The Olympics have always served as a litmus test for the global athletic zeitgeist, and in order to maintain that honor, the event lineup must always change from year to year. Despite coming out of a pandemic that left the possibility of even having the Games in limbo, Tokyo featured several new or long absent sports, with over 50 more featured in the test phase. How were these competitions in terms of excitement and fan engagement, and will they make it through the ringer for Paris 2024 and beyond?
The sixth Olympics to feature baseball, and the fifth to feature softball, saw exciting tournaments in both disciplines. However, baseball, a sport older than the modern Olympiad itself, has failed to captivate audiences outside of the Americas and East Asia. Softball, a women’s variation of the sport with a smaller field and larger ball, has traditionally been played alongside baseball at the Olympics. To get both sports into the Tokyo lineup, baseball and softball agreed to share a multi-purpose field. Already cut from the Paris 2024 lineup, Baseball and softball will likely exist in a constant state of limbo when the Olympics are held in a country that doesn’t have a solid foundation for the sport.
Aside from the relatively slow global growth, Baseball at the Olympics suffers from a small talent pool to pull from. Held right in the middle of the Major League Baseball season, top tier clubs aren’t willing to risk sending players overseas while making a championship push. Some former Major League talent was seen in these games, such as the United States’ Todd Frazier and Japan’s Masahiro Tanaka, but no names in comparison to those found in the basketball competitions.
Softball, on the other, could flourish as an Olympic mainstay as long as it breaks free from the package deal requirements with baseball. Without the pro league viewerships that Major League Baseball has around the world, Softball could continue to flourish on the Olympic stage, as fans could get a look at both top college prospects, as well as build reputations with national teams that could compete in tournaments outside of the Olympics.
Of all the basketball variations, 3x3 has had the most trouble breaking away from gimmicky promotions like the BIG3, a league featuring retired NBA talent and owned by rapper Ice Cube. However, the sport’s journey to legitimacy has culminated in two very exciting Olympic tournaments in Tokyo, opening the door for even more competitions in the future.
Already a fast-paced game in it’s 5x5 form, 3x3 offers an even faster, schoolyard style of play. Target scores coincide with a time limit as a possible win condition, while shots inside the arc are reduced from 2 points to 1, with outside shots reduced from 3 points to 2. The use of a regulation court with less players provides plenty of space for creative playmaking, as well as an added challenge for defenders.
This year’s tournaments in both the Men’s and Women’s categories provided plenty of exciting moments. In the Men’s category, Latvia, led by top-ranked Guard Nauris Miezis, cruised to Olympic Gold in a 21-18 final win over the ROC. Miezis scored 10 points to add onto his total of 61 for the entire tournament. Miezis’ teammate, Karlis Lasmanis, led all total scorers with 76 points over 10 games. Also taking down the ROC in the final, the United States women’s team earned the first ever women’s 3x3 Gold off of solid performances from Las Vegas Aces star Kelsey Plum.
Skateboarding at the Olympics turned out to be an instant fan favorite, especially on social media, where praise mostly revolved around the way that skateboarding is pushing the boundaries of what is considered an Olympic Sport.
In both the street and park competitions, the age range of participants was a major talking point. Due to skateboarding’s long history as a sport, yet recent Olympic debut, first time participants at the Tokyo Games ranged in age from 13 to 46. In the Women’s Street category, no medalist was older than 16, with Japanese Gold Medalist Momiji Nishiya becoming Japan’s youngest medalist ever at 13.
Despite not making it past the Men’s park qualifier, Rune Glifberg’s Olympic participation bookends skateboarding’s journey to athletic legitimacy. At 46 years old, the Danish skater competed in the very first X Games in 1995, one of three skaters to compete in every edition of the event. As an homage to his historic career, Glifberg was the first skater to perform in this year’s park event, forever etching his place in Olympic history.
Considering the buzz that Skateboarding generated at the Tokyo games, it’s inclusion in both future Olympiads and other national athletic competitions should be no surprise.
Like skateboarding, surfing has provided a new, creative challenge for its Olympic athletes. Organized in a knockout style tournament, surfers were judged both by the complexity of their tricks and the size of the wave in which they executed said tricks on. While opponents in the head-to-head heats could not actively affect each other in the same way football players defend, the back and forth nature of the heats encouraged surfers to pursue more and more complicated tricks in order to woo the judges.
Such was the case in the final heat between Brazil’s Italo Ferreira and Japan’s Kanoa Igarashi. As Ferreira, coming back from a broken board earlier in the round, executed several perfect wave turns, Igarashi realized he had to finish with a bang, and in an attempt to execute a Kerrupt Flip, fell right into the crest of a wave, securing a Brazilian Gold Medal.
In terms of the sport’s future at the games, surfing fans should be excited. Speaking to ESPN, Surfing legend Rick Fanning was optimistic about the sport’s Olympic future, especially with the 2028 Los Angeles games approaching. Fanning said that as long as the athletes put on a good show, fans will come back hungry for more.
A new generation
It's been a transitory Games of sorts. As legends of the early 2010s such as Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and Aliya Mustafina announced their retirements at the Rio games, fans around the world looked for new names to latch onto for the next series of Games. Who emerged this year?