Bond Between Olympians Is Deeper Than Ever Because of the Tokyo GamesAugust 7, 2021
"Can we have two golds?"
This may well be the defining quote of the Tokyo Olympics, which will be long remembered for the many awe-inspiring displays of sportsmanship, respect and transnational friendship among athletes that took place during the two weeks of competition.
Mutaz Barshim of Qatar and Italy's Gianmarco Tamberi were three failed jumps each into a protracted draw in the men's high jump final; neither could jump higher than 2.37 meters. The officials offered them a choice: a jump-off or share the top spot on the podium. Barshim made the now-legendary request for a golden tie. Tamberi leapt into his arms.
When Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi finished the men's high jump competition tied, they could have gone to a jump-off to decide the winner. Instead, they decided to share the gold, and their reaction is what we love about sports. #TokyoOlympics https://t.co/ALTyeysC8t
The theme of these Games was "United by Emotion." And they were. Intense rivalries between athletes, even ones hyped mercilessly before the Games began, ended with athletes hugging, high-fiving or taking selfies together. A focus on athlete health, particularly mental health, was spurred by Simone Biles' withdrawing, first from the gymnastics team final and then from all but one event final, because of a mental block called the "twisties" that impaired her air awareness.
It is Biles, perhaps, who reaped the most rewards from the kinder, gentler atmosphere of these Games, but it is also true that without her, we might not have seen as much of that kindness. She made everyone at these Olympics, as well as those watching them from afar, keenly aware of the pressure she, and other athletes, were under in this strange year, after months upon months of a pandemic in which they did not compete, could not train normally, lost family members and friends, and were now performing in arenas with no fans, no audience to help build excitement and cheer and boo and sigh and clap.
It was by no means limited to her, as other athletes—in particular, Noah Lyles after winning bronze in the men's 200-meter race—spoke movingly about their own struggles. Lyles, who acknowledged suffering from depression, said it meant a lot to him that the Olympics turned out to be "a place where you can actually be OK with letting go of your fears and saying, 'I am scared.'"
Across sports, we saw rivalries bud and others intensify, but we also saw those rivals acknowledge being greater because of other athletes and thank their opponents.
Ariarne Titmus of Australia seemed to be gaining on American Katie Ledecky's legacy in the distance freestyle swimming events. When Titmus out-touched Ledecky at the wall in the 400-meter freestyle, after pronouncing at the Australian swimming trials before the Games that Ledecky wasn't going to win everything this year, she could have gone wild in celebration (and indeed, her coach did, becoming a meme). But Titmus hugged Ledecky and reiterated to the press that the two pushed each other to be better swimmers and that they both welcomed the competition.
When Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa won gold in the women's 200-meter breaststroke, setting a world record, she beat American Lilly King, who had been considered almost a sure thing for gold in her signature event.
At the wall, King looked at the scoreboard and embraced her teammate Annie Lazor, who won bronze. Then King and Lazor, and Schoenmaker's teammate Kaylene Corbett, crossed the lane lines to hug Schoenmaker, who cried as she realized what she had done. Later, King denounced American reporters who, she said, did not hold up silver and bronze medals as achievements but rather considered them losses and disappointments.
After American Adeline Gray lost her 76-kilogram women's freestyle wrestling match to Germany's Aline Rotter-Focken, Gray spoke to reporters about her strong friendship with Rotter-Focken, a competitor since the two, both now 30, were teenagers, and the pride she took in their matches.
Runners Isaiah Jewett of the U.S. and Nijel Amos of Botswana collided during a men's 800-meter semifinal. Jewett's left leg was clipped and then hit his right leg, and he fell; Amos tripped over him. They both hit the track. Jewett, his leg bleeding and his head aching after he hit it during his fall, slapped hands with Amos as they stood, and the two embraced and then finished the race. Jewett spoke meaningfully of being angry with himself but "standing up and showing good character" with his rival after his finish.
The Cold War ended 30 years ago, though a certain frostiness between the United States and Russia never fully dissipated in gymnastics. Russian and American gymnasts have dominated the sport since the mid-2000s, trading off titles and medal colors at major competitions.
The squad representing the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) won the women's gymnastics team final competition in an upset over the United States, which had just fought with every turn, leap and landing for silver after its star, Biles, pulled out.
The Russian coach had predicted that result months ago, but the U.S. athletes wore a look of visible shock following the upset. The two teams could merely have ignored each other. But we saw both squads, led by Biles, embracing, trading selfies and hugs, and sharing what appeared to be sincere congratulations.
After Biles won her sole individual medal of these Games, a bronze in the balance beam final, she made the rounds of all her competitors. A hug for Ellie Black of Canada. A compliment to Brazil's Flavia Saraiva on her pink-and-yellow leotard. Cheers to Guan Chenchen of China, who won gold, as she stuck her landing, and more hugs for Guan's teammate, Tang Xijing, who won silver.
The world will not be the same place in three years, when the next Summer Games will be held in Paris. Collectively, we all likely hope that there is no longer a pandemic and that the stands will once again fill with spectators and athletes' families. But bringing some of the emotion of the Tokyo Games to Paris would not be the worst thing for the future of sports.