TOKYO — They were called the "COVID Olympics." The "pandemic Olympics." The "anger Olympics." Many Japanese people were upset to host such a huge and risky event in the middle of the pandemic, and many outside observers were surprised it happened at all.
But as the Tokyo Games close out inside these quiet and largely fan-less venues, records were set, history was made, and heartwarming moments of underdogs prevailing were streamed onto smartphones and beamed to televisions in homes around the world.
NPR's team in Tokyo put together our favorite moments of the Games, where participants showed their athleticism, sportsmanship, and what motivated them to compete.
You can jump to a moment here:
- Allyson Felix becomes the most decorated woman and U.S. athlete in track and field history.
- Two high jumpers decide to share gold.
- U.S. shot putter Raven Saunders defies the ban on podium protests.
- U.S. wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock cries holding the U.S. flag.
- Simone Biles mounts a comeback after withdrawing to focus on mental health.
- U.S. gymnasts band together and take silver in the team event.
- Caeleb Dressel is taking home five gold medals in swimming.
- Katie Ledecky defies doubters early in the Olympics and finishes on top.
- A runner falls in a 1,500 meter race — and still wins.
- A 14-year-old Chinese diver scores two perfect 10s.
- Japan makes a statement in skateboarding's Olympic debut.
- U.S. women's basketball takes its seventh gold medal in a row.
- A Tunisian swimmer mounts an upset and shocks the swimming world.
- Japan wins gold in the sport of Karate as it makes its Olympic debut.
The gold medal U.S. track star Allyson Felix earned on Saturday in the 4 x 400 meter relay marked a huge milestone — it made her the most decorated U.S. athlete in track and field history.
Felix has won 10 other Olympic medals and competed in five Olympics.
The night before, she won a bronze medal in the individual 400 meter race, breaking the record for the most Olympic medals for a female track and field athlete.
"This one is very different, and it's very special. And it just took a lot to get here," Felix said after the race.
She said she knew there were people who doubted whether she could make the team this time around, let alone medal. But on Friday, the 35-year-old went out and ran the second-fastest 400 meter race of her career.
It was the moment that melted hearts around the globe. Two high jumpers competed for hours but neither bested the other. Instead of heading into a tie-breaking jump off Qatar's Mutaz Essah Barshim asked "Can we share the Gold?"
When the answer came back yes, Italy's Gianmarco Tamberi jumped into Barshim's arms on the track. Both had suffered through near career ending injuries, both had come back at their best. Through years of competition the two became close friends. On the podium together they clasped hands and raised them in the air.
"I know for a fact that for the performance I did, I deserve that gold. He did the same thing, so I know he deserved that gold," Barshim said afterward. "This is beyond sport. This is the message we deliver to the young generation." A message of sportsmanship and love.
"You can't believe the emotion, the dream, of a gold medal to somebody who sacrificed his entire life for this and it was just amazing and sharing with a friend is even more," Tamberi said.
U.S. shot putter and silver medalist Raven Saunders was a social media sensation at the Tokyo Games with her "Hulk" persona and larger-than-life personality. She used her platform to represent her multi-faceted identity as a Black gay woman who'd struggled with depression so deeply that she contemplated suicide.
She also became the first Olympian to defy Rule 50 at the Tokyo Games. That rule bars competitors from protesting on the podium. When her medal was around her neck and the gold medalist from China's anthem was complete, Saunders briefly crossed her arms above her head in the shape of an X. She said it represented the "intersection where all oppressed people meet." Afterward U.S. fencer Race Imboden accepted his bronze medal with a small "x" drawn on the back of his hand to protest Rule 50.
The International Olympic Committee is under increasing pressure to change the rule, critics call it a violation of competitors' rights to free speech. Olympic organizers at first said they were looking into Saunders' gesture on the podium. But the inquiry was suspended when Saunders got the devastating news that her mother had died days after her medal ceremony.
U.S. wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock won the women's 68-kilogram freestyle final, becoming the first Black woman — and only the second woman — to take gold in Olympic wrestling for the U.S.
She was competing against Nigerian athlete Blessing Oborududu.
Mensah-Stock said she hopes her boundary-breaking win can help inspire the next generation of wrestlers.
"These young women are going to see themselves in a number of ways and look up and go, 'I can do that, I can see myself'. Look at this natural hair. Come on. Man, I've got my puffballs out, so they can know that they can do it too," Mensah-Stock said. "I know the future for women's wrestling is bright and growing immensely."
After her win, she made a heart-shaped gesture with her hands and hugged her coaches. Then, she held a large U.S. flag over her head.
"I'm feeling very happy and I keep trying not to cry, but it keeps happening," she said, according to a release from Team USA. "I just want to go into a dark room and cry, but I'm crying from joy."
U.S. gymnastics star Simone Biles triumphantly returned to competition on the last day of women's artistic gymnastics, winning a bronze medal after taking time she needed for her mental health.
Earlier in the Games, Biles withdrew after the first vault of the team final, saying she didn't feel confident that she could perform and didn't want to risk an injury or a medal for the team. She said she was dealing with a terrifying phenomenon known as the "twisties," when a gymnast feels lost in the air, and received an outpouring of support from her team, other athletes, and fans.
Biles also withdrew from the individual all-around final, and three of the four individual apparatus finals.
"It wasn't easy pulling out of all those competitions. I physically and mentally wasn't in the right headspace and I didn't want to jeopardize my health or my safety because at the end of the day it's not worth it," Biles said. "My mental and physical health is above all medals that I could ever win."
When she competed on the beam, she was still dealing with the twisties — but altered her routine so they didn't affect her as much.
"I wasn't expecting to walk away with a medal. I was just going out there to do this for me and whatever happens, happens," Biles said after the competition. She added that it "just meant the world to be back out there."
When Biles pulled out of the team final, her teammates fully supported her decision.
It also posed a huge challenge for them. Mid-competition, the three first-time Olympians had to come up with a new plan to get through the difficult gauntlet of events, all the while worried about their teammate and friend.
And they stepped up. Jordan Chiles took Biles' place on the uneven bars and balance beam and Sunisa Lee competed on the floor exercise.
At the end of the night, the gymnasts had pulled off a stellar showing without the cornerstone of their team, second only to the group from Russia.
"There was definitely a lot of emotions going through all of our heads, but I'm really proud that we were able to step up to the plate and do what we needed to do," said Lee. "It's very hard to lose a teammate, especially at the Olympic Games, so I was really proud of all of us."
Lee also took home a gold medal in the individual all-around final, where Biles had been a favorite to win before she pulled out.
U.S. star swimmer Caeleb Dressel, 24, came into these Olympics with high expectations but no individual Olympic medals. He's leaving with three golds in individual events and two golds in relays.
Dressel broke his own world record in the 100 meter butterfly and was part of a world record-setting team in the 4x100 medley relay.
He set Olympic records in the 100 meter freestyle and the 50 meter freestyle — a mad sprint that is just one length of the pool. And he led off the gold medal-winning men's 4x100 meter freestyle relay.
"I think the U.S. has been so dominant for so long, to put my stamp on the sport is very special," he said on the last day of Olympic swimming.
What Dressel did in Tokyo, Ledecky did at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. She had her breakout Games, winning four golds — three of them individual — and becoming invincible in the eyes of the world. Of course no one is truly that; athletes, as we've learned so well at these Games, are human beings. And so when Ledecky finished second and fifth in her first two Tokyo events, the "what's wrong with Katie?" narrative emerged.
The answer, of course, was nothing. She ended up winning two gold medals and two silvers — a sublime haul for any athlete. But through Ledecky, we were reminded again about the weight of Olympic expectations.
"Every move you make is being watched and judged," she said, "and as much as we say that we try to ignore it, I think some of that is just trying to keep that positive mindset and move forward."
Those are words of wisdom, and good advice for Dressel as he approaches Paris 2024 and the likely expectation that he'll be invincible.
Dutch runner Sifan Hassan had just entered the final lap of her 1,500-meter heat, where she was a medal favorite. Suddenly, the runner in front of her fell, bringing her down too.
With 11 runners in front of her and a huge gap to make up, Hassan stood up and started reeling them in. On the final straightaway, she passed five of the fastest runners in world, winning the heat.
"Believe me, it was horrible, but sometimes I think bad things happen for good. When I fell down I said to myself, OK life doesn't always go the way that you want," she said. "After that I felt like somebody who drank 20 cups of coffee. I couldn't calm myself down."
She went on to win bronze in the final — a medal she wouldn't have without managing to pull off the near-impossible in the qualifying race. She also took gold in the 5,000 meters and the 10,000 meters.
14-year-old diving prodigy Quan Hongchan competed in her first Olympics, and already attained perfection.
And she did it twice, with two dives that received unanimous perfect scores from the judges' panel in the 10-meter platform event.
This was her first international competition. When it became clear she was the winner, her coach lifted her in the air as she laughed and smiled.
"I was a little nervous, but not very, just a little bit," she said, and thanked her parents watching back home in China. "I want to thank them for encouraging me, encouraging me to relax and telling me to just go for my dives freely because it doesn't matter whether I get a medal or not."
In a third dive, she earned six 10s and one 9.5. Since the two highest and two lowest scores are discarded to calculate the final score, it was also effectively a perfect dive.
Despite the fact that Japan officials frown on the sport and there are signs around Tokyo warning "No Skateboarding," teen athletes from Japan won three gold medals and a silver medal in the skateboarding competitions that debuted during the Games. They dominated in a sport that originated in Southern California.
During the first ever Olympic street skateboarding contest, 22-year-old Yuto Horigome won gold. In the neighborhood where he had grown up, Horigome expertly flipped his board in the air, sailing over staircases and gliding on rails. He executed a difficult "nollie 270 noseslide," flipping his board, then sliding it down the rail on its nose.
The following day, 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya became Japan's youngest gold medalist ever when she won the women's street skateboarding competition.
In the park skateboarding contest, Sakura Yosozumi, 19, claimed gold, soaring through the valleys and up walls of the curved concrete course. She grinded her board on the lip of the course, and soared over it with mid-air tricks, rotating 540 degrees. Afterwards, she told reporters her family had built a small skatepark for her at home, and that's where she practiced to get good enough to win the gold medal.
Yosozumi scored slightly higher than her teammate, Kokona Hiraki. The 12-year-old earned the silver medal in the park skateboarding competition.
There seem to be two certainties about women's basketball at the Olympics: The U.S. won't lose a game and will win gold. Both of those happened again in Tokyo. The U.S. rolled through the tournament winning all six games it played and earning its seventh gold medal in a row. The U.S. has now won a remarkable 55 Olympic straight games dating to the 1992 Barcelona Games.
The team was led by a powerhouse group of WNBA stars including Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird (who won their fifth gold medals — the first basketball players to do so), Brittney Griner (who scored a record 30 points in an Olympic gold medal game), Breanna Stewart, A'ja Wilson, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.
Dawn Staley won her first gold medal as a coach, having won three golds as a player.
While the lineup will inevitably be different at the Paris Games in 2024, it seems very likely that the U.S. will find a way to win and be golden again.
An 18-year-old Tunisian managed to pull off a surprise upset in the 400 meter freestyle swimming event, winning the fifth gold medal ever for his country.
Ahmed Hafnaoui erupted in jubilation when he realized he won in the extremely tight race, pumping his fists and placing both hands on his brow as he took in the victory.
He seemed genuinely shocked at the result: "I just can't accept that — it is too incredible."
Hafnaoui came into the race with the slowest qualifying time of the eight swimmers — but he touched the wall first, beating out Australia's Jack McLoughlin by just 0.16 seconds. Kieran Smith from the U.S. took bronze, about a half-second behind the winner.
When Hafnaoui was asked by NBC how he kept his lead, he simply said: "I don't know, I just put my hand in the water, that's it." The swimmer seemed at a loss for words. Shaking his head, he said, "it's a dream that became true."
After decades of trying for Olympic inclusion, Karate made its debut at the Tokyo Olympics. Three-time world champion Ryo Kiyuna rewarded his native country with a gold medal.
Kiyuna won men's kata, one of two martial arts disciplines contested at these Games (the sparring event "kumite" was the other) that's particularly mesmerizing. It involves a lone competitor executing highly stylized and controlled movements and crisp, violent punches against an imaginary opponent. Some of the moves are punctuated by fierce screams.
Kiyuna's victory was memorable for two reasons: he's a native of Okinawa, where karate originated centuries ago; and on the medal stand he held a framed photo of his mother, who died two years ago.
"I felt I wanted to report my triumph to [her]" he said afterwards.
As dramatic as karate's debut was, it's the only one of these Olympics' new sports (climbing, surfing, skateboarding and 3-on-3 basketball are the others) that won't be on the program at the next Summer Games in 2024, in Paris. For Karate fans, it's an unfortunate decision, especially since the martial art is popular in France and throughout the world.