Stars of the Tokyo constellation

With much of the world still reeling under an unprecedented pandemic, the citizens of the Olympics host city weren’t too keen about organising it all and spectators are not allowed inside the venues. Yet, the 32nd Olympics has produced several stars. Sportstar picks 10 of them from the first week of action.

Caeleb Dressel began his great swim in Tokyo by helping the United States win the gold in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay.   -  Getty Images

Caeleb Dressel

In these unsure times we are living in, not many were completely sure that the Olympics would go ahead without trouble. COVID-19 cases were rising in Tokyo and an emergency was declared in the city. One thing was sure though: if the Games were held, Caeleb Dressel would set the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on fire. And he did.

Dressel began his great swim in Tokyo by helping the United States win the gold in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay. He followed it up with the 100m freestyle gold, with a new Olympic record to boot. Then he won the gold in the100m butterfly, this time breaking his own world record. He was given a tough fight, though, by Hungarian Kristof Milak, who had to settle for the silver.

“What a close race,” said Dressel. “Two of the fastest times in history. You don’t get that very often, so to be a part of that is very special.”

Dressel had won two golds in Rio – both in relays, the 4x100m freestyle and the 4x100m medley. Five years later, individual Olympic glory too would follow. And how.

Sunisa Lee

The stage had been set at Tokyo’s Ariake Gymnastic Centre for Simone Biles, the superstar who had won four golds in Rio. The 24-year-old American, however, pulled out from most of her events because of mental health issues, stunning the world. It was a body blow to the Olympics as well as to the US contingent. Sunisa Lee, however, ensured that one of the most glamorous medals at an Olympics – the women’s individual all-around gold – remained in the US.

Sunisa Lee ensured that one of the most glamorous medals at an Olympics – the women’s individual all-around gymnastics gold – remained in the US.   -  Getty Images

 

She performed with poise and grace to take the gold ahead of Brazilian Rebecca Andrade, who had given her a strong challenge. It was not just Biles’ gold that the 18-year-old was defending at Tokyo. From 2004 onwards, the event had been won by an American at every Olympics. Lee lived up to the expectations of her team: she was the best bet after Biles pulled out. Lee also helped the US win silver in the team all-around competition despite the withdrawal of Biles.

It was indeed been a remarkable show from someone whose Olympics preparations were hampered by a foot injury, who lost an uncle and aunt to COVID-19 and whose Hmong American community has had to tackle hatred (the wife of Derek Chauvin, who murdered George Floyd, and another officer charged in the case, Tou Thao, are Hmong Americans).

Emma McKeon

She failed to qualify for London 2012, but Emma McKeon made up for it four years later in Rio de Janeiro, where she won four medals, including the gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay. She had come to Tokyo with one shortcoming in her biodata: she had no individual gold at the Olympics. She rectified that anomaly in style at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre when she won the 100m freestyle with a new Olympic record. She also became only the second woman to time sub-52 in the event.

Emma McKEon won the 100m freestyle with a new Olympic record.   -  Getty Images

 

That was the fifth medal at Tokyo for the 27-year-old Australian. She had won the gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay and bronze in the 100m butterfly, the 4x200m freestyle relay and the 4x100m mixed medley relay. McKeon was overcome with emotion when she won the 100m freestyle gold: she had never won an individual gold at a world event. She could not have hoped for a better stage to win her first.

Belinda Bencic

Belinda Bencic was once the world’s No. 1 in junior girls’ tennis, winning two Grand Slam singles titles, but she has not been able to repeat those performances after graduating to the seniors. A terrible wrist injury in 2017 didn’t help. It kept her out of action for five months, and out of the world’s top 300; it must have been quite a blow for someone who had broken into the top 10 at 18. But she fought back and reached the singles semifinals at the 2019 US Open.

Belinda Bencic defeated Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in the women's singles tennis final.   -  AP

 

Two years later, on a warm Saturday afternoon at Tokyo, the 24-year-old Swiss won something that is probably second only to a Grand Slam: the singles tennis gold at the Olympics. She defeated Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in the final 7-5, 2-6, 6-3. A day later, she had the opportunity to double her gold medal tally but couldn’t, as she settled for silver in the women’s doubles. Bencic and Viktorija Golubic were beaten 5-7, 1-6 in the final by the top-seeded Czech Republic pair of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova.

Richarlison

Prodded by Neymar, Richarlison requested Andre Jardine that he be given Brazil’s No. 10 shirt – instead of his regular No. 7 – at Tokyo. The coach obliged. The striker paid back, too. In no time. The Everton forward scored a superb hat-trick in the defending champion’s 4-2 victory against Germany in its opening match. He couldn’t have hoped for a better debut at the Olympics.

Richarlison netted twice against Saudi Arabia to help Brazil move to the knockout stage as the pool-topper.   -  AP

 

The 24-year-old netted twice against Saudi Arabia to help Brazil move to the knockout stage as the pool-topper. He didn’t score though in the quarterfinal against Egypt, but Brazil won 1-0.

With the semifinals, the bronze-medal match and the final remaining, Richarlison looks to be the frontrunner to be the top-scorer in men’s football at Tokyo. He was part of the Brazilian team that lost the Copa America final at home to archrival Argentina earlier in July. His sparkling show has helped his football-crazy country erase some of those painful memories.

Vitalina Batsarashkina

Vitalina Batsarashkina made history in Tokyo. The 24-year-old Russian became the first female shooter to win three medals at the same Olympics. She set new Olympic records while winning both her golds – in the 10m and 25m air pistol events. The silver had come in the 10m air pistol mixed-team event.

Vitalina Batsarashkina became the first female shooter to win three medals at the same Olympics.   -  AP

 

This is Batsarashkina’s second Olympics. At her first, in Rio, she had claimed the 10m air pistol silver. Batsarashkina arrived in Tokyo in good form, after winning four medals at the European shooting championships in Croatia, seven weeks before the Olympics began.

The six-year-old girl who would shut her ears at the sound of her grandfather’s firing from their boat while hunting in the Siberian city of Omsk has travelled a long way. Her grandfather gifted Batsarashkina her first gun when she was 10. A year later, she killed her first prey, a small teal. It is shooting international medals down that she is enjoying more now.

Shi Zhiyong

Most people would be happy by winning an Olympic gold. Not Shi Zhiyong. He wanted to win the gold along with a new world record – by breaking his own record, that is. The 27-year-old Chinese got his wish in Tokyo in the men’s 73kg category in weightlifting.

In Tokyo, Shi Zhiyong broke the Olympic record in the snatch and the clean & jerk; he holds the world record in both.   -  AP

 

He had trained for the last five years aiming for that record. “So if I didn’t break my own record, just a gold medal, I would have felt regret,” he said after claiming the gold with a lift of 364kg, 1kg more than his own world record that he had set at the 2019 world weightlifting championships in Pattaya.

In Tokyo, he also broke the Olympic record in the snatch and the clean & jerk; he holds the world record in both. Five years ago in Rio, he had won the gold in the 69kg category.

Ma Long

No man has ever defended his table tennis singles title at the Olympics. But then, there has never been a player quite like Ma Long. The 32-year-old Chinese was already a legend in the sport. That legend grew further when he added another Olympic gold medal to his kitty in Tokyo after beating compatriot Fan Zhendong in the singles final. He had won two golds at Rio (including one in the team event) and a gold in London too, in the team event.

After winning the table tennis singles gold in Tokyo, Ma Long said the competition had become tougher than it was four years ago.   -  AP

 

After winning the singles gold in Tokyo, he said the competition had become tougher than it was four years ago. “In the last cycle, in 2015-2016, I was having a very good time, winning every match,” he said. “In this cycle, many young, talented players emerged, they’re very good, so I can say this time was very different.”

But apparently not different enough to stop The Dictator from making history.

Abdullah Alrashidi

The bronze medal in the men’s skeet shooting in Tokyo will shine as bright as some of the gold. It is not every day that you would find a 57-year-old winning a medal at any meet that is not reserved for senior citizens. And to win an Olympic medal at that age is truly a remarkable feat. Abdullah Alrashidi had won a bronze at Rio, too. He had then competed as an independent athlete as Kuwait’s national Olympic committee had been suspended by the International Olympic Committee. He was bitterly disappointed that he could not take part under the Kuwaiti flag. He wore an Arsenal jersey.

Abdullah Alrashidi, 57, was competing against players young enough to be his children (quite literally, as his son Talal took part in the men’s trap event).   -  Reuters

 

Five years later, he could kiss the Kuwaiti flag at the Asaka Shooting Range where he was competing against players young enough to be his children (quite literally, as his son Talal took part in the men’s trap event).

“I didn’t like seeing the Olympic flag,” said the three-time world champion. “I needed to see my flag, the Kuwaiti flag.”

Momiji Nishiya

On the day the 57-year-old Abdullah Alrashidi shot down the men’s skeet bronze, 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya won the gold in the women’s street skateboard competition, which was making its Olympic debut. She also became Japan’s youngest Olympic gold medallist ever. She is in fact the second-youngest from any country. American Marjorie Gestring won the gold in 3m springboard diving at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. She was 13 years and 268 days old then, 62 days younger than Nishiya.

Momiji Nishiya became Japan’s youngest Olympic gold medallist ever.   -  Getty Images

 

The Japanese schoolgirl’s rivals at the Ariake Urban Sports Park were teenagers too. Silver medallist Rayssa Leal is 13, while Japan’s Funa Nakayama is 16. It was only after a tense final that Nishiya emerged as the champion. “I’m so happy to win the Olympics in Japan, and I’m so happy to win my first Olympics as one of the youngest competitors,” she said. “It’s like other competitions. I was nervous in the first run, but I wasn’t after that.”