Highlights of the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics
In the final days of competition at the Tokyo Olympics, it looked as though China would triumph on the medal count with the most gold, even as the U.S. had a comfortable lead in overall medals.
With one day left and the women's basketball and volleyball gold-medal matches on the docket, the U.S. led China 108-87 in overall medals but needed three gold medals to take the lead.
Team USA's athletes delivered.
First, and no surprise, the U.S. women's basketball team dominated in the gold-medal game against Japan 90-75 on the strength of Brittney Griner's 30-point night. Gold medal, check.
Then, in a surprising triumph, Jennifer Valente earned the U.S. its first-ever gold medal in women's track cycling. The Americans had won silver or bronze seven times before in the sport. Gold medal, check.
Finally, in another historic first, the U.S. women's indoor volleyball team managed to stave off dominant Brazil, which beat them in the gold-medal games in 2008 and 2012, to earn the nation's first women's volleyball gold. Gold medal, check.
These highlights are the freshest in our minds, and we can trace them directly to the U.S. finishing atop the medal table. But the Tokyo Games, even with all the controversy and difficulty surrounding their staging, gave us so many records, firsts and dominant performances, as well as so-good-they-feel-scripted storylines.
The final medal table is below; then, we'll take a look back at the most emotional, most dominant and most memorable highlights of the Tokyo Olympics.
Final Medal Table
1. United States: 39 gold, 113 total
2. China: 38 gold, 88 total
3. Japan: 27 gold, 58 total
4. Great Britain: 22 gold, 65 total
5. ROC: 20 gold, 71 total
6. Australia: 17 gold, 46 total
7. Italy: 10 gold, 40 total
8. Germany: 10 gold, 37 total
9. Netherlands: 10 gold, 36 total
10. France: 10 gold, 33 total
Full medal counts available at Olympics.com.
Opening Ceremony Pictograms Delight the Internet
Everyone on social media is a critic, so when something happens in the zeitgeist that almost universally delights people, it's notable.
We had such a moment right as the Tokyo Games kicked off with the live performances of each sport's pictogram during the Opening Ceremony.
Pictograms were first introduced at the Tokyo 1964 Games and play an important role in making sure each sport can be understood across cultures and languages. The pictograms used in the Tokyo Olympics were created by Japanese designer Masaaki Hiromura, totaling 73 in all.
These pictograms came to life during the Opening Ceremony. A team of three performers dressed in white and blue acted out every discipline's pictogram in a frenetic and charming performance that captivated the world.
Olympics Opening Ceremonies tend to be full of pomp and circumstance, but Tokyo's had to be pared way down with no spectators in attendance because of the pandemic. Still, with the human pictograms, organizers gave us one of the Olympics' most memorable performances.
Team USA Continues Its Dominance in Basketball
For years on end, we've heard that the rest of the world is catching up to USA in hoops, and yet the men just won their fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal, followed by the women winning their seventh straight gold and stretching their overall Olympic winning streak to 55 games.
France certainly caused problems for Team USA's men this year. When they met in pool play, the French won 83-76. And when the rematch took place in the gold-medal game, USA only won 87-82.
As was the case throughout the knockout portion of the tournament, though, there was no answer for Kevin Durant.
KD had 29 points in the quarterfinal win over Spain, 23 against Australia in the semifinal and another 29 with gold on the line against France. Much was made about the litany of NBA stars who opted not to represent USA in Tokyo, but having a guy like that to turn to any time things got a little tough was more than enough.
As dominant as Durant was for the American men, Brittney Griner was just as spectacular for the women, particularly in the gold-medal game against Japan.
The 6'8" star of the paint averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds between the quarterfinal and semifinal victories over Australia and Serbia, and she imposed her size and will on Japan with 30 points and three blocks in the finale. Breanna Stewart (14 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks) and A'ja Wilson (19 points, seven rebounds, five blocks) also made life miserable for the undersized Japanese women in a game that ended 90-75.
Overall, the U.S. men are now 143-6 at the Olympics, and the women are 74-3. That's a combined winning percentage of 96.0. And they are batting 1.000 in the medal department, each reaching the podium in every single year that they have competed, including gold medals in 25 of 30 tries.
Sunisa Lee's Gymnastics Breakout
Even before she arrived in Tokyo, gymnast Sunisa Lee had made headlines around the world.
That's because in the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, Lee managed to post a one-day all-around score (58.166) on the second day of competition that bested Simone Biles', the first time anyone could claim that since 2013.
Her strong performance at trials, as well as her silver-medal finish in the floor exercise and bronze-medal result in the uneven bars at the 2019 World Championships, made Lee a silver-medal favorite for the women's all-around competition and a gold-medal pick for the uneven bars.
But when Biles made the decision to withdraw from the team final because of what she would later reveal were the "twisties," an inability for a gymnast to place his or her own body in space, Lee had to step in to keep the Americans in medal contention.
Set to compete on uneven bars and balance beam only, Lee also replaced Biles on the floor exercise. She then tied the highest score of the competition in any event on uneven bars at 15.400. Lee's efforts helped the U.S. women secure silver behind the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC).
But with the individual events left on her slate, Lee wasn't done earning medals. With Biles also out of the women's all-around, Lee stunned with her gold medal in the event, hitting all four of her routines and securing the day's highest marks on uneven bars. In doing so, she became the sixth American woman and first Asian-American woman to win the event.
Lee closed out her Tokyo coronation by earning bronze in the uneven bars final. She emerged from Tokyo as one of America's biggest rising stars and, at 18 years old, could have another successful Games ahead at Paris 2024.
Men and Women Set New Records in Exciting 400-Meter Hurdles Finals
In the finals of the men's and women's 400-meter hurdles, the would-be winners weren't just competing against their silver- and bronze-medal counterparts.
Their biggest competition, it turned out, was themselves.
USA's Sydney McLaughlin and Norway's Karsten Warholm each broke their own world records in their gold-medal runs in the women's and men's 400-meter hurdles finals, respectively.
For McLaughlin, her time of 51.46 one-upped the world record she had set at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, where she became the first woman to break 52 seconds in the event with her time of 51.90.
And Warholm's time of 45.94 seconds broke the world record he set in July of 46.70 seconds, as he became the first person to break 46 seconds. American Rai Benjamin, with a time of 46.17 seconds, also broke the world record Warholm had set earlier this summer to earn silver.
In fact, both silver medalists in the men's and women's 400-meter hurdles finals were Team USA hurdlers. Finishing runner-up to McLaughlin was teammate Dalilah Muhammad with a time of 51.58. Muhammad was hoping to become the first woman to repeat as champion in the event; if she competes in Paris 2024, McLaughlin can now chase down that goal.
Other Noteworthy Feats in Track and Field
Those world-record runs in the 400-meter hurdles were incredible, but they were merely the tip of the track and field iceberg.
Venezuela's Yulimar Rojas also set a world record in Tokyo with a triple-jump distance of 15.67 meters—on an attempt that she didn't even need to make. Rojas set an Olympic record of 15.41 meters with her first jump and had already locked up the gold medal when she eyed a world record that had stood for more than a quarter-century. Ukraine's Inessa Kravets had a triple jump of 15.50 meters in 1995, but Rojas bested that record by 0.17 meters (6.7 inches).
Team USA's Ryan Crouser darn near did something similar in the men's shot put. Crouser set an Olympic record (22.83 meters) with his first throw, and no one came close to matching it. Thus, when he stepped into the circle for the sixth and final time, he was already assured the gold and was merely trying to break his own world record of 23.37 meters. He came up just a little bit shy (23.30) but reminded everyone multiple times that he's the best in the world.
In the men's decathlon, Canada's Damian Warner set an Olympic record with a score of 9,018 points. He set Olympic decathlon-best marks in the 100-meter (10.12 seconds), 110-meter hurdles (13.46 seconds) and long jump (8.24 meters), finishing in 11th place or better in all 10 events. By the time the final event (1,500-meter race) was held, pretty much all Warner needed to do was finish to win the gold.
Jamaica's Elaine Thompson-Herah became the first woman to ever pull off the double-double, winning gold in both the 100-meter and 200-meter for the second consecutive Games. She was also part of the gold-medal-winning 4x100-meter relay team, becoming the first woman to pull off the 100/200/4x100 triple since Florence Griffith Joyner (better known as Flo-Jo) in 1988.
Most impressive of all, though, was Allyson Felix becoming the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete of all time. With a bronze medal in the women's 400-meter race and a gold medal in the women's 4x400-meter relay, Felix won the 10th and 11th Olympic medals of her career, tying and then passing Carl Lewis' previous U.S. record of 10 medals. (Only Finland's Paavo Nurmi has more career medals with 12, and he did it in the 1920s.) Felix has now medaled in five consecutive Olympics.
Biggest Swimming Stars Made a Huge Splash
If you thought that Olympic swimming would be any less entertaining just because Michael Phelps retired, you couldn't have been more wrong, because the world's biggest swimming stars all showed up in a huge way.
At the front of that list was Team USA's Caeleb Dressel. One of several Florida Gators who thrived in Tokyo, Dressel won three individual gold medals in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly, as well as a pair of gold medals in the 4x100-meter freestyle and 4x100-meter medley relays. In the process, he set new world records in both 100m fly and medley relay, as well as Olympic records in both the 50m free and 100m free.
Simply put, the man dominated.
So did several women, the most noteworthy of which was Katie Ledecky.
The goddess of long-distance swimming did her usual thing, winning gold in both the 800-meter freestyle and the 1500-meter freestyle, the latter of which was making its Olympic debut. Ledecky also took silver in both the 400-meter freestyle and the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, bringing her total career Olympic medal count to 10 (seven gold, three silver).
Allison Schmitt also improved to 10 career Olympic medals (four gold, three silver, three bronze), earning silver in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay and bronze in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay.
However, both of those American women are now slightly behind Australian swimmer Emma McKeon. She won seven medals in Tokyo—gold in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, 4x100-meter freestyle relay and 4x100-meter medley relay; bronze in the 100-meter butterfly, 4x200-meter freestyle relay and 4x100-meter mixed medley relay—to bring her career total to 11 Olympic medals.
McKeon's Australian teammate Ariarne Titmus (and her out-of-his-mind coach Dean Boxall) also emerged as new Olympic stars. Titmus defeated Ledecky in the 400-meter freestyle and gave the American star a run for her money in the 800-meter freestyle, winning a total of two golds, one silver and one bronze in Tokyo.
Swimming Also Delivers Surprises and Feel-Good Moments
We covered how dominant the big-name swimming stars like Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky were, but Tokyo also played host to plenty of surprises and feel-good stories from athletes who outperformed even the highest expectations.
From the jump, 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby established herself as a rising (really, risen) star in swimming, beating out teammate and gold-medal favorite Lilly King to win the 100-meter breaststroke. She also had the distinction of earning Team USA's first gold medal in swimming in Tokyo.
Then there's Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui, who had one of those perfect Olympics stories that feels too perfect to be true. The 18-year-old was ranked No. 16 in the world and wasn't expected to even land on the podium in the men's 400-meter freestyle, where Australia was expected to dominate the podium on the strength of Elijah Winnington and Jack McLoughlin.
Sure enough, the two finished 1-2 in their qualifying heat with times of 3:45.20 and 3:45.20, respectively. Hafnaoui, meanwhile, had the slowest time of any swimmer who qualified for the final, at 3:45.68. However, in the final, he shocked the world when he surged to gold with his time of 3:43.36.
Another feel-good story? How about Bobby Finke's come-from-behind win in the men's 800-meter freestyle? In his Olympic debut, Finke even admitted that he didn't expect to medal in the event let alone win. Finke was in fourth place when he touched the wall at the final lap's midway point. Then his split of 26.39 allowed him to surge ahead for the win, 1.65 seconds faster than Italy's Gregorio Paltrinieri, the defending world champion who was in first place.
The swimming world was astonished. Finke's own coaches were astonished. "I don't think we necessarily saw the performance in the 800 going the way that it went, but we certainly saw it coming in the mile," U.S. coach Dave Durden said. "I think everybody in the building knew what was coming down that last 100 of the mile."
But Finke wasn't done there. He also orchestrated a come-from-behind win in the men's 1500-meter final, where his winning time of 14:39.65 was 9.05 seconds faster than his previous top time in the event this year. To add to the triumph, Finke became the first U.S. swimmer to earn gold in the event since Michael O'Brien in 1984.
Japan Tops USA in Gold-Medal Games for Both Softball and Baseball
Neither baseball nor softball was played in the 2012 or 2016 Olympics, and neither one is on the docket for 2024 in Paris. No one knows if or when we'll see bats, bunts and baserunning in the Olympics again.
Against that uncertain backdrop, both the USA and Japan put on quite the show on the diamond.
In softball, both the Americans and the Japanese started out 4-0 in pool play on the strength of near-unhittable pitching. Japan held its first four opponents to a combined total of three runs and twice won games in walk-off fashion in the bottom of the eighth inning. Team USA held its first four opponents to just one run on six hits and also had a walk-off victory in the eighth inning.
When the two teams finally met in the final round of pool play, it had already been determined they would battle for gold the following night. But even in a game that didn't really matter, it featured an entertaining finish with the USA coming from behind to win on a walk-off home run by Kelsey Stewart.
In the rematch, though, Japan manufactured a pair of runs while the Americans blew multiple golden scoring opportunities, resulting in a 2-0 gold-medal victory for Japan.
Likewise in baseball, Team USA and Japan were undefeated with the exception of the two games played against each other.
Japan opened the baseball tournament with a dramatic 4-3 victory over the Dominican Republic in which the Japanese scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning on five singles with a game-tying suicide squeeze in the middle of that comeback.
They also won the first matchup with the USA in dramatic fashion, tying the game up in the bottom of the ninth inning before winning 7-6 in the 10th inning.
The USA was able to get through the Dominican Republic and South Korea in the loser's bracket to set up a rematch, but the men's bats fared as well against Japan's pitching in that gold-medal match as the women's bats did the previous week. In losing by an identical score of 2-0, the Americans never even got a runner to third base let alone all the way around for a run.
All told, two golds for Japan and two silvers for the United States. Canada took bronze in softball and the Dominican Republic did the same in baseball.
Team USA Sweeps Gold in Olympic Golf
When golf returned to the Olympics in 2016 for the first time in more than a century, the Americans just barely made it onto the medal podium. Stacy Lewis fell one stroke shy of bronze in the women's tournament, but Matt Kuchar shot a final-round 63, soaring up the leaderboard for bronze.
In Tokyo, though, an American led at the end of each of the second, third and fourth/final rounds of both tournaments.
On the men's side, Xander Schauffele was the star.
Schauffele had been a "close but no cigar" regular in PGA majors over the past half-decade, finishing second at The Open in 2018, finishing second and third in the 2019 and 2021 Masters, respectively, and placing top seven in the U.S. Open in each of the past five years. But he shot at least three-under in each of his four rounds at the Olympics, including a second-round 63 (eight-under) to finish the week at 18 under par.
Slovakia's Rory Sabbatini shot a final-round 61 to get to 17-under and make things interesting, but Schauffele birdied the 17th and parred the 18th to win the gold.
On the women's side, Nelly Korda also had a sensational second round, shooting a 62 in spite of a double bogey on 18.
Korda had a four-stroke lead at the midpoint of the tournament, led by three shots after 54 holes and ended up just one stroke ahead of both Lydia Ko and Mone Inami—thanks to Inami bogeying her final hole.
In addition to this gold medal, Korda also won the Women's PGA Championship in late June and finished top three at the ANA Inspiration twice in the past year, so she's on quite the tear of late.
Brazil Repeats in Men's Soccer; Canada Wins First Gold in Women's Soccer
Brazil has won more men's World Cup titles (five) than any other nation, but Olympic gold had eluded them until 2016. Brazil earned three silver and two bronze medals in Olympic men's soccer from 1984-2012 before finally getting the gold medal in a penalty shootout victory over Germany in 2016.
The Brazilians doubled down on that gold with a flawless, albeit quite dramatic, run through this year's tournament.
They had two wins and a draw during pool play, and while each victory was by two goals, each was a nail-biter until they tacked on an extra goal in stoppage time. In the knockout round, Brazil scored a 1-0 win over Egypt, a penalty shootout victory over Mexico (in a match that ended 0-0) and a 2-1 gold-medal win over Spain that necessitated an extra 30 minutes.
In the women's tournament, Canada pulled off an unexpected gold medal.
After one win and two draws in pool play, the Canadians' first game of the knockout stages was against Brazil—which had advanced to the semifinals in five of the previous six Olympic tournaments. After 120 scoreless minutes, Canada won a penalty shootout. In the following round against Team USA, Canada won 1-0 on a penalty kick. And in the gold-medal match against Sweden, the Canadians combined the best of both worlds, scoring in regulation on a penalty kick before winning a penalty shootout.
In other words, they only scored two goals in their final three matches and they both came via a penalty kick, but they were good enough on defense to turn that into the nation's first gold medal in soccer since the men won all the way back in 1904.
Skateboarding's Youth Movement Takes Over
For those who don't follow the sport closely, it may have come as a surprise during the Olympics that most of the world's top-ranked female skateboarders aren't even old enough to have their driver's licenses yet.
The skaters in the other disciplines aren't exactly collecting Social Security (for the Americans, anyway), but women's park skateboarding in particular is an astonishingly young discipline. Six of the 10 top-ranked women in the world are teenagers; three of them are younger than 16. And sure enough, that trend followed into the final and, eventually, onto the podium. Every women's park skateboarding medalist was under the age of 20, from gold medalist Sakura Yosozumi (19) to silver medalist Kokona Hiraki (12!) to bronze medalist Sky Brown (13).
Taken together with the other three events—men's park and men's and women's street—there were four skateboarding medalists under the age of 14 in Tokyo. In addition to Hiraki and Brown in women's park, there was street gold medalist Momiji Nishiya (13) and silver medalist Rayssa Leal (also 13). Women's street bronze medalist Funa Nakayama is 16.
It's not necessarily a surprise there are so many more young female than male skateboarders. (In the men's street final, the medalists were aged 22, 27 and 20. In men's park, they were 18, 26 and 22.) When skateboarding was added to the Tokyo program in 2016, nations around the world immediately began building up their national teams and pouring resources into developing their top athletes. Women's skating progressed especially quickly given all the opportunity in the new infrastructure.
Women's Indoor Volleyball Wins First-Ever Gold Medal
Volleyball was introduced to the Olympics in 1964. In that time, the U.S. women have never earned a gold medal in the event. They've gotten close, making it to the gold-medal game in the 2012 London Games before falling to Brazil and winning bronze at the 2016 Rio Games. The team also finished in silver-medal position in 1984 and 2008.
But now, the drought is over.
On the final day of Olympic competition, the American women triumphed over Brazil, the same team that stymied their gold-medal chances in 2012 and 2008, in a three-set sweep to claim their first-ever gold medal.
Brazil was undefeated in the bracket as the teams advanced to the final. And the U.S. had to play the gold-medal match without leading scorer Jordan Thompson, who injured her ankle in the fourth pool-play match against the ROC and did not return.
The U.S. came out on the offensive, scoring the first four points in the opening set and finishing it 25-21. They were able to maintain their lead through much of the second set as well, closing it out at 25-20. Brazil briefly surged ahead in the third set, but a Jordan Larson kill sealed the victory for Team USA.
The women tearfully gathered in a "gratitude circle" on the floor of the court to celebrate their accomplishment.
It is the sixth indoor volleyball medal the U.S. has won in the past 10 Olympic Games.