outcome has no bearing on their place in the finals, but the winner will determine who bats last in the gold medal game.


Lee Kiefer cruised through the overnight fencing, including a dominant win in the semifinals, to reach the gold medal match. She is the first U.S. woman ever to win an individual medal in foil, and goes for the gold at 7:45 a.m. ET Sunday.

Water polo

The headline in Saturday’s newsletter was about the U.S. women’s water polo team’s historically dominant win over Japan. The men also faced the host country in their opener, and they had a little more trouble. Japan was up three goals early, but the U.S. came back to win 15–13 behind five goals from Alex Bowen.


Two big-name golfers have pulled out of the tournament after testing positive for COVID-19. Bryson DeChambeau tested positive before making the trip, and Team USA can replace him with 2018 Masters champ Patrick Reed. John Rahm, who is ranked No. 1 in the world, has also tested positive. Spain will not be able to replace him in time. In June, Rahm was pulled from the Memorial with a six-shot lead through three rounds after learning of a positive COVID-19 test.


Japan’s Yuto Horigome won the first ever Olympic skateboarding gold. The U.S.’s Jagger Eaton took bronze, but American favorite Nyjah Huston fell short of a medal. At least he didn’t do this:

More USA winners

Beach volleyball players April Ross and Alix Klineman won their Olympic opener. The women’s indoor volleyball team beat Argentina in three straight sets. And shooter William Shaner won gold in the 10m air rifle.

Snapshots from Tokyo

Here’s our latest gallery from SI’s photographers on the ground in Tokyo.

What to Watch

Morning Leftovers

We’re trying to stay a day ahead on these, so you can plan for the following day. Given the time zones, we’ll be sending this in the morning before all of the previous day’s sports are completed. So here are some leftovers mentioned in yesterday’s newsletter happening early Saturday morning:

The USA men’s basketball team makes its Olympic debut against France at 8 a.m. ET. Again, the three players who just got off a plane from the NBA Finals are expected to play.

Anastasija Zolotic is in the gold medal 57kg match in taekwondo against a Russian at 8:30 a.m.


Swimming: The swimming medals will be handed out in prime time (see above), and Sunday’s events are the women’s 100-meter butterfly, men’s 100-meter breaststroke, women’s 400-meter free and men’s 4x100-meter free. The women’s 400 could be one of the best events of the Olympics—it will mark the first showdown between Katie Ledecky and Australia’s Ariarne Titmus. And the 4x100-meter free is always a must-watch.

Gymnastics: The men are back in action with the team final, starting at 6:00 a.m. Monday.

Triathlon: The men’s triathlon starts at 5:30 p.m. and should be done in less than two hours.

Archery: The men’s team competition starts at 8:30 p.m. and concludes at 3:40 a.m. Brady Ellison will be looking to bounce back after an early exit in the mixed team event.

Cycling: The men’s mountain bike race starts at 2 a.m.

Diving: The men’s synchronized platform finals are also at 2 a.m.

Canoe slalom: I mentioned in my preview of every sport how much I love the slalom course! The men’s canoe final is at 2:45 a.m.

Shooting: Women’s skeet shooting finals are at 1:50 a.m., followed by men’s at 2:50.

Skateboarding: Now it’s the women’s turn for street skateboarding, with finals at 11:25 p.m.

Taekwondo: Taekwondo continues on the same schedule, with matches starting at 9 p.m. and running overnight until the medal bouts at 7:30 a.m. Team USA’s Paige McPherson, who won bronze in London and silver at the 2017 world championships, is in action.

Judo and fencing have similar formats running overnight.

Weightlifting: Medals begin at 6:50 a.m.

Table tennis: This sport added mixed doubles in 2020, and will hand out those medals first.

Team USA

The women’s 3x3 team plays against Italy at 4:55 a.m. and China at 8:00 a.m.

The softball team plays Japan at 9:00 p.m. As explained above, they'll play each other a second time for gold no matter who wins the first match-up.

Rugby! The men’s team plays twice on the first day of Olympic rugby. These games are quick! They just have two seven-minute halves. Game 1 is against Kenya at 10:30 p.m. Game 2 is against Ireland at 5:30 a.m.

Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil have a beach volleyball match against Latvia at 8 p.m.

Troy Isley has a boxing match at 6:24 a.m.

The women’s water polo team is back in action against China at 1:00 a.m.

And again, keep an eye out for rowing, sailing and surfing schedule changes because of the typhoon. And if you’re a big tennis fan, you should look up those times too, as they depend on when other matches end.

Caz’s Medal Picks

We’ve heard from many of you that you missed Brian Cazeneuve’s medal predictions before the Games started. The good news is he’ll be giving us his picks in a few sports for the newsletter moving forward.

Archery, men’s team

Gold: South Korea
Silver: U.S.
Bronze: China

South Koreans have won gold at four of the last five Olympics. World champ Brady Ellison paces the U.S.

Gymnastics, men’s team final

Gold: Japan
Silver: ROC
Bronze: China

Even without Kōhei Uchimura in the team competition, Japan’s new generation should hold off the Russians.

Diving, men’s synchronized platform

Gold: Tom Daley Matty Lee (Great Britain)
Silver: Cao Yuan and Chen Aisen (China)
Bronze: Alexsandr Bondar and Viktor Minibaev (ROC)

Daley won his first individual platform world title in 2019 at age 15. He has won two Olympic bronzes since then, but no golds.

Skateboarding, women’s street final

Gold: Aori Nishimura (Japan)
Silver: Pamela Rosa (Brazil)
Bronze: Momiji Nishiya (Japan)

Nishimura was the first Japanese skater featured in Tony Hawk’s video game. Nishiya is just 13.

SI’s Best

• Pat Forde has much more from Team USA’s big first day at the pool.

• Pat also wrote about backstroker Ryan Murphy.

• Vending Machine Life: Greg Bishop on an Olympic journey of a Japanese staple.

• Greg also wrote about Kolohe Andino ahead of the surfing debut.

• And Greg fell in love with 3x3 basketball.

• And finally, here’s Avi Creditor on the USWNT’s bounce-back win over New Zealand.

As a reminder, this newsletter is free if you sign up to receive it in your inbox. You can also subscribe to for unlimited access to all the other great stories on our site.

Let’s do it again tomorrow! Thanks for reading.

— Mitch