What we learned: Athletics key highlights from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

From world records to outstanding golden doubles, we reflect on athletics' most memorable moments at Tokyo 2020, recap the medals, and look forward to Paris 2024.

14 min
Karsten Warholm reaction Tokyo
(Picture by 2021 Getty Images)

There were so many highlights in athletics at Tokyo 2020 that it would be impossible to do justice to them in one article.

There were world records from Yulimar Rojas, Sydney McLaughlin and Karsten Warholm, golden doubles for Elaine Thompson-Herah and Sifan Hassan, and the Bahamas taking both individual 400m titles thanks to Steven Gardiner and Shaunae Miller-Uibo.

Mariya Lasitskene, one of the all-time greats in the women's high jump, finally became Olympic champion, and there was a magic moment in the men's event as Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi shared gold.

There were shocks too as Poland took the first Olympic mixed 4x400m relay crown, and Italian underdog Marcell Jacobs succeeded Usain Bolt as men's Olympic 100m champion.

Jacobs won a second gold in the men's 4x100m relay as an inspired anchor leg from Filippo Tortu snatched victory from Great Britain's grasp.

Hansle Parchment upset Grant Holloway in the 110m hurdles, in part thanks to a volunteer who gave the Jamaican money for a taxi after he had caught a bus to the wrong venue.

The result was this heartwarming story.

Nafissatou Thiam and Ryan Crouser repeated their Rio 2016 triumphs, Anita Wlodarczyk completed a hat-trick of women's hammer titles at 36, while Mondo Duplantis joined Sergey Bubka in the men's pole vault firmament with Olympic gold.

Jasmine Camacho-Quinn secured Puerto Rico's second ever Olympic title in any sport in the 100m hurdles, and Andre De Grasse finally made it to the top step of the podium in the men's 200m.

Damian Warner made it two golds for Canada and became the fourth man to pass 9000 points for the decathlon, winning in a new Olympic record of 9018.

There was also double marathon joy for Kenya as Eliud Kipchoge and Peres Jepchirchir clinched gold in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo. Read more about the marathon highlights here.

The women's 4x400m relay saw a changing of the guard with Allyson Felix overtaking Carl Lewis as the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history, and 19-year-old Athing Mu anchoring the team home after her authoritative success in the 800m.

And there was India's first ever global athletics triumph courtesy of Neeraj Chopra in the men's javelin, plus Peruth Chemutai becoming Uganda's first female Olympic medallist with gold in the 3000m steeplechase, and her team-mate Joshua Cheptegei collecting gold and silver.

Read on for some of the most memorable moments, a recap of the medal winners, and who to look out for at Paris 2024.

Top 5 athletics moments at Tokyo 2020

Here are some of the highlights from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which took place in 2021.

1: Seven minutes of Olympic magic

On day three of athletics at Tokyo 2020, Yulimar Rojas fulfilled her destiny as a triple jumper.

Having already secured Olympic gold, Venezuela's double world champion took the final jump in the competition.

With the pressure off, she had a massive hop phase, a short step and then a huge leap beyond Inessa Kravets' world record of 15.50m which had stood since 1995.

Rojas leapt into the arms of her training partner and bronze medallist Ana Peleteiro, and then ran and screamed with delight as the distance of 15.67m was announced.

Yulimar Rojas WR Tokyo
Yulimar Rojas WR Tokyo (2021 Getty Images)

Meanwhile, an epic men's high jump was coming to its conclusion.

Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi had been faultless until the bar was raised to 2.39m with Maksim Nedasekau also fighting for gold after clearing 2.37m for a new Belarusian national record.

All three men had three failures with Nedasekau taking bronze after two blemishes at earlier heights.

After Tamberi's third attempt spelt the end of the competition proper, he and Barshim hugged as they met with the rules official to discuss the jump-off for gold.

Exactly seven minutes after Rojas' leap into the record books came this equally memorable exchange.

Official: We can continue with the jump-off...

Barshim: Can we have two golds?

Official: It's possible...

Barshim (to Tamberi): History, my friend. Olympic champions.

Cue wild celebrations from the two close friends, and lumps in the throats for the millions watching around the globe.

It was a truly heartwarming moment epitomising the spirit so fundamental to the Olympic Games.

2: Karsten Wow-holm strikes again!

After a year of near-misses, Karsten Warholm finally broke the 400m hurdles world record at the Oslo Diamond League meeting in July.

That day, the two-time world champion clocked 46.70, eight-hundredths inside Kevin Young's time from the final at Barcelona 1992.

Just over a month later, the Norwegian simply obliterated that mark.

Warholm and his main rival, Rai Benjamin, had eased through their semi-final heat with the former sprinting at the end to take it in 47.30.

That gave a hint of what was possible, but the final exceeded all expectations.

Warholm flew out of the blocks in trademark fashion with Benjamin, on his immediate inside, just behind.

At the penultimate barrier, it looked like the American might produce a late challenge, but Warholm kept up his faultless round of hurdling at the last and powered away to take the Olympic title.

There was a gasp in the stadium as the clock stopped at 45.94, followed by the famous Viking roar as Warholm ripped open his running vest Superman-style.

He had taken three-quarters of a second out of his previous record with Benjamin over half a second inside at 46.17.

The fast-finishing Brazilian Alison dos Santos was third in 46.72, just two-hundredths outside Warholm's previous record, in the greatest 400m hurdles race in history.

Afterwards, Warholm said, "I’ve always said that the perfect race doesn’t exist. But this is the closest I think I’ve come to a perfect race."

Benjamin had the best line, however. "If you would’ve told me that I was going to run 46.1 and lose, I would probably beat you up and tell you to get out of my room. I’m happy to be part of history."

3: Elaine Thompson-Herah's sprint treble

Elaine Thompson-Herah became the first woman to complete a sprint 'double-double' at consecutive Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The 29-year-old was unstoppable in the 100m, powering clear of her great rival Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at 70m to win in a new Olympic record of 10.61, the second fastest time in history.

It was an emphatic triumph with Thompson-Herah able to point in celebration five metres from home before screaming with delight.

The 200m looked a formality after her stunning run in the semi-finals, and so it proved as she again produced the second quickest run of all time – behind the late Florence Griffith-Joyner – to match her Rio sprint double.

That became a treble as she teamed up with fellow 100m medallists Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson, and lead-off runner Briana Williams for gold in the women's 4x100m relay.

In Tokyo, everything came right for the woman who spent much of the past four years struggling to cope with niggling calf and Achilles problems.

Elaine Thompson wins 100m
Elaine Thompson wins 100m (2021 Getty Images)

4: Neeraj Chopra brings joy to India

The men's javelin looked to be a foregone conclusion with Johannes Vetter the only man to throw beyond 90m this season and achieving it no fewer than seven times.

Vetter's best throw of 2021, 96.29m, was almost seven metres clear of the rest of the field.

But the Olympic Games are different, and the German looked distinctly human in qualifying as he needed three throws to pass the automatic qualification mark of 83.50m.

It was a different story for Neeraj Chopra who topped qualifying with his opening effort of 86.65m.

India had not won a track and field Olympic medal since independence, but Chopra came into the competition fancied to claim its first.

And gold was definitely on the cards as the 23-year-old made a strong start to the final, throwing 87.03m in the first round before recording 87.58m in the second.

Meanwhile, Vetter's struggles continued. He threw 82.52m in round one, but then two no-throws left him in ninth place and out of the competition.

Chopra's level dropped, but it was of no consequence with Czech thrower Jakub Vadlejch's 86.67m the closest anyone came.

And when Vadlejch's final effort nosedived short of 80m, India had its second Olympic gold medallist in a sport outside of hockey with shooter Abhinav Bindra the first at Beijing 2008.

His triumph was celebrated jubilantly by the nation of over one billion people, with Chopra acquiring a status previously reserved for India's top cricketers.

Neeraj Chopra flag Tokyo
Neeraj Chopra flag Tokyo (2021 Getty Images)

5: The endless endurance of Sifan Hassan

Six races in eight days – three 1500m, two 5000m and one 10,000m – would seem improbable to mere mortals.

Sifan Hassan is not a mere mortal.

Two days after the 5000m heats, the Dutchwoman announced that she would be going for an unprecedented treble in the Tokyo heat.

Just 24 hours later, Hassan met trouble in a big way as she fell with a lap to go in the 1500m heats.

Unperturbed, she got up and quickly rejoined the leaders before crossing the line in front.

That evening, she eased to gold in the 5000m.

The 1500m would prove a step too far with Faith Kipyegon retaining her title in an Olympic record, and Laura Muir passing Hassan for silver.

She had just 24 hours to go before completing her work in the 10,000m and confessed that her body was “very tired”.

Despite that, she stuck with long-time leader and world record holder Letesenbet Gidey before surging clear on the last lap to make it two golds and a bronze in Tokyo.

Incredibly, she ran her last 100m in 13.6 seconds, faster than men’s 1500m champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen (13.7) and women’s 800m gold medallist Athing Mu (14.0).

After being treated on the track for apparent exhaustion, Hassan was able to take a well-deserved lap of honour after one of the greatest distance-running feats in history.

Sifan Hassan celebrates 10,000m flag
Sifan Hassan celebrates 10,000m flag (2021 Getty Images)

One last look

Allyson Felix bows out as the most decorated woman in Olympic athletics history, but also the American with most track and field Olympic medals.

Her individual 400m bronze and women’s 4x400 relay gold took her to 11 medals, two clear of Merlene Ottey, and one ahead of Carl Lewis.

Joining her is fellow mother Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce who has said she will retire after the 2022 World Championships in Eugene.

The ‘Mommy Rocket’ won her first sprint relay gold in Tokyo to go with her individual 100m titles from Beijing 2008 and London 2012.

Given her history of Achilles problems, there must be some doubt as to whether her team-mate Elaine Thompson-Herah will make Paris 2024.

And could we have seen the last of Wayde van Niekerk at the Olympic Games? The man who stunned the world in the 400m at Rio 2016 has been struggling with injury for the past three years and will be 32 when Paris rolls around.

Allyson Felix after 4x400m gold
Allyson Felix after 4x400m gold (2021 Getty Images)

Hello Paris

All the world record breakers from Tokyo – Warholm, McLaughlin and Rojas – have years ahead of them with Rojas the oldest at 25.

Noah Lyles may have been below his best in taking 200m bronze but, at 24, he has plenty of time to win Olympic gold.

For a long-distance runner, at 28, Sifan Hassan may be approaching her peak. A scary thought given what she has already achieved.

Meanwhile, the only woman to beat her in Tokyo – Faith Kipyegon – told Olympics.com last September that she wanted to retain her 1500m crown before stepping up to the 5000m.

Having completed the first part of that vow, the second could set up a clash to savour in Paris.

And what of Mondo Duplantis? Sweden's pole vault Olympic champion and world record holder is still only 21 and has plenty more to offer.

Mondo Duplantis Tokyo
Mondo Duplantis Tokyo (2021 Getty Images)

When and where to watch athletics replays on Olympics.com

The answer is: olympics.com/tokyo2020-replays

When do the top track and field athletes compete next?

The Diamond League resumes in Eugene on 21 August.

The Oregon venue witnessed some very quick times at the U.S. trials and will host next year's delayed World Championships.

There are further meetings in Lausanne (26 August), Paris (28 August) and Brussels (3 September) with the finale taking place in Zurich on 8-9 September.

Full medals list in track and field athletics at Tokyo 2020

Men's 100m

Gold – Marcell Jacobs (ITA)

Silver – Fred Kerley (USA)

Bronze – Andre De Grasse (CAN)

Men's 200m

Gold – Andre De Grasse (CAN)

Silver – Kenny Bednarek (USA)

Bronze – Noah Lyles (USA)

Men's 400m

Gold – Steven Gardiner (USA)

Silver – Anthony Zambrano (COL)

Bronze – Kirani James (GRN)

Men's 800m

Gold – Emmanuel Korir (KEN)

Silver – Ferguson Rotich (KEN)

Bronze – Patryk Dobek (POL)

Men's 1500m

Gold – Jakob Ingebrigtsen (NOR)

Silver – Timothy Cheruiyot (KEN)

Bronze – Josh Kerr (GBR)

Men's 5000m

Gold – Joshua Cheptegei (UGA)

Silver – Mohammed Ahmed (CAN)

Bronze – Paul Chelimo (USA)

Men's 10,000m

Gold – Selemon Barega (ETH)

Silver – Joshua Cheptegei (UGA)

Bronze – Jacob Kiplimo (UGA)

Men's 110m hurdles

Gold – Hansle Parchment (JAM)

Silver – Grant Holloway (USA)

Bronze – Ronald Levy (JAM)

Men's 400m hurdles

Gold – Karsten Warholm (NOR)

Silver – Rai Benjamin (USA)

Bronze – Alison dos Santos (BRA)

Men's 3000m steeplechase

Gold – Soufiane El Bakkali (MAR)

Silver – Lamecha Girma (ETH)

Bronze – Benjamin Kigen (KEN)

Men's 20km race walk

Gold – Massimo Stano (ITA)

Silver – IKEDA Koki (JPN)

Bronze – YAMANISHI Toshikazi (JPN)

Men's 50km race walk

Gold – David Tomala (POL)

Silver – Jonathan Hilbert (GER)

Bronze – Evan Dunfee (CAN)

Men's marathon

Gold – Eliud Kipchoge (KEN)

Silver – Abdi Nageeye (NED)

Bronze – Bashir Abdi (BEL)

Men's 4x100m relay

Gold – Italy

Silver – Great Britain* (pending investigation into positive drug test provided by Chinjindu Ujah; China in line to be promoted to bronze)

Bronze – Canada

Men's 4x400m relay

Gold – United States

Silver – Netherlands

Bronze – Botswana

Men's long jump

Gold – Miltiadis Tentoglou (GRE)

Silver – Juan Miguel Echevarria (CUB)

Bronze – Maykel Masso (CUB)

Men's triple jump

Gold – Pedro Pichardo (POR)

Silver – ZHU Yaming (CHN)

Bronze – Hugues Fabrice Zango (BUR)

Men's high jump

Gold – Mutaz Essa Barchim (QAT), Gianmarco Tamberi (ITA)

Bronze – Maksim Nedesakau (BLR)

Men's pole vault

Gold – Armand Duplantis (SWE)

Silver – Chris Nilsen (USA)

Bronze – Thiago Braz (BRA)

Men's shot put

Gold – Ryan Crouser (USA)

Silver – Joe Kovacs (USA)

Bronze – Tomas Walsh (NZL)

Men's discus

Gold – Daniel Stahl (SWE)

Silver – Simon Petterson (SWE)

Bronze – Lukas Weisshaidinger (AUT)

Men's hammer

Gold – Wojciech Nowicki (POL)

Silver – Eivind Henriksen (NOR)

Bronze – Pawel Fajdek (POL)

Men's javelin

Gold – Neeraj Chopra (IND)

Silver – Jakub Vadlejch (CZE)

Bronze – Vitezslav Vesely (CZE)

Men's decathlon

Gold – Damian Warner (CAN)

Silver – Kevin Mayer (FRA)

Bronze – Ashley Moloney (AUS)

Damian Warner flag Tokyo
Damian Warner flag Tokyo (2021 Getty Images)

Women's 100m

Gold – Elaine Thompson-Herah (JAM)

Silver – Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (JAM)

Bronze – Shericka Jackson (JAM)

Women's 200m

Gold – Elaine Thompson-Herah (JAM)

Silver – Christime Mboma (NAM)

Bronze – Gabby Thomas (USA)

Women's 400m

Gold – Shaunae Miller-Uibo (BAH)

Silver – Marileidy Paulino (DOM)

Bronze – Allyson Felix (USA)

Women's 800m

Gold – Athing Mu (USA)

Silver – Keely Hodgkinson (GBR)

Bronze – Raeyvn Rogers (USA)

Women's 1500m

Gold – Faith Kipyegon (KEN)

Silver – Laura Muir (GBR)

Bronze – Sifan Hassan (NED)

Women's 5000m

Gold – Sifan Hassan (NED)

Silver – Hellen Obiri (KEN)

Bronze – Gudaf Tsegay (ETH)

Women's 10,000m

Gold – Sifan Hassan (NED)

Silver – Kalkidan Gezahegne (BRN)

Bronze – Letesenbet Gidey (ETH)

Women's 100m hurdles

Gold – Jasmine Camacho-Quinn (PUR)

Silver – Kendra Harrison (USA)

Bronze – Megan Tapper (JAM)

Women's 400m hurdles

Gold – Sydney McLaughlin (USA)

Silver – Dalilah Muhammad (USA)

Bronze – Femke Bol (NED)

Women's 3000m steeplechase

Gold – Peruth Chemutai (UGA)

Silver – Courtney Frerichs (USA)

Bronze – Hyvin Kiyeng (KEN)

Women's 20km walk

Gold – Antonella Palmisano (ITA)

Silver – Sandra Arenas (COL)

Bronze – LIU Jong (CHN)

Women's marathon

Gold – Peres Jepchirchir (KEN)

Silver – Brigid Kosgei (KEN)

Bronze – Molly Seidel (USA)

Women's 4x100m relay

Gold – Jamaica

Silver – United States

Bronze – Great Britain

Women's 4x400m relay

Gold – United States

Silver – Poland

Bronze – Jamaica

Women's long jump

Gold – Malaika Mihambo (GER)

Silver – Brittney Reese (USA)

Bronze – Ese Brume (NGR)

Women's triple jump

Gold – Yulimar Rojas (USA)

Silver – Patricia Mamona (POR)

Bronze – Ana Peleteiro (ESP)

Women's high jump

Gold – Mariya Lasitskene (ROC)

Silver – Nicola McDermott (AUS)

Bronze – Yaroslava Mahuchikh (UKR)

Women's pole vault

Gold – Katie Nageotte (USA)

Silver – Anzhelika Sidorova (ROC)

Bronze – Holly Bradshaw (GBR)

Women's shot put

Gold – GONG Lijiao (CHN)

Silver – Raven Saunders (USA)

Bronze – Valerie Adams (NZL)

Women's discus

Gold – Valarie Allman (USA)

Silver – Kristin Pudenz (GER)

Bronze – Yaime Perez (CUB)

Women's hammer

Gold – Anita Wlodarczyk (POL)

Silver – WANG Zheng (CHN)

Bronze – Malwina Kopron (POL)

Women's javelin

Gold – LIU Shiying (CHN)

Silver – Maria Andrejczyk (POL)

Bronze – Kelsey-Lee Barber (AUS)

Women's heptathlon

Gold – Nafissatou Thiam (BEL)

Silver – Anouk Vetter (NED)

Bronze – Emma Oosterwegel (NED)

Nafi Thiam celebrates second heptathlon gold at Tokyo 2020
Nafi Thiam celebrates second heptathlon gold at Tokyo 2020 (2021 Getty Images)

Marathon - Men's and Womens

Find out more about the marathon events here.

Mixed 4x400m relay

Gold – Poland

Silver – Dominican Republic

Bronze – United States

Poland Mixed Relay Tokyo
Poland Mixed Relay Tokyo (2021 Getty Images)

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