The week-old Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) Olympic Games have tossed up a fair few shocking results and big upsets. From Simone Biles to Teddy Riner, Novak Djokovic, Nyjah Huston, Naomi Osaka and MOMOTA Kento, join us as we look at the world-famous athletes who have faced disappointment at the Games.
These Games always had the potential to feel, let’s just say, a bit different. From a year postponement due to the global COVID-19 pandemic to the threat of typhoons, the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 have always promised to upend our expectations.
But no one could have predicted the avalanche of shocks that we’ve witnessed so far. On the tennis courts and the gymnastics gymnasium, in the water and on the skateboarding course, Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) is proving a Games for the underdog, as superstars tumble one after another and long-standing streaks and records evaporate into the humid Tokyo sky.
And, it's worth noting, we're only halfway home...
Stumbles for Biles, Osaka and Djokovic
With all the pre-Games G.O.A.T. swirling around U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, hailed by many as the best ever (full-stop), few could believe their eyes when she pulled up on the vault, walked out of the gym shortly after, and withdrew from the team gymnastics competition due to a “medical issue”
She later announced she would also withdraw from the individual all-around competition, choosing not to defend her title to focus instead on her mental health.
While she will be monitored, with the individual events still a possibility, the sight of the 24-year-old and gold-medal hopeful walking out of the team event, which was won by the ROC, will endure as an iconic image of these Games.
"We're gonna’ take it day by day,” Biles said. “And we're just gonna’ see."
Similarly, Japan's tennis hero Naomi Osaka’s star was so much on the rise prior to the start of competition that the 23-year-old ace was invited to light the Olympic cauldron at the Opening Ceremony. In the end, after being beaten in straight sets in the third round of play by Czech left-hander Marketa Vondrousova, that symbolic gesture, before action even officially started, will endure as her most significant achievement of these Tokyo Games.
“How disappointed am I?” she asked, rhetorically, after the loss on the court. “I mean, I’m disappointed in every loss, but I feel like this one sucks more than the others.”
Later on in the these Games at the Ariake courts, perhaps the biggest shock of the whole year's tennis saw world number-one Novak Djokovic -- hunting his first-ever Olympic gold -- lose out to unheralded German Alexander Zverev, who rallied back after losing the first set to seal a stunner in the men's singles.
"I told him [Djokovic] that he's the greatest of all time, and he will be," said Zverev after his brilliant day on the court. "I know that he [Djokovic] was chasing history, is chasing the Golden Slam, and was chasing the Olympics, but in these kind of moments me and Novak are very close.
"Of course I'm happy that I've won, but at the end of the day I know how Novak feels," he added with a touch of post-match class worthy of the day's heroics.
USA’s hoop stars and footballers humbled
The shocks didn’t all come via premature elimination. The United States men’s basketball team, so dominant since stoking the world’s fantasies with their legend-strewn Dream Team of 1992, opened with an 83-76 loss to France. It was the Americans’ first Olympic defeat in 26 games (since 2004) and it sent a shiver through all of those who feel entitled to medals by either divine right or past achievement.
“They are better individually,” France guard Evan Fournier said of the USA Team, dappled with NBA all-stars like Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard. “But they can be beaten as a team.”
In a similar comeuppance, the four-time gold-winning American women’s football team burst onto the Tokyo scene with a decided thud, losing out 3-0 to a youthful Swedish outfit. Aside from snapping a 44-game unbeaten streak for the USWNT, it was their heaviest defeat ever-suffered in Olympic play. And after scoring in only one of their three group games, the Americans find themselves sputtering into the knockout rounds licking at their wounds and with questions to ask.
“It left us pissed off,” said USA’s Lindsey Horan, who scored in the next game, a 6-1 mauling of New Zealand, which also happened to be her 100th cap. “Out mentality wasn’t right in that game.”
And end to Riner's nine-year Olympic reign
Did any athlete have farther to fall than French judo star Teddy Riner? The double Olympic Champion was the odds-on favourite to win Tokyo gold, having lost only once in 11 long years. And the man to beat him in February 2020, Japan's KAGEURA Kokoro, isn't even competing at the Games.
However, if there's one thing that can be said about week-one of Tokyo 2020, it's that shocks and surprises are the new normal. As Riner left the Nippon Budokan, having lost by Golden Score in the quarterfinals to ROC's Tamerlan Bashaev, it felt like the world of judo as we knew it would never be the same.
“Of course, there is frustration," said the 32-year-old Riner, with the wisdom that comes with age and experience. "You have to keep in mind my age, which counts for a lot. I'm happy with my performance. It’s my fourth Olympic medal at 32.”
Debut skate, surf wipe-outs
Skateboarding, making its much-anticipated Olympic debut, is a sport known for hard falls and painful plummets to unforgiving concrete. In the men’s street category, American Nyjah Huston, the sport’s singular crossover sensation, world number-one and among the best to ever roll away from a trick – came out flat. He finished seventh in the first-ever Olympic street finals – behind his own teammates, the far-less heralded, Jagger Eaton (bronze) and Japanese world champion HORIGOME Yuto, who scooped the gold.
“Yuto [HORIGOME] is insane,” said Huston, paying his opponent a compliment in the peculiar language of skaters worldwide and revealing the refreshing camaraderie so common among skateboarders. “These guys on the podium are so f****** good!”
On the women’s side of the street skating divide, world champion Pamela Rosa and veteran icon Leticia Bufoni (both of Brazil) came up shy of the podium, losing out to teenage sensations NAKAYAMA Funa and MOMIJI Nishiya of Japan (gold and bronze respectively) and their own Brazilian teammate, Rayssa Leal – the 13-year-old darling of the street skating scene (silver).
“Age has nothing to do with it,” NAKAYAMA said after climbing onto the youngest podium in Olympic history.
In among the waves off Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, American icon John John Florence was tipped for gold (or another colour of medal) in his Olympic debut. But the two-time world surf champion came up shy and lost his heat to Kolohe Andino, to finish off the podium and confound the experts and odds-makers one more time.
Racket heartache and Ukraine Judo shocker
While Andy Murray’s withdrawal from the singles competition can’t be termed an upset per se, British fans will surely be upset about not being able to see their former world number-one men’s tennis hero participate, on his own, in these Games after pulling up with a quad injury. However, his loss (alongside partner Joe Salisbury) to Croatia's Ivan Dodig and Marin Cilic in the men's doubles quarterfinals must enter the list of Tokyo 2020's shock results.
That shock loss was just hours away from another big slip on the court as world no.3 Stefanos Tsitsipas became the highest ranked man to fall in the singles tennis event when he lost to Ugo Humbert in the Round of 16.
Australian fans down under will feel a similar sadness about Ashleigh Barty, the women’s world number-one, who suffered another shock upset on the tennis courts. Her stunning loss to Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo was one no one saw coming.
"It was a tough day. A disappointing day. I can't lie about that," Barty told Australian television after the defeat. "I can't hide behind that fact that I wanted to do really well here. Today wasn't my day."
Elsewhere in Racket-World, top-seed and home favourite MOMOTA Kento of Japan lost his second group match in a winner-takes-all event to be eliminated at the first hurdle by a 38th ranked Korean player HEO Kwang-hee -- a good long way from the podium where the world number-one was expected to finish his Games.
Speaking of tough days, 20-year-old judo sensation Daria Bilodid stormed off the mat in tears after winning bronze. Her loss in the semifinal round of the -48kg event to Distria Krasniqi of Kosovo was a shock knockout (ippon) for the Ukrainian two-time world champion, who, prior to COVID-19's complications, was on a sizzling run of form, unbeaten for two years – bar one event in January.
"I dreamed of an Olympic gold medal. I trained a lot, starved, endured when it was very painful..." said the devastated Bilodid, whose tears at receiving her bronze were not the joyful kind. "I never told anyone about this – only the closest people who saw how difficult my path was, know this. All for the sake of one Olympic gold."
Anguish for hosts, Team GB and Indian boxing hero
Jade Jones, the Welsh-born Team Great Britain taekwondo superstar, aiming to become the first British woman to win three Olympic gold medals, was stunned at the round-of-16 stage of the -57kg weight category by Refugee Olympic Team member Kimia Alizadeh on the mats at Makuhari Messe Hall A.
“I feel like I am on an emotional roller-coaster already,” Jones said after losing. “You start to feel a bit better, then feel bad. You just go over it in your head, what you could have done differently. I wish I would have went after it more and not been so scared."
While it wasn’t a shock, exactly, that the Japanese won out on the softball diamond for their second straight Olympic gold (with a gap of 13 years between this one and the last), it was yet another heartbreak for Team USA, inventors of the game and three-time gold winners.
But what was a shock for the Japanese fans, to be sure, was the early elimination of Kohei UCHIMURA – one of the top male gymnasts in history and a seven-time Olympic medallist. The men’s gymnastics hero fell off the high bar and brought an abrupt end to a glittering Olympic career.
“I never failed like this in practice and I can’t figure out why it happened,” he said, in what could be a refrain for all the shocked favourites at these unusual Games. “I’ve also been successful at the Olympics throughout my whole career. I’ve never experienced failure like this.”
India's shining hope for a women's boxing gold, six-time world champion and London 2012 bronze winner Mary Kom, was left similarly casting about for answers after losing a tight decision Ingrit Valencia of Colombia before even reaching the quarterfinal stage.