Delayed for a full year due to a global pandemic and held under unique circumstances as a result, the 2020 Olympic Games presented unprecedented challenges to all involved. But despite those inherent obstacles, athletes brought us all together in meaningful ways – yes, even those of us covering the Games.
From Olympic firsts to displays of athletic near impossibility, the 2020 Tokyo Games inspired us, shocked us and put the unifying power of sport. Here are 10 moments that defined the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, curated remotely by the editors of NBCOlympics.com across work shifts and ZIP codes.
Biles wins bronze in courageous comeback
It takes a lot of guts to willingly perform leaps, turns and acrobatic skills on a surface that’s only four inches wide, but it takes even more nerve to get up on the narrow sliver that is the balance beam when the world is watching.
That was the case when Simone Biles performed her routine in the beam final, but you’d never know it when watching her nail everything from a side aerial to a new double back pike dismount. The skill wasn’t necessarily a challenge. In fact, it was easier than the dismount Biles usually competes, but the seven-time Olympic medalist had to make a last-minute change because of a case of “the twisties.”
To protect her mental and physical health, Biles also withdrew from all the other events she qualified for. But because she’s the greatest gymnast of all time, she seemed to say, ‘New dismount? No problem,’ and executed the double pike to near perfection, earning a second Olympic bronze on the event and a seventh career Olympic medal. – TESS DeMEYER
SEE MORE: Behind the scenes: Simone Biles warms up for return on beam
Quan Hongchan’s perfect dive
“I GIVE IT A TEN! A TEN!”
There was one single “perfect 10” dive the last Olympics, executed by China’s silver medalist in the men’s 10m finals. Qiu Bo dropped a reverse 3.5-somersault gem in Rio.
No males were up to the task in Tokyo. But China’s 14-year-old female phenom was – and then some. Quan Hongchan led the pack out of the women’s 10m platform semis and refused to give anyone a chance in the final.
Her 466.20-point final list set a new Olympic record. The lowest score she saw in the final was a 9.0 and each of her final dives received at least one 10. Incredibly, two of her final dives received 10s from all seven judges – perfection.
Quan was the youngest diving competitor. She was the youngest athlete that China sent to the Games. If the games weren’t postponed a year, Quan would have been a spectator.
Now, she’s an Olympic legend. – NATE STUHLBARG
SEE MORE: 14-year-old Quan Hongchan delivers perfection on platform
Ledecky, Sullivan go 1-2 in first women’s 1500
It’s not often that we’ve seen Katie Ledecky get visibly emotional. But after winning gold in the first-ever women’s 1500-meter freestyle – after a relatively rocky start to her meet – Ledecky animatedly pumped her fist and was moved to tears. It could have been any number of things Ledecky was reacting to, from finally winning the event in which she’s been the presumptive gold medalist for years, to the monumental moment for gender equality in swimming, or her younger teammate Erica Sullivan battling back for a 1-2 American finish.
Regardless, it was the perfect cap on the event’s long-overdue introduction. The 20-year-old Sullivan, an openly gay Japanese-American who lost her father in the run-up to the Games, felt the weight of the moment as well.
In a post-race interview, Sullivan called herself “the epitome of an American,” adding: “I’m multicultural. I’m queer. I’m a lot of minorities. That’s what America is.” – TORREY HART
SEE MORE: Katie Ledecky shines in first Olympic women’s 1500 final
Surfing Takes Center Stage
A wave of excitement overcame the surfing world when it was announced that the sport would make its Olympic debut in Tokyo in 2020, and although athletes had to wait an extra year to paddle out, the anticipation was well worth it. A total of 40 athletes from 17 different nations participated in the inaugural surfing event at Shidashita Beach, with plenty of bottom turns, tube rides, cutbacks and even some impressive air tricks.
American Carissa Moore took home the first gold medal of the women’s competition, after edging past Amuro Tsuzuki in the semifinal and pulling out all the tops in the final match against Bianca Buitendag. The men’s competition was equally exciting with Italo Ferreira recovering from a broken board in the gold medal match to bring the top prize to Brazil. The hype level of surfing’s debut gets a (hang) 10 out of 10. – BRYAN MERCER
SEE MORE: Italo Ferreira snaps surfboard in gold medal match
Italy and Qatar share high jump gold
Sometimes the greatest triumph isn’t standing higher than your opponents on the podium – it’s standing next to them instead.
Such was the case in the men’s high jump final, where Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi were set to have a jump-off to determine who would win the gold. But instead of dueling as adversaries, Barshim and Tamberi embraced as champions, agreeing to share the gold medal instead. Tamberi screamed, the Italian announcers screamed, and a global audience watching at home screamed. Sorry, neighbors.
It’s not the first time Olympic gold has been shared. In fact, it happened during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018 and the 2016 Rio Games in two-man bobsleigh and women’s 100m freestyle, respectively, just to name two recent examples. But the Olympics aren’t just about competition, they’re about unity through sport. And in that moment, we were all united. – JAMES WORTMAN
Caeleb Dressel lets it all out
Despite his best efforts to – respectfully – distance himself from comparisons to the greatest Olympian ever, there’s no denying that American swimmer Caeleb Dressel came to Tokyo as the heir apparent to Michael Phelps.
A Phelpsian haul of six gold medals was on the table for Dressel at his second Olympics, but it would require a win in the most classic of swimming races, the 100m freestyle. First one to the wall and back wins. Dressel’s most vulnerable individual event.
But the North Florida native got it done in spectacular fashion, 47.02 for an Olympic record. It’s what happened next, though, that stole the show.
The usually stoic Dressel became overcome with emotion celebrating his first individual gold, then was a blubbering mess when his family called in from Florida to send their love and congratulations. Whatever your preferred cliché for the importance of family, the Dressels provided the perfect reminder. – ERIC GOODMAN
SEE MORE: USA’s Dressel emotional after winning 100m freestyle gold
April Ross finally wins beach volleyball gold
Historically, Team USA’s beach volleyball athlete April Ross has been either the underdog or played second fiddle. At London 2012, she and partner Jennifer Kessy lost to legends Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, but won silver; at Rio 2016, she paired with a past-her-prime Jennings to take home bronze. Let it be a lesson in resilience: The 39-year-old Ross, now partnered with Alix Klineman, finally earned gold in Tokyo after a decade of Olympic experience. – DAN LEVINSOHN
SEE MORE: A-Team wins women’s beach volleyball gold
Rapinoe, Lloyd put extra shine on winning bronze in unpredictable tournament
The women’s soccer tournament that refused to follow the script so many times finally acknowledged it on the podium, when three legends of the game got just desserts at – or near – the end of tremendous careers.
World Cup heroes Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd are unlikely to look back on their Tokyo performances as anything near their best, but both showed up in a big way in the bronze medal match to make sure the Americans didn’t fail to medal in consecutive Olympics. At 36 and 39, this is almost certainly it for them on the Olympic stage and it’s delightful that they rallied to get a medal after an underwhelming tournament.
The reason the Americans were playing for bronze and not gold was Canada and the game’s legitimate GOAT striker, Christine Sinclair. She just so happens to be not only a living legend and terrific human but a player whose career was missing a gold medal game because of a controversial (at best) call that helped send the Americans past Canada at London 2012. Turnabout, meet fair play.
The Netherlands looked incredible in the group stage but bowed out to the U.S. in the quarterfinals. Sweden thumped the U.S. and Japan, then became the presumptive favorite after the Dutch and Americans bowed out… only to fall to a Canadian team that only won twice in their six games. Never change, Olympic soccer. Never change. – NICHOLAS MENDOLA
Naomi Osaka lights the Olympic cauldron
In retrospect, it was the tear-jerking, heart-swelling shocker we all should’ve seen coming: Tennis’ rising star Naomi Osaka – of multi-racial and multi-cultural heritage, who had pulled out of two major tournaments this summer due to mental health concerns – lit the Olympic cauldron, embodying the promise of a more respectful, fulfilling, diverse future for athletics, Japan, and the world at large. Even though Osaka didn’t make it past the third round of singles, her message continues to resonate and invite discussion. – DAN LEVINSOHN
Ledecky, Osterman, Gray show us the power of second/silver
Maybe it’s was relief in competing in a world struggling with COVID-19, but this was the Olympics where showing class in not winning gold and gratitude in competing seemed to rise to the top of the glass.
There was USA softball veteran Cat Osterman’s tearful plea for mindfulness, imploring us to accept the present and begging little girls to fight for their dreams.
Then there was American wrestler Adeline Gray, a dominant world champion, who admitted that gold was what she came for while also looking down at her silver and musing, “Isn’t it pretty?”
But perhaps the last word on this goes to living legend Katie Ledecky, who demanded perspective in a games that delivered more awareness for mental health than any other.
“I don’t want anybody to feel sorry or think that a silver medal is a disappointment. I’d much rather people be concerned about people who are truly struggling in life. It’s such a privileged to be in the Olympics, much less an Olympics in a pandemic. I’m lucky to be here.”
And we were lucky to see her. – NICHOLAS MENDOLA
Japan sweeps baseball, softball gold in sports’ return
When baseball and softball were removed from the Olympic program after Beijing 2008, Japan fought to bring them back for their home Olympics.
Their bid was successful. And fittingly, it’s the host nation walking away with both sets of golds.
On Day 4, the Japan softball team rode lights-out pitching and timely hitting to a 2-0 win over the United States in the gold medal game. Eleven days later, on Day 15, the Japan baseball team won gold for the very first time by replicating the softball final to a tee.
No, seriously. They rode lights-out pitching and timely hitting to a win in the gold medal game. Their opponent? The United States. The final score?
Baseball and softball may well be out of the Olympics cycle again for Paris 2024. But if they are, Japan can say they finally got their medals – and they came on home soil. – WILL FOWLER
SEE MORE: Japan fulfills baseball destiny in gold medal win over USA
U.S. stays golden on the court
The United States is golden yet again in both men’s and women’s basketball.
In the lead-up to Tokyo, some questioned whether the United States could keep its run of basketball dominance alive as the rest of the world began to “catch up” to them on the court. France and Slovenia were both juggernauts for the men’s competition while Japan was one of the most dangerous teams in Tokyo on the women’s side.
Regardless, the United States remained basketball’s unquestioned ruler at the 2020 Olympics. The U.S. men took down France in their final by a score of 87-82 while the women routed Japan 90-75 to win their seventh-straight Olympic gold medal, equaling the remarkable gold medal streak the U.S. men previously set between 1936 to 1968.
While the level of competition has improved in Olympic basketball, there remains no doubt that the United States still reigns supreme as basketball royalty.