The Olympic Games are known for some surefire spectacles: an overdone opening ceremony, dazed athletes waving at no one in particular, tumbling records and tears of joy by the bucketload.
But they also throw up events and precedents that no one can expect. Shocking failures and miracle moments that need to be seen to be believed. As the Tokyo Games come to a historic close this weekend, we thought it apt to fill you in, dear reader, on the biggest, most outrageous surprises of the past two weeks. Join us in today’s Daily Dose as we toast the astounding first-time Olympians, the shocking mess-ups and other essential Olympic surprises that will leave you feeling smarter. And probably a little smug.
— Toyloy Brown III, OZY Reporter
1. Explosive Debut
Twenty-two-year-old wunderkind Luka Dončić started his Olympic career with a monstrous performance, one rarely witnessed in international basketball. The Slovenian exploded for 48 points, with 31 coming in the first half of Slovenia’s match against Argentina on July 26. Dončić also snagged 11 rebounds and dished five assists in his team’s 118-100 win. As the best scoring output by a European in Olympic history, Dončić’s achievement was sensational and stands joint second-best overall (tied with Australian Eddie Palubinskas) behind the 55 points scored by Brazil’s Oscar Schmidt at Seoul in 1988. Many basketball fans know Dončić is special, but this was an absurd first game in Olympic play that no one saw coming.
2. Stage for a Statement
Political statements by athletes have become popular in recent months, and that continued on the biggest stage of all in Tokyo. First-time Olympian Luciana Alvarado became the first Costa Rican gymnast to reach the Games, making her debut count with a memorable floor routine. But that wasn’t all. The 18-year-old concluded her routine by taking a knee and raising a fist in the air in a tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement in what was deemed an artistic element of her routine. She managed to skirt a rule forbidding political gestures, which some believe is outdated and which prevents Olympic athletes from political protests or demonstrations while on the awards podium or the field of play. Alvarado later told the Associated Press that the pose was intentional and that she did it to highlight the importance of equal rights, “Because we’re all the same . . . and we’re all beautiful and amazing.”
3. Canadian Softball Protest
One thing you don’t see every day is Olympians walking off the field. Well, that’s exactly what the Canadian softball team did on July 25 in protest of an umpire call during a 1-0 extra-inning loss to home side Japan. When the umpire chose not to allow Team Canada to switch pitchers, its coach, Mark Smith, pulled his team. Smith then submitted a formal protest with the World Baseball Softball Confederation. He got his way: The controversy was rectified when the substitute was later allowed to come on. Regardless, Canada lost, but did eventually nab its first medal of the Games, a bronze in softball, by later beating Mexico 3-2.
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Let’s all be glad that skateboarding is now an Olympic sport. For if it wasn’t, we’d have missed the wealth of incredible talent that’s out there. Some might have considered it an un-Olympic discipline. But we marveled as three girls performed near miracles and earned gold, silver and bronze in the women’s park event. At age 13, we were astounded as Great Britain’s Sky Brown became the youngest athlete and medalist for the nation. The self-taught Brown turned professional at 10 years old. Just ponder that for a moment. Skateboarding’s inclusion has inarguably brought a new dimension to the identity of the Games — and vice versa. Brazil’s Kelvin Hoefler, who won silver in the men’s street event, used to sleep with his board as a youth. Now, he believes that kids back home may start ditching the soccer ball for the skateboard. “It’s going to be mind-changing for them,” he said. Skateboarding may have a ways to go to catch up to the likes of soccer, but capturing the world’s imagination at Tokyo will do the sport wonders.
2. Kokona Hiraki
In what has turned into the Olympics of and for the youth, 12-year-old Hiraki became the youngest medal winner in Japan’s history and one of the youngest of all time at the Olympics after taking silver in the women’s park event this week. Momiji Nishiya, 13, who earlier won the street skateboarding discipline, became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport. It was another Japanese teen, 19-year-old Sakura Yosozumi, who won gold in the women’s park event. It’s a reminder that you’re never too young to have your name permanently etched in the record books. In a Games that has seen big names disappoint, teenage skateboarders have put smiles on the faces of millions of Olympics fans.
3. Japan and Skateboarding
For the longest time, skateboarding has been looked upon unfavorably in Japan. It was perceived as disrespectful and unseemly in public spaces because it was viewed as noisy and disruptive and was believed to damage public property. However, appreciation for the sport may be growing following the medal hauls from the aforementioned women, 22-year-old Yuto Horigome in a men’s event and others. Japanese pro skater Ryo Sejiri is counting on these prominent showings to change skateboarding’s reputation in the country. “I’m sure skateboarding has had a bad image up until now, because we do it out in public and people think of it as an inconvenience, but I think that will change now,” he said.
Tokyo has shown us that defying the odds is not impossible. On top of becoming the first athlete from the Philippines to ever capture Olympic gold, Hidilyn Diaz set an Olympic record for lifting a combined weight of 224 kilograms. The 30-year-old attained the Philippines’ first gold since the country made its Olympics debut in 1924, and pulled it off even after having to deal with COVID-19 challenges. While in Malaysia, an outbreak forced her team to stay there for months, causing her to miss an Olympic qualifying event in Peru. Workout facilities were shut down, but Diaz continued to prepare and did it DIY-style: She built her own gym and trained with barely any professional equipment. She created lift sets using water jugs and bamboo sticks, an interesting full-circle moment to her days as a youth when she trained using plastic pipes and concrete weights.
2. The Table Tennis Miracle
History made. Japan’s Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito have become the first non-Chinese athletes to win gold in the sport since 2004, defeating China’s Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen on July 26. After falling behind in the final, the pair then rallied to victory. Their secret? A chemistry and trust built from years growing up together, even though they are 12 years apart in age. Their nonverbal communication was a central reason why they achieved the first-ever gold for Japan in the sport. In the words of the 32-year-old Mizutani after the match, “a miracle happened.”
3. The Smartest Cyclist You’ll Meet
Ever seen someone with a Ph.D. in mathematics win gold? If you haven’t, meet Anna Kiesenhofer, who stunned the world with one of the biggest cycling upsets in Olympic history. The 30-year-old Austrian took gold, making it her nation’s first cycling win since the inaugural 1896 Athens Games. “It feels incredible. I couldn’t believe it,” Kiesenhofer said after the July 24 race. “Even when I crossed the line, it was like, ‘Is it done now? Do I have to continue riding?’ Incredible.” She hasn’t been cycling professionally for long, either: She has ridden just one season with professional Belgian team Lotto-Soudal, in 2017, and since then has only raced for her country. Despite the inexperience, she has come out triumphant, doctorate and all.
4. Olympians From Everywhere
San Marino has become the smallest country in Olympic history to win a medal, and it’s thanks to 33-year-old Alessandra Perilli. The Sammarinese shooter scored a bronze medal in the women’s trap competition for her country, the third smallest independent state in Europe. “This is the first medal for me and for my country. We are a small country but very proud,” she said following her medal ceremony. “They [her fellow citizens] are for sure going crazy, crying.” The tiny nation then went on to win a second medal, also in shooting. The 34,000 people of San Marino are definitely proud.
1. Turning Point for U.S. Soccer?
Are we witnessing the end of an era for the U.S. women’s national team? The No. 1 ranked team coming off back-to-back World Cup victories and 44 consecutive wins before traveling to Tokyo has, incredibly, been beaten two times in the past two weeks. The squad had been aiming to become the first women's soccer team to earn an Olympic gold medal as reigning FIFA World Cup champions. What happened? While the inquest has yet to fully start, one theory centers on the team’s age. Of its 18 players, half are over 30. Superstar players Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe are 39 and 36, respectively. A rebuild is now a must for one of the greatest soccer teams of the modern era. But for now, the team celebrates winning bronze after a 4-3 victory against Australia yesterday.
2. There's a Team Without Simone Biles
During the 2021 Olympics, we learned that the U.S. women’s gymnastics team can still be successful — even without the best gymnast in the world among its ranks. The team pulled off six medals, including two gold, courtesy of Jade Carey and Sunisa Lee. Earlier in the Games, the 24-year-old Biles withdrew from four individual finals, citing mental health reasons. She was experiencing “the twisties” — a sense of feeling lost in the air due to the mind and body not being in sync. Her decision to withdraw was not simply due to the immense pressure placed on her. She chose to do what was in her best interest by not competing to avoid a potentially serious injury. Fortunately, the four-time Olympic champion did make a return for the balance beam event and took home bronze, two days after a family member passed away.
3. Missed Medals?
Sure, lots of countries saw their athletes miss out on the Games due to COVID-19. But how many were on course for glory like the Americans who missed out? Take the world’s No. 7 ranked golfer, Bryson DeChambeau. The Californian, who has chosen not to get vaccinated, caught COVID-19 and was forced to miss out on potential Olympic glory. Seventeen-year-old tennis sensation Coco Gauff last month caught the virus and was thus forced to sit out the Games, as did men’s pole vault gold medal contender Sam Kendricks. In total, around 100 U.S. athletes have traveled to Tokyo unvaccinated. Are they to blame? Neither the International Olympic Committee nor the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee required athletes to be vaccinated prior to taking part. The jury’s out.