Tokyo Olympics 2020: Roundtable – The best and worst of the Games

Tokyo Olympics 2020: Roundtable – The best and worst of the Games

August 9, 2021

NZME’s sports journalists look back at the best and worst of the Tokyo Olympics.

Favourite sport/event

Chris Rattue: The marathon – the best came last. Eliud Kipchoge was one of the few genuine legends at the Games, and it was amazing to watch the Kenyan supremo blow the quality field away.

Michael Burgess: For the atmosphere, cycling (with spectators). For the drama, swimming. For the joy, pride and Kiwi kinship, kayaking.

Christopher Reive: The men’s high jump final had to be right up there; what a wild contest that was, although I’d rather have seen the sudden death jump-off for the theatre of it all.

Kris Shannon: Middle- and long-distance track running. The longer races allow for much more strategy than simply running really fast. They also provide time for protagonists to emerge and narratives to develop, turning final laps into cinematic events.

Joel Kulasingham: High jump. Both the men’s and women’s finals provided some of the most thrilling sporting drama of the Olympics, while showcasing unbelievable levels of athleticism.

Matt Brown: Track and field at the Olympics, particularly track events, having grown up with the legend of Snell and Walker etc. in the 1500 metres…incredible final. Also, the demise of the US men’s sprinters and world records in the men’s and women’s hurdles.

Elliott Smith: Track and field. Few events in this splintered, content-heavy world of ours still have the switch-on factor of a 100m final. Add in a thrilling high jump final albeit with a disappointing finish (the shared gold medal was nonsense, not heartwarming). A few of the results raised an eyebrow, but let’s just put it down to a fast track until we hear otherwise.

Least favourite sport/event

Rattue: There are far too many races/classes in sailing, rowing and canoeing.

B finals – what the heck? The only good thing about a repechage is the word repechage. As for impossible-to-identify yachts bobbing up and down in the ocean for days on end – give us a break.

Also…the football was dreadful in large, empty stadiums.

Burgess: Taekwondo is a hard watch, but 3 on 3 basketball…really? Why?

Reive: Race walking. My hips hurt just watching it. Be running or be nothing.

Shannon: Sailing. There’s too much sailing. Ten different classes. At least 10 races to just reach the medal race. So many dinghies. I shamelessly forgive all the sailing when it brings me multiple medals, but this year it’s getting thrown overboard.

Kulasingham: Sailing. Too many events, too boring, too inaccessible, and Peter Burling and Blair Tuke blew what should’ve been a gold medal lock for New Zealand.

Brown: Have never understood fencing and consequently have never followed it or watched it.

Smith: 3×3 basketball. Actually it’s probably rhythmic gymnastics (zzz). But let me continue with the 3×3. Was anyone really crying out for a SECOND basketball format at the Olympics? Far be it from me to deny the good people of Latvia their only gold medal of the Games, but it felt incredibly out of place.

Biggest surprise

Rattue: The Russians were there – weren’t they booted out?

Burgess: Lisa Carrington. We knew she was good – really, really good – but to peak for three finals (and three semifinals) was unbelievable. A nod to the Kiwi tennis pair as well.

Reive: Italian sprinter Lamont Marcell Jacobs winning the men’s 100m sprint.

Shannon: Italy are good at sprinting now? After the Covid pandemic had a “heavy impact” on the country’s anti-doping programs? Hmm. Hopefully they won’t be forced to compete in Paris as the Italian Olympic Committee, because IOC is taken.

Kulasingham: Sport climbing. It was one of the most entertaining sports to watch in Tokyo – basically a cooler, more vibrant gymnastics. It’s motivated me to take up bouldering.

Brown: Elleesse Andrews in the women’s Keirin…she was not on my radar, what a breakthrough performance.

Smith: That the Olympics 1) started in the first place, 2) finished without interruption. I was on record on radio by accusing Thomas Bach of having his head in the sand earlier this year by saying the Games would not go ahead. (I stand by the first part of that point.)

Favourite Kiwi moment

Rattue: Surprised myself here, because I haven’t been a fan of sports like golf being included in the Games. Watching Lydia Ko soar towards a second medal was great. Her LPGA struggles have cast a bit of a shadow over her achievements, so it was great to be reminded of just how amazing she is.

Burgess: Men’s Rowing eight winning gold – and in such style. Having heard and read so much about the mythical deeds of the 1972 crew, it wasn’t something I thought I would see in my lifetime, given the depth and power of the European nations and the USA.

Reive: Repechage queen Ellesse Andrews’s run through the Keirin competition. What a ride that was.

Shannon: Dylan Schmidt winning bronze on the trampoline and Anton Down-Jenkins finishing eighth in the 3m springboard. It was cool to see Kiwis flourish in a couple different events aside from the usual suspects, ie, jumping rather than sitting down.

Kulasingham: The Black Ferns’ mana on and off the field throughout their golden campaign.

Brown: Can I have two? The men’s eight winning gold in the Blue Riband event and Elleesse Andrews’ initial interview with Sky’s Rikki Swannell – so natural and heart warming.

Smith: Too many to mention. There was virtually one I could pick out from each day. Anytime Lisa Carrington crossed the finish line first. Hard to believe that a Games where a men’s eight won gold was overshadowed, but it’s true.

Favourite international moment

Rattue: Apart from the marathon…an Italian who most people – including his opponents – knew next to nothing winning the men’s 100m. (Given sprinting’s history with performance enhancing drugs, let’s hope there is not an unfortunate postscript).

Burgess: Ariarne Titmus winning gold in the 400m freestyle. Wonderful race, wonderful finish, wonderful celebration.

Reive: If Australian swimming coach Dean Boxall channelling the Ultimate Warrior and roaring in the gallery after Ariarne Titmus won the women’s 400m freestyle gold medal didn’t get you hyped, will anything?

Shannon: Sifan Hassan, who moved from Ethiopia to the Netherlands as a teenage refugee, going for and almost completing an unprecedented 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m treble. Perhaps only a packed schedule saw her settle for bronze in the shortest race.

Kulasingham: Watching Sifan Hassan come so close to a historic gold medal treble in the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m. She still managed to claim a bronze and two golds.

Brown: Too many to pick…but seeing Ariarne Titmus beat the great Katie Ledecky in the women’s 400 freestyle final.

Smith: The Titmus v Ledecky 400m final and the subsequent other battles. Box office content – much like the Thorpe vs. van den Hoogenband showdowns in 2000. It doesn’t get much better than seeing two athletes with nothing between them go head-to-head. Until it did get better – with Titmus’ coach Dean Boxall’s celebration. Probably the defining GIF of the Games.

Games lowlight

Rattue: The whole Laurel Hubbard business was a shambles. It threatens to make a mockery of sport. The transgender/sport situation is a growing dilemma. Unfortunately, the IOC has leapt before it crawled on this complex subject.

Also…some of the TV coverage out of Japan was very basic to put it nicely – it was well behind the times, of what we are used to seeing in professional sport. The identification of athletes was often awful. The commentators need more backup.

Burgess: The men’s 100m final at the track. Was an anti climax without Usain Bolt and the big guns of the past, and the one strike disqualification is the stupidest rule in sport. And Laurel Hubbard – after all the fuss, competed like she didn’t want to be there.

Reive: All those folks out there ripping Simone Biles to shreds for her decision to sit out some of her events to focus on her mental health.

Shannon: DONG DONG WAS ROBBED! Also, shoutout to Novak Djokovic for bailing on his poor partner before the mixed doubles bronze final, handing a medal to Australia of all countries.

Kulasingham: The casual and blatant transphobia in New Zealand and abroad during the Games. Transgender athletes in elite sport is a complex issue, bigotry and hate isn’t.

Brown: The Covid reminders watching the men’s and women’s football inside vast empty stadiums. For some sports it didn’t matter, but football was just awful.

Smith: Probably the lack of fans. Having been lucky enough to be at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Japan knows how to support an event and turn it into something incredible by adopting teams and different sports as their own. Those wonderful people were denied a chance to be a part of that and I truly hope the Summer Olympics heads back their way soon.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be remembered for…

Rattue: Covid. The Olympics didn’t beat the pandemic, but they didn’t let it win either. I’m not sure if you could call the Tokyo Games heartwarming, but they did prove that life can go on, and as a world we need some form of unity rather than constant divisions.

Burgess: The incredible organisation, logistics, hospitality and patience of the Japanese hosts, who pulled off an impossible task with professionalism, warmth and grace.

Reive: The will they-won’t they lead in to the Games and the whole Covid-19 delay that pushed them to 2021.

Shannon: The masks. In future years, when we watch highlights from New Zealand’s most successful Games, it will be strange to see every athlete masked up on the podium. Well, let’s hope it’s strange…

Kulasingham: The first dystopian, pandemic Games; the first purely television Games; the first extremely online Games – and how it changed how we engage with sport, probably forever.

Brown: From a NZ perspective, Lisa Carrington’s unprecedent haul of three Gold medals.

Smith: Happening. And being held in 2021. That’s going to be a good question on The Chase in 20 years.

Thoughts on the new sports?

Rattue: They can’t be any worse than Taekwondo. Windfoiling – which replaces windsurfing – could be an absolute winner. But breakdancing isn’t a sport. What next? Air guitaring?

Burgess: Skateboarding was a surprise hit and works well on TV. Sport climbing is not a spectator sport. Surfing is cool, but doesn’t feel like it fits. Three on three basketball is bizarre – you can’t beat the real thing.

Reive: As someone who thrives on niche sports, it’s a big yes from me on most counts. Sport climbing is a great spectator sport, surfing and skateboarding delivered all I could have hoped for in terms of action and the karate was a good addition to the martial arts on show. Baseball/softball I could take or leave. Without the best players from Major League Baseball fronting for their countries, I wasn’t really interested in watching it.

Shannon: More Olympics, the better. Speed climbing was my favourite but special mention to karate – I watched about 10 minutes and saw one dude dislocate his elbow and another knocked out cold to win gold.

Kulasingham: Good: Skateboarding, BMX freestyle, sport climbing, surfing, normal Karate where they actually fight. Bad: Kata (the fake Karate), basketball 3×3, baseball/softball.

Brown: For me there’s something wrong with 12-year-olds competing for gold medals…a big no for skateboarding. Didn’t watch the rock climbing and loved the surfing so that can stay.

Smith: Already ranted about 3×3 basketball. Surfing, skateboarding, karate were all fine. The IOC can talk about wanting to tap into the youth market as much as they want but there is something disctinctly uncool about the way they present those youth-aligned sports. The worldwide TV presentation felt very stuffy of sports like skateboarding and 3×3 basketball.

What was your position on the Games going ahead and has that position changed?

Rattue: I’ve gone from a fence sitter to a supporter. Japan should be applauded…it has done the world a massive favour.

Burgess: It was always going to happen, given the IOC’s track record of pressing ahead regardless and the money at stake. They were fortunate it was in Japan, because it’s unlikely that any other nation could have pulled it off.

Reive: I was hopeful it would go ahead without being crippled by Covid-19 – a selfish view since I was in no position to have any impact on how they approached it and just wanted to see some sports. I am glad that was the case because what a fun fortnight.

Shannon: Proceeding with the Games seemed a folly, but that could describe the Olympics in general. And yet, I love them, and I loved Tokyo 2020/21. The lack of fans detracted little – it was fun seeing athletes cheered on by teammates – and the sport, as always, ruled.

Kulasingham: Imagine there’s no pandemic. It’s easy if you try. No deaths or lockdowns. Above us, only athletes jumping in the sky.

Brown: I always thought they should go ahead but thought there was a good chance they wouldn’t succeed and there would be many more positive Covid tests among athletes. Getting involved in the coverage, I often forgot the absence of fans.

And to see my eight-year-old come home from school wanting to start rowing and the next day wanting a new trampoline before asking if he could do track cycling the following day was pretty cool.

Smith: I was probably against them going ahead on public safety and health grounds, as well as the vehement disapproval of the Japanese public and I stand by the belief the IOC should have originally pushed them out two years to 2022 which would have given them more breathing space.

Having said that, you never want to see an athlete denied a shot they’ve worked their lives towards and may not be able to take with a two-year delay or cancellation. The fact they have got through without an outbreak in the athletes’ village is a minor miracle, although the fact Tokyo is now reporting 5000 Covid cases a day should eat away at Thomas Bach. The Games might have been held and might be classed as a success, but does the end justify the means?

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