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Handing Out Awards for the Tokyo Olympics

The Games may be over, but there are still medals to award, for the best, worst and most memorable moments.

Now that the Olympics are over, the United States may lay claim to winning the overall count with 113 medals. But SI has its own medals to award, both good and bad, for people, places, great deeds, misdeeds, defined records and indefinable impressions. 

Coolest Mom

By winning her 10th and 11th career medals in Tokyo, Allyson Felix took over the mantle from Carl Lewis as the track and field athlete with the most Olympic medals in history. In 2017, after Felix’s contract with Nike expired, the company offered her a 70% pay cut and refused to offer her protections for maternity time. Felix left Nike and signed with the women-focused apparel company Athleta. She then created her own shoe company called Saysh, which sounds just a bit like Nike's swoosh symbol. 

In November, 2018, Felix’s daughter, Camryn, was born prematurely at 32 weeks. Felix underwent an emergency cesarean section, and both mom and daughter made it through after some very difficult moments. Few athletes have enjoyed the popularity and respect that Felix has. Her legacy of medals may last for a while; her legacy of decency will endure beyond it.

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Misplaced Discipline?

So the U.S. left sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson at home because she tested positive for marijuana, but they brought Alen Hadzic, the epee fencer who was suspended in June by the U.S. Center for SafeSport for allegations of sexual misconduct by three different women between 2013 and 2015. Hadzic denied the allegations and later had his suspension removed. Some members of the U.S. fencing’s epee team wore pink masks in support of sexual assault victims. Hadzic confronted two of them personally, according to reports. 

Richardson later admitted to taking the drug, but explained that she used it to cope with the recent death of her mother. Rules are rules, say some, including the respected voice of Dominique Dawes, the Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics and former head of the women’s sports foundation, who said, “because it is a current rule, they need to follow the rule.” 

O.K., but if an athlete using a recreational drug with no perceivable performance benefit is banned and an athlete accused of being a repeat abuser is permitted, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at the rules.

Longest Pity Party

After referee Andy Mustacchio—who was actually clean shaven—disqualified French boxer Mourad Aliev for head butting his British opponent, Aliev staged a sit-down in the ring for an hour to protest the decision. Aliev head-butted Frazer Clarke with four seconds remaining in the second round of their 91-kg match. Aliev, 26, kicked his mouth guard into the empty stands and began screaming, “I win. I win,” at Clarke. After sitting for half an hour, he spoke briefly with team officials and then returned for round two of his sit-in.

The Unknown Runner

And your name again, please? Before 2021, Lamont Marcell Jacobs had never broken the 10-second mark for 100 meters. But the 26-year old, who was born in El Paso, Texas, and raised in the Lombardy region of Italy, won the first post-Bolt Olympic dash at the Olympic Stadium on Aug. 1 in 9.80 seconds. At the last world championships in Doha in 2019, Jacobs ran just 10.20, failing to make the final. You could have won two piazzas and the Colosseum if you had bet on him before the Games. Must have been the pasta.

The Unknown Rule

Ten years ago, the IAAF, the international governing body for track and field, passed a rule that was so obscure, even the athletes who were impacted by it had no idea it existed. With no misses in the high jump competition through 2.37 meters, Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi were all set to commence a customary jump-off in order to determine the winner. An official stunned both of them by telling them they could opt to stop jumping and share the gold medal. The two friends agreed, high-fived and pranced about the infield, both the richer for the obscure regulation.

Best Celebration

Katie Ledecky was heretofore untouchable by swimmers, dolphins, speedboats and anything else that moved—always slower than her—in the water. So when Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, one of Ledecky’s pursuers, finally surpassed her in the 400-meter freestyle, Titmus’s coach Dean Boxall self-detonated in the area of the stands reserved for team officials. With his long hair, and head-banging rocker gyrations, Boxall personally recalibrated the Richter scale in celebration. He has since become a shivering gyrating meme.

Classiest Silver Medalist

Back to the women’s 400-meter freestyle, leave it to Ledecky to put a healthy perspective to her second-place finish that showed she was not invincible. It was her first non-gold in a major race since she was 15. “It was an awesome swim,” Ledecky said afterwards. “I think it’s great for the sport.” It’s an odd fact of athletics life for those labelled as GOATs within their sport: if there is no competition, the thing gets boring. Other women are now chasing Ledecky with vigor, much the way they once chased Janet Evans in the same races back in the late 80s. Now that the Tokyo Games are done, Ledecky’s haul of seven Olympic and 18 World medals is only likely to grow. But the fact that had the perspective to take a moment of defeat and talk about growing the sport shows more about Ledecky than a medal or a record could.

Unmedaled

The U.S. rowers should have left their boats at home. The team finished without any medals for the first time at an Olympics since 1908, when it did not send any oarsmen to the London Games. Before the Tokyo Games, U.S. rowers had accumulated 89 medals, including 33 golds, in their illustrious Olympic history, but they were not among the 18 nations who reached the rowing medal stands in Tokyo. The men’s and women’s eights boats both placed fourth in their races. Honorable mention goes to the U.S. judo team, which came up empty for the first time since 2000 and second (apart from the Moscow Games they did not attend) since 1972.

"Total Embarrassment"

Don’t ask us; ask Carl Lewis about the men’s 4 x 100-meter relay debacle in Tokyo. U.S. men finished sixth in their heat, failing to qualify for the finals. The U.S. team that won 13 of 14 gold medals—except for the 1980 Games it boycotted—from 1928 to 1984 has now failed to win any medal at all at four straight Olympic Games. And unlike other relay failures of past teams that always seem to run out of the passing zone or drop a baton when a major championship is on the line, this quartet was plain slow. Sure, there was a bad second pass from Fred Kerley to Ronnie Baker, but the U.S. four could have recovered to earn a spot in the final had they simply been faster. The lead leg, Trayvon Bromell, wasn’t much better than he was earlier in the week when he missed out on the 100-meter final. Lewis dropped the “total embarrassment” label on the relay group, but they had company. U.S. men did not win an individual gold on the track for the first time in Olympic history. Put an asterisk there because Rai Benjamin couldn’t have done much more than he did in the 400 hurdles, but if China, Canada, Italy, Germany and Ghana beat you in your relay heat, maybe it’s time to coax Lewis out of retirement.

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Game Changer

Simone Biles’s untimely withdrawal from the team competition in gymnastics deprived her of another moment in the spotlight and deprived the Olympic world of a final chance to see Biles in a major all-around competition. She hadn’t lost one since winning the world title in 2013. But it did open the door for discussion about what had been a taboo subject among athletes: mental health. In Biles’s case, her discomfort in the air also manifested itself into a physical condition known as the twisties, a loss of air sense that is critical to a gymnast’s repertoire of skills. The demands of their crafts are not new, but the scrutiny of them has intensified because of social media and public awareness. Teams and sports may well see Biles’s case as an overdue call to preventive action.

And More Game Changers

Canadian midfielder Quinn became the first out transgender athlete to win an Olympic medal, as Canada captured gold with surprising victories against the U.S. in the semifinals and Sweden in an exciting shootout in the finals. Quinn started in the deciding game, having come out in September as trans and nonbinary. There were other transgender athletes in Tokyo. Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, the champion of Oceania and the Commonwealth Games in 2017 and 2019, was also a world silver medalist in Anaheim in 2017. The 43-year-old from Auckland, New Zealand did not win a medal, however, in Tokyo, unable to execute a successful lift in the snatch, the first half of her competition. U.S. Skateboarder Alana Smith, 20, also transgender and nonbinary, finished last of 20 competitors in the women’s street competition.

Lightest Slap on the Wrist

Remember the headlines back in December, 2020 proclaiming that Russia would be banned from the Tokyo Olympics because of its state-sponsored doping program? A two-year suspension from the World Anti-Doping Agency. A ban! A good club on a head, right? Instead the IOC and the doping police arranged a poorly-veiled workaround that allowed the athletes to attend, as both individuals and teams. So the national anthem is different. The flag is different. The three-letter acronym by which the team is recognized is now ROC instead of RUS. But they still refer to their team as the Russian team in press conferences. They wear an outfit that is only slightly different than before the suspension that has all the teeth of a 70s hockey player. Some U.S. athletes think their presence here smells like a vat of vodka. Beaten by Russians in both the 100-and 200 -meter backstrokes, U.S. swimmer Ryan Murphy said his events were “probably not clean.” U.S. swimmer Lilly King later said there “a lot of people here that should not be here.” Russia is a powerful political force within the Olympic movement. A less influential delegation might have served time instead of getting a disguised probation.

Worst Photobomb

The athletes lined up for the start of the men’s triathlon on July 26. The horn sounded. The triathletes jumped in the water and there it was, a motorboat gliding across their path. Approximately a third of the field suddenly found itself in a race with a giant hurdle, an event not listed on the triathlon program. So after several men had already swum for about 200 meters, another horn went off, calling the triathletes back for a do-over. Since some of those in the lead didn’t hear the call, the ones who had gotten off the fastest also wasted the most number of strokes in the water.

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Best Venue

Nearly all of the venues used for the Olympics in Tokyo were either relatively new or recently modernized. The most salient exception was the Nippon Budokan, which hosted the judo competition when the martial art made its debut on the Olympic program at the 1964 Olympics. It was built within walking distance of the Imperial Palace, in case the Emperor ever wanted to drop in on an event. The outside of the venue is shaped like a temple and the inside is treated like one, with photos and artifacts along the inner walls from the Olympics that embodied Tokyo’s recovery from World War II. Nippon Budokan, which translates to Martial Arts Hall, could easily be called a fieldhouse in the U.S. The Beatles were the first musical group to play there. Bob Dylan recorded a live album there. A distinct smell of burnt tea leaves wafts about the building. In a land where links to the past are treated with reverence, this one deserves a deep bow.

Best Breakthrough

Until these Olympics, no U.S. woman had ever won gold in the sport of canoe/kayak. That changed on Aug. 4 when Seattle teenager Nevin Harrison handily captured the inaugural women’s C-1 200-meter race in 45.932 seconds, nearly eight-tenths of a second ahead of Canadian silver medalist Laurence Vincent-Lapointe. Canoeists three though eight were eight tenths apart. The victory completed a hat trick for Harrison, who also won golds at the World Championships and Pan-Am Games in 2019. The 19-year old plans a medical career after she’s done with competition, which won’t be for a while, and medicine has something to do with it. Harrison was an aspiring sprinter on the track in junior high school, but after she began getting pain in her legs and thighs, doctors discovered that her hip socket and thighbone weren’t connected properly. On their advice, Harrison gave up running, but not competing. Though canoeing entails a thrashing of an arm-propelled paddle in the water, it is forgiving on the legs, which essentially maintain balance while the athlete keeps one knee down and the other leg extended in the canoe. If you’ve never seen an Olympic canoe race, you may be seeing more of them, thanks to Harrison.

Most Accurate Shooter

Mr. Robot was a perfect 3-for-3 at halftime of two U.S. games, nailing shots from the free-throw line, the three-point line and center court. Never overestimate the power of eyeballs or assume you need ice in your veins—or any kind of veins, actually. When the rather unemotional pile of metal is on, it’s nothing but net, and after this international showing, you can expect to see him flexing his mineral alloy frequently at an NBA arena near you. Eat your heart out, Steph Curry.

Most Inspiring

Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee didn’t get on the official medal stand, but we’ll give her one just for making it to the Tokyo Games. Ikee had high hopes for Olympic medals in Tokyo after winning six golds at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, but she was diagnosed with leukemia in 2019. Ikee spent nearly ten months in the hospital and wasn’t expecting to earn an Olympic berth, but she won the 100-meter butterfly at the Japanese trials and also placed in the 100-meter freestyle. The 21-year-old Tokyo native finished fifth in a heat of the 100 frees and was part of the 4 x 100-meter medley relay team that made the final, but finished last of eight teams. Still, her remarkable recovery bodes well for a bright future and perhaps another swim or two in Paris. “I am grateful for every day,” Ikee said after her last race. “I feel lucky to be alive.”

Most Prescient Tweet

On Aug. 21, 2016, Gable Dan Steveson tweeted the following: “Taha Akgul is a crazy good wrestler. I hope he keeps wrestling, so I can one day meet him in a matchup!” Steveson was 16 at the time. It was quite a bold forecast for a young man to make, but maybe not for one who was named for Dan Gable, perhaps the greatest U.S. freestyle wrestler in history. The aftermath was magical. In Tokyo, Steveson trailed Akgul, 8-5, in the 125-kg Olympic final with just 15 seconds left in the match, but he rallied for an improbable four points, including a two-point takedown just before time expired, to take the match, 9-8, and win the gold medal. Steveson got his wish and his gold medal.

First Timers

Six Olympic teams enjoyed medal firsts in Tokyo, as athletes from three delegations won their first medals and three captured their first gold medals in their respective histories. Here is the list:

First medals

Polina Guryeva, weightlifting, Turkmenistan

Hughes Zango, triple jump, Burkina Faso

Alessandra Perilli, bronze in women’s trap shooting; Perilli and Gian Marco Berti, silver in mixed trap; Myles Amine, bronze in wrestling, for San Marino. With a population of 34,000, it is the smallest country ever to win an Olympic medal.

First golds

Flora Duffy, triathlon, Bermuda (the only delegation of the six that isn’t a country)

Hidilyn Diaz, weightlifting (127 kg) Philippines

Mutaz Barshim, high jump, Qatar

One other first: Japanese judokas Hifumi and Uta Abe became the first siblings to win gold medals on the same day in different events (i.e., not teammates in a team event). Hifumi won gold at 66 kg. Uta won gold at 52 kg.

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Hot and Cold

By capturing a silver medal with the U.S. baseball team in Tokyo, infielder Eddy Alvarez became the sixth athlete in history to win medals at both the winter and summer Olympics. Alvarez also won a silver in the 5000-meter relay in short-track speedskating at the Sochi Games in 2014. The other dual medalists are Eddy Eagan (U.S.), boxing and bobsled; Jakob Thams (Norway), sailing and ski jumping; Christa Rothenburger-Luding (GDR/Germany) cycling and speedskating; Clara Hughes (Canada), cycling and speedskating; Lauren Williams (U.S.), track & field and bobsled.

Biggest Thank You

This goes to the people of Japan and, more specifically, Tokyo. Under conditions few could have imagined, the city held an Olympics that few people wanted, at least not now. Usually Olympics provide citizens a chance to show off their city and their culture. Granted, the Games are always a mixed blessing. They often leave behind splashy infrastructure and sizable debt. But the impressions last. Just ask people in Barcelona how their tourist numbers ballooned in the years after hosting an Olympics. 

Tokyo didn’t need to show itself off. It is already one of the world’s most widely recognized, visited and esteemed cities. But these were an Olympics held largely in quarantine, without spectators and tourists, and with non-competition facilities that those of us here on approved, official business were unable to patronize. Yet at almost every turn, the credentialed among us were greeted with warmth and hospitality in the face of pandemic and organizational fatigue, and understandable concern that locals have for themselves, their friends and families. How many times have we bowed in reply to a similar gesture or smiled at the charming versions of English phrases tossed our way. It’s many cool, indeed. Arigato gozaimasu, Tokyo.

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