The Olympic flame burned longest in Tokyo.
That it remained aflame for an extra year following the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to the COVID-19 pandemic is symbolic of the unusual circumstances that had to be overcome to complete the Games.
Like keeping a spark lit in the wind, the Olympics faced obstacles that threatened another postponement, if not the first non-war cancelation.
Instead, the Games were modified. They were unlike any other before it. They were completed.
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More Tokyo Olympics Coverage
All as the flame burned on throughout. That flame finally went out Sunday, marking the conclusion of the two-week global event.
Between its ignition and extinguishing, medals were won, tears were shed, stars were born and history was made.
What changes were made at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
After being postponed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics continued to face adversity before the Opening Ceremony on July 23, including rising COVID-19 cases in Japan and the cancellation of qualifying events in several sports. Yet for all the difficult changes in Tokyo, there were some positive additions, as well.
Organizers announced on July 8 that no spectators, local or foreign, would be permitted due to a new state of emergency in Tokyo, which lasts until Aug. 22. Tokyo’s metropolitan government reported that there were nearly 2000 new cases of COVID-19 on the eve of the Games, the highest since January. As athletes and coaches began to arrive in Tokyo, a small number of them tested positive for coronavirus and had to return home or endure quarantine conditions for several days.
Although friends and family could not attend the Games for the first time ever, they celebrated with the Olympians via video chat, from Seward, Alaska (swimmer Lydia Jacoby), to Nongpok Kakching, India (weightlifter Mirabai Chanu).
The slate of new sports was a big hit, from American Carissa Moore grabbing gold in surfing to the young teens who could dominate women’s skateboarding for many Olympics to come. Meanwhile, new events in other sports provided long-overdue equality between male and female athletes, like the women’s 200m canoe sprint won by American Nevin Harrison.
In a symbolic nod to these Olympics featuring near-equal participation for men and women, the IOC encouraged nations to have two flag bearers, one man and one woman. Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez carried the Stars and Stripes for Team USA in the Opening Ceremony.
Who were the United States breakthrough stars of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
Heading into the Tokyo Olympics there were concerns from fans and media that the Games would be devoid of star power.
The most decorated Olympian of all-time and the world’s greatest swimmer in Michael Phelps officially retired from competition, opting instead to join the broadcast team with NBC. The greatest Olympic sprinter of all-time and the fastest man ever to live, Usain Bolt, also chose retirement. The absence of the two biggest superstars in two of the marquee Olympic sports (Swimming and Track and Field) would undeniably be felt.
Add to the Phelps and Bolt absences the unforeseeable removal of Simone Biles from the majority of gymnastics competition due to her struggle with “the twisties,” and the Olympics were left with three GOAT-size holes. But those absences would spawn opportunities for new Olympic athletes to become house-hold names, and numerous members of Team USA took full advantage.
In the pool, Caeleb Dressel won his first individual Olympic medal in Tokyo -- and added four more. Coming in first place in the 100m butterfly, 100m freestyle, 4x100m freestyle relay, 4x100m medley relay and 50m freestyle, the 24-year-old became the fifth American to win five gold medals at a single Olympics in the last 50 years as well as the first swimmer to gold in his three individual events at a single Olympics.
Seventeen-year-old Lydia Jacoby was the breakout athlete on the women’s side of Team USA swimming. She became the first Alaskan to qualify for the Olympics, and then made history with a gold medal in the 100m breaststroke and silver in the 4x100m medley relay. She won the first gold medal for an American woman in swimming at these Olympics and also was the first Alaskan-born gold medalist in Olympic history.
On the track, a trio of young runners established themselves as the new faces of women’s track and field for Team USA, a baton that had been carried by Allyson Felix for the past five Olympic games.
When then-16-year-old Athing Mu broke the American indoor record in the 600m event in 2019, track fans knew she was something special. After her Olympic debut was delayed a year, Mu did not disappoint. She became the first American woman to win the 800m race in 53 years and followed it up with a gold medal as anchor in the women’s 4x400m relay at the Tokyo Olympics.
Mu’s teammate in the 4x400m Sydney McLaughlin was poised for a breakout at the Tokyo Olympics. She sprinted her way to a new world record and gold medal in the 400m hurdles in Tokyo beating her teammate and reigning gold medalist Dalilah Muhammad.
And Havard graduate Gabby Thomas made headlines at the 2020 Olympic Trials with a blistering 21.61-second 200m dash, the third-fastest time ever run in the 200. She won bronze in the 200m in Tokyo with a time of 21.87 and also helped the 4x100m relay team of Javianne Oliver, Teahna Daniels and Jenna Prandini to a silver-medal finish.
With the aforementioned Simone Biles unable to compete in the women’s all-around final, it appeared that the U.S. streak of four consecutive gold medals was in jeopardy. First time Olympian Suni Lee made sure to keep the Team USA streak intact. Lee left Tokyo with a trio of medals in three different colors and cemented her status as a household name in America. After Biles pulled out of the team final, Lee helped lead the team to silver with impressive routines on the uneven bars and balance beam. She then won all-around gold, becoming the fifth straight American woman to win the event. She finished her Olympic outing with a bronze medal in the individual uneven bars event final.
Which U.S. Athletes Got a Possible Final Farewell at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
What a way to run into retirement. In the final race of her legendary Olympic track and field career, the 35-year-old Felix helped the U.S. win gold in the 4x400m relay. It was her 11th Olympic medal as she broke Carl Lewis’ record of 10 to become the most decorated American in Olympic track history. Felix also won bronze in the 400m race at the Tokyo Olympics.
The 39-year old became the leading scorer for the U.S women’s national team in what could have been the final game of her storied Olympic career. Lloyd scored two goals, including what proved to be the game-winner, in the United States’ 4-3 win in the women’s soccer bronze medal game. That gave her 10 career Olympic goals, passing Abby Wambach’s previous record of nine. Lloyd, a two-time gold medal winner, has scored in four different Olympic Games.
Just call him Captain America. The 32-year-old Durant led the U.S. men’s basketball team to a fourth straight gold medal. Along the way, Durant passed Carmelo Anthony to become the team’s all-time leading scorer, with his total now at 406 points. He also tied Anthony’s record for most gold medals in the history of Olympic men’s basketball with three. We’ll see if he returns to try to win a fourth.
Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi
Bird and Taurasi are the only basketball players in Olympic history to win five gold medals. The 40-year-old Bird and 39-year old Taurasi helped guide the U.S. women’s basketball team to a seventh straight gold medal with their win in Tokyo. The former UConn teammates joined forces on the national team in 2004 and have won gold ever since.
What made Biles’ return at the Tokyo Games all the more dramatic was that it very well could have been her final Olympic event. After withdrawing from her first five events to focus on mental health while trying to overcome the twisties, the 24-year-old Biles returned for the balance beam final and won bronze. The most decorated gymnast of all time, Biles owns four gold medals, one silver and two bronze.
Which events did the U.S. dominate at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
The U.S. won 30 medals in swimming at the Tokyo Olympics -- 11 gold, 10 silver, 9 bronze. The country with the second most was Australia with 20. So, yeah, pretty dominant. Making the biggest splash in the U.S. medal count of course was Caeleb Dressel, who won five gold medals, and Katie Ledecky, who won two gold and two silver.
It was a dominant final day on the track for both the U.S. men’s and women’s 4x400m relay teams. Michael Cherry, Michael Norman, Bryce Deadmon and Rai Benjamin helped the men’s team win its first gold of the Tokyo Olympics after winning in 2.55.70. Allyson Felix, Sydney McLaughlin, Dalilah Muhammad and Athing Mu then added another U.S. gold with a time of 3:16.85.
It was also a golden sweep in golf for the United States. Xander Schauffele held on for a one-shot victory in the men's tournament as the 27-year old golfer sank a birdie on 17 to break a tie with Slovakia’s Rory Sabbatini. Schauffele shot a final round 4-under 67 to finish at 18-under and take gold. Nelly Korda then completed the sweep, shooting 2-under par 69 in the final round of the women’s tournament to finish at 17-under and clinch a gold medal. The 23-year old golfer became the second American to win gold in women’s golf, joining Margaret Abbott, who won during the 1900 Paris Olympics.
Which events did the U.S. disappoint in at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
The United States got off to an unusual slow start at the Tokyo Olympics, finishing without a medal on the first day of the Games for the first time since 1972. Following an upset in men’s fencing and a surprising failure to make the podium in events like air rifle, archery and women’s weightlifting, the U.S. was empty handed heading into Day 2. China won three golds on the first day. The United States, however, went on to finish atop the medal count leaderboard with 112.
When a team has set the gold standard, anything less than gold is considered a disappointment. The U.S. women’s national team, following a stunning early exit in the Rio 2016 Olympics, got back to the medal podium, but didn’t quite finish with the color they were expecting. After falling 1-0 to eventual gold medal winner Canada in the semifinals, the U.S. defeated Australia to take bronze. For a team that won four of the first five golds in women’s soccer, it didn’t live up to admittedly lofty standards.
It’s obvious that there are issues when Carl Lewis, the most decorated American men’s track runner, calls one of Team USA’s performances “a total embarrassment.” That’s what the 10-time Olympic medal winner tweeted following disappointing leg times and botched baton passes led to a sixth place finish by the U.S. men’s 4x100m relay team. The U.S. men’s track team failed to win gold in an individual event for the first time since the 1896 Games (excluding the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games). The team won four silvers and two bronzes, but again, there’s that established gold standard and expectation. Travyon Bromell -- who entered as a gold medal favorite in contention for the title of “fastest man alive” -- failed to qualify for the final of the men’s 100m was emblematic of the U.S. performance. Thankfully, Team USA salvaged gold in the 4x400m relay.
What were the best examples of Olympic spirit?
Sharing the Gold
The Olympics are meant to show unity. There was no better example of that then when high jumpers Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy agreed to share the hold medal. After the two had matched perfect jumps, neither was able to clear what would have been an Olympic record of 2.39 meters in three attempts each. Rather than go to a jump-off to determine a sole winner, Barshim and Tamberi opted to end in a tie and share the gold medal. There was plenty of gold to go around as the two hugged and celebrated their matching medals.
Nice to meet you
Mothers stole the spotlight on Father’s Day. Looking to punch their ticket to the Tokyo Olympics while at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Championships in June, Quanera Hayes took first and Allyson Felix finished second in the women’s 400m final. As the two celebrated after the race, Hayes’ 2-year-old son and Felix’s 2-year-old daughter were introduced on the track. Felix went on to win bronze in the 400m in Tokyo and has used the Olympics as a platform to advocate for athletes who want to become mothers.
IOC President on Simone Biles: ‘Olympic spirit at its best’
Simone Biles went from star to spectator. After withdrawing from her first five events at the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health, Biles continued to attend events and serve as her teammates’ top cheerleader and supporter. Biles was praised by International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, who said he admired how Biles handled the situation. “That on the one hand she admits to have this problem, this is already courageous,” Bach said. “Who one year ago would have admitted mental health problems? And at the same time cheering on her teammates and then being there and supporting when her successor is crowned in the all-around final. This is great human quality and this is Olympic spirit at its best." Joe Biden also praised Biles for refusing to give up. "You showed everything about who we are as people," Biden said during a video conference with Olympic athletes on Saturday.
Getting to their feet
It’s not about how many times two Olympians fall down. It’s about how many times they get back up. The USA’s Isaiah Jewett didn’t medal but he was singled out by President Joe Biden for the sportsmanship he showed at the Tokyo Olympics. Jewett and Botswana's Nijel Amos got tangled during the final turn of the 800m men’s semifinal and went crashing to the track. The two helped one another to their feet, put their arms around each other and crossed the finish line together 54 seconds after the winner. “Regardless of how mad you are, you have to be a hero at the end of the day,” Jewett said. “Because that’s what heroes do, they show their humanity through who they are and show they’re good people.”
Tears of joy
Tamyra Mensah-Stock couldn’t fight the tears after she won gold for the U.S. in wrestling and wrapped herself in the American flag. She became the first Black woman, and second woman overall, to win gold in the event for the United States. The tears continued while she was at the mic during a highly-emotional and inspirational post-match interview. “I just want to go into a dark room and just cry,” she said. “But cry from joy.” As for all of the young girls she inspired with her victory? “It means that they see someone like themselves on that podium. Showing them that just because you’re a female it doesn't mean you can't accomplish the biggest of goals.”
No wheelchair needed
When Great Britain's Katarina Johnson-Thompson pulled up lame after re-injuring her calf during the 200m portion of the heptathlon, her chances of crossing the finish line seemingly were dashed. But when a wheelchair was brought out to the track, she not only refused it, but got to her feet and jogged across the finish line. She was disqualified for leaving her lane, but completed the race because she refused to allow her Olympic experience to end on injury.
Dreams come true for 11 seconds
Jamaican gymnast Danusia Francis refused to let a knee injury suffered while training deny her the opportunity to become an Olympian. So, with her knee heavily wrapped, the 27-year-old competed in the uneven bars event for about 11 seconds. She performed some basic maneuvers on the low bar before landing softly on her feet. Francis waved and smiled as she received applause. She finished last with a score of 3.033 but fulfilled a lifelong dream while doing so.
Lifting her spirits
The world's top-ranked skateboarder, 15-year-old Misugu Okamoto of Japan, crashed during her last run in the final of the park event. Still, she got the gold medal treatment from her friends and fellow competitors, who were quite literally there to lift her up. Okamoto was raised onto their shoulders and carried off, as her tears were quickly replaced by a smile. She finished fourth.
Osaka reuters in grand fashion
The top honor of the Olympics went to Japan's global tennis star Naomi Osaka, who lit the Olympic flame during the Opening Ceremony at Tokyo Stadium. It was a grand entrance back onto the world stage for Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open before the second round of the grand slam event following her controversial decision to skip mandatory post-match press conferences citing mental health. The 23-year-old, the No. 2 ranked player at the time, also withdrew from Wimbledon in June.
Dressel family reunion
Without fans in the stands at the Olympics, it was live cut-ins of the watch parties with the family and friends of Olympians that became the new crowd-reaction shot. Caeleb Dressel, during an NBC interview after winning the 100m butterfly for one of his five gold medals, was reunited on screen with his family from their watch party in Florida. Dressel was moved to tears, unable to speak.
Party in Alaska
Perhaps the most moving of Olympic watch parties took place in a small town in Alaska. The Alaska Railroad Terminal Building in Seward was filled with roughly 500 fans who had some to see 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby, the first Alaskan to qualify for swimming in the Olympics, compete for a medal. Jacoby won gold. The crowd went wild, capturing the spirit, pride and unity of the Olympics.
What happened at the Closing Ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
Throughout the 2020 Olympics, organizers did their best to honor the return of the Summer Games to Tokyo for the first time in over 50 years. The Closing Ceremony featured traditional dances from different areas of Japan and musical performances from some of Japan’s most talented artists.
Over 4,500 athletes representing 206 countries were in attendance. The flags of each participating country entered the Olympic Stadium first, including the American flag carried by U.S. javelin athlete and track and field captain Kara Winger. The stadium infield was designed to represent Tokyo’s parks, and once the athletes had entered, a troupe of “All Tokyoites” performed to give the previously quarantined athletes a taste of Tokyo.
At the end of the Closing Ceremony, host country Japan performed the traditional handoff to the next host country France for the 2024 Paris Olympics. A woman and a group of children performed a final song as the Olympic flame was extinguished to signal the passage of the Olympics in Tokyo from one generation to the next.