8 August 2021 Saint Paul, MN USA: Homecoming Saint Paul Parade for Gold Medalist Suni Lee. Credit: Marstar.

TOKYO HEROES

A new generation

Tokyo 2021 seems to be 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? How can we see these athletes in action again before the Olympics head to Paris in 2024?

Suni Lee, United States, Gymnastics

Off the mat, the US Gymnast Simone Biles made headlines for withdrawing from both the team and individual all-around competitions, citing the priority of her own mental health. While this decision allowed the sports world to continue the ongoing discussion on how we talk about the mental health of athletes, it also allowed several members of the United States Gymnastics team a bit more time in the Tokyo spotlight.

Sunisa Lee, an 18 year old from Saint Paul, Minnesota, quickly became a household name in the United States, after capturing gold in the Individual all-around competition. Winning with a total score of 57.433, Lee edged out Brazilian Rebeca Andrade by less than a quarter of a point for the gold, with her performance on the uneven bars  securing her victory. Pushing through her Olympic Journey after her father was paralyzed in a landscaping accident, Lee said following her win that her parents' support played a key role in her victory. 

While winning Olympic Gold is seen as the pinnacle of a gymnast’s career, Lee leaves Tokyo with four years at Auburn University ahead of her. Her presence at this fall’s Gymnastics World Championships is still unconfirmed, but Lee will no doubt help bring Auburn back to the NCAA National Gymnastics championships in 2022.

Canada Women’s Football Team

In a stunning semifinal match, the Canadian Women’s Football took down the reigning World Cup Champions United States 1-0 to head to a Gold Medal Match against Sweden. Just their fourth win against the United States in 62 matches, this Olympic victory may be Canada’s most significant yet, knocking down a peg their most storied rival and one of the biggest favorites in any Women’s football tournament over the last few decades.

Highlighting Canada’s run for Gold so far has been Jessie Fleming and Janine Beckie. Playing for Chelsea and Manchester City respectively in the FA Women’s Super League, both Fleming and Beckie have long careers ahead of them with both Canada and their club teams. In Tokyo, both players have been at the center of some of the most exciting moments in the tournament, most notably Fleming’s 75th minute penalty that put her squad ahead of the Americans.

Following the Olympics, the Canadians will take a break from playing together before heading to the 2022 CONCACAF Women’s Championship, which they will co-host with the United States. The top four teams in this tournament will advance to the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

The Women’s Olympic Skateboarding Podium

While teenagers competing in the Olympics is nothing new, the Women’s Skateboarding Street Competition may have featured one of the youngest combined Olympic Podiums ever. Momiji Nishiya (Japan, 13), Rayssa Leal (Brazil, 13), and Funa Nakayama (Japan, 16), wowed audiences around the world with their nearly flawless performances on a variety of ramps and obstacles in the street course.

Nishiya, now the youngest person to ever win a Gold Medal for Japan, and the third youngest overall, has skated on global stages since the age of 11. A silver medallist at the 2019 Street World Championships in Rome, as well as the 2019 X-Games in Minnesota, Nishiya hopes her win can create a more inclusive environment for skaters around the world. Nishiya and Nakayama’s stories helped propel them to immediate stardom on social media, with millions around the world praising both their athleticism and sportsmanship at such a young age.

At such a young age, and with Skateboarding likely to return at future games, all three of these medalists should have long futures ahead of them. Outside of annual competitions like the X Games, Bronze Medalist Funa Nakayama will continue to be a mainstay of both the Street Skateboarding League Tour, as well as the Dew Extreme Sports Tour.

Sha’Carri Richardson

Richardson made major waves on social media in the qualifiers leading up to the Olympics, both for her excellent athletic performance and her self-expression on and off the track. Running the 100m in 10.86 seconds, three tenths of a second shy of the world record, Richardson became a fan favorite after her charismatic post-race interview. Letting the world know how to pronounce her name, and that she was unafraid to express herself as an athlete and as a woman, Richardson was gearing up to make history. 

Unfortunately, Richardson’s Olympic dreams were cut short soon after the qualifying event, as a positive drug test showed signs of THC, indicating marijuana use around the time of qualifying. Stating that she used marijuana to deal with the grief of losing her mother, Richardson accepted a month-long suspension from organized track, and was not accepted to the US 4x100 track team. Richardson’s suspension was an immediate source of contention amongst fans, as both pundits and spectators criticized the continued ban of marijuana in athletics, with many calling it outdated and discriminatory.

Since her suspension, Richardson has become a leading figure in the continued movement to de-stigmatize marijuana use amongst professional athletes, and will likely continue her athletic career in an attempt to qualify for both the IAAF World Championships ands the 2024 Paris Games. Notable public appearances from Richardson since her suspension include a commercial for Beats by Dre, featuring Richardson alongside the slogan “Live your truth.”

Every four years, the Olympics reignite a passion for athletics for fans around the world, but once the Games conclude, why just wait for the next one? The stories of these athletes deserve more than just our quadrennial attention. While some of these sports may not be as accessible for fans outside of the Olympics, continued coverage during the Games, as well as the numerous championships in between, can help increase exposure and bring these athletes the glory they deserve.

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NEW SPORTS AT TOKYO

How did they hold up?

How were these competitions in terms of excitement and fan engagement, and will they make it through the ringer for Paris 2024 and beyond?

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