fb-pixel Skip to main content
John Powers | On Olympics

What’s surprised me most halfway through the Tokyo Olympics

Lydia Jacoby (left), the first Alaska swimmer to compete in the Olympics, upset, among others, US teammates Lilly King in the women's 100-meter breaststroke.
Lydia Jacoby (left), the first Alaska swimmer to compete in the Olympics, upset, among others, US teammates Lilly King in the women's 100-meter breaststroke.Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

TOKYO — Midway through these most uncommon of all Olympics the medal standings are as unsettled as the times. The Americans, who’ve topped the table ever since 1996 and won by more than 50 last time, are neck and neck with the Chinese. The Russians, many of whose rivals believe shouldn’t be here, are sitting a solid third. The Japanese, even without cheering countrymen in the seats, are having a golden time of it. The British, who were third in Rio, have slipped past their London peak. And has anyone seen the Germans? Did they get dumped into quarantine without anyone knowing?

Nobody expected that the results from these Games would be what they might have been had they been held on schedule last summer. Not after a year’s postponement. Not after world championships and qualifying events had been wiped out in most sports and ranking lists rendered meaningless. Not after training gyms and tracks and pools had been shut down for months.

Advertisement



Erica Sullivan, the distance swimmer who won a silver medal, had to get in her mileage at polluted Lake Mead east of Las Vegas. “There was just duck poop everywhere and it was murky and a solid brown-green on a good day,” she said. “It was just gross.”

If ever there were a Games where unlikely flags would flap above the podium and unfamiliar anthems be heard this figured to be the one. Gold medals have been earned by a Filipino weightlifter and a Bermudian triathlete. San Marino, which always has left Olympus empty-handed, has a brace of medals from the shooting range. Seventy-six countries already have won medals here and nearly 50 of them have mined gold.

The extra year between Olympics has torn up the form sheets. Champions from Rio who decided to hang in even longer found themselves outdone by relative unknowns. Lilly King, who won the 100-meter breaststroke in 2016, was beaten by 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby, the first Alaskan swimmer to compete in the Games. “She makes me feel so old,” mused King, who’s 24. “I promise that I am not that old.”

Advertisement



The US women’s soccer team, bidding to become the first World Cup victor to win at the subsequent Games, was blanked twice in group play and had to survive a shootout with the Dutch to reach the medal round. They’re the oldest team in the field (average age 30) and they’ve looked it here.

The unprecedented postponement has been a boon to younger athletes who wouldn’t have made their teams last summer. Viktoriia Listunova, one of the two 16-year-old gymnasts who helped Russia claim its first women’s team title, wasn’t old enough then. She’s going for a floor medal on Monday. Momiji Nishiya, the 13-year-old Japanese skateboarder who won the street gold, wouldn’t have made the cut a year ago.

Olympic success always has favored those who find a way to be the best in the world on the day and that’s been especially true this time. Both rowing victors in the eights came out of the second-chance repechages. New Zealand won its first men’s crown since 1972, Canada its first women’s since 1992. Greece never had won a gold in the sport. It did this time in the men’s single. And Japan, which never had won a fencing title, beat the Russians in men’s team epee.

Advertisement



That was the gold medal that gave the hosts their most ever with 17. With nine judo golds from the sport they invented, a third straight crown in men’s all-around gymnastics and the softball title over the American women — all in front of empty seats — these Games already are a rousing success for the Land of the Rising Sun.

So are they, too, for the Russians (officially Russian Olympic Committee), who won only 56 medals in Rio but already have 37 spread among 10 sports, including four in taekwondo and a couple in 3-on-3 basketball. Their unrepentant doping over the last decade-plus has deprived them of their country’s name, flag, and anthem, but the Russians have made sure that the world knows they’re still here, if officially neutrally.

“Better than not being able to participate at all,” said swimmer Evgeny Rylov, who was saluted by a Tchaikovsky fragment on the podium after winning both men’s backstrokes ahead of US defending champion Ryan Murphy.

The Americans, who collected 46 gold medals in Rio, thus far haven’t heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” as often as they’d hoped to. They’ve picked up only 16. That number should rise significantly during the second week just with track and field, where the US won 14 events at the last global meet.

Even without Simone Biles, who has withdrawn from Sunday’s vault and uneven bars, the women’s gymnasts could take another five in the event finals. And the Americans still are alive in eight team sports where they customarily make the podium.

Advertisement



Yet they’ve already left a goodly number of medals on the table. The swimmers, who departed Rio with 16 golds, have only eight going into Sunday’s finale. Katie Ledecky, who was hoping for four individual victories, was outsplashed twice by an Australian. Ariarne Titmus was 15 in 2016, watching the Games on TV. Now she’s a medal machine.

Nobody wanted the 2020 Games to be held in 2021. Many people around the planet and in the host country itself called for them to be scratched or put off for yet another year in the hopes that the coronavirus might be squelched by then. But the Emperor opened them and the athletes who’ve succeeded so far seem to be those who made it through 16 months of anxiety and disruption and found a way to drape a medal around their own necks.