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tara sullivan

From Simone Biles to men’s basketball, we’ve seen some hiccups at the Olympics, but there’s so much to celebrate

Young Australian Ariarne Titmus made a splash in the women's 400-meter freestyle final, edging American star Katie Ledecky.
Young Australian Ariarne Titmus made a splash in the women's 400-meter freestyle final, edging American star Katie Ledecky.Doug Mills/NYT

As Katie Ledecky touched the pool wall fractions of a second behind the young Australian swimmer in the neighboring lane, the moment of disappointment was understandable. Ledecky is a marvel of swimming dominance, and as she led for almost 375 meters of the exhausting 400-meter freestyle Olympic race, it seemed she might add one more gold medal to an already large pile of hardware.

But 20-year-old Ariarne Titmus had something to say about that, and with an impressive leg kick across the final lap, she not only won Australia’s first individual gold of these Tokyo Games, she touched off one of the best viral moments of the Olympics so far. (If you haven’t yet watched her coach Dean Boxall celebrating from his overhead perch, do it now.)

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It got me to thinking about a ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, beyond the obvious health and safety concerns that have crowded my brain since the Games began. These Olympics being held a year later than originally planned put older Olympians a little bit closer to the end of their sporting journeys. For younger ones, the extra year got them closer to the start of it.

Would the 20-year-old Titmus have been ready to overtake the 24-year-old Ledecky had they been 19 and 23? Who knows? (Titmus did beat Ledecky at the 2019 world championships, but Boxall thought the extra year of development and maturity helped greatly in Tokyo.) But either way, it was so inspiring to hear Ledecky’s words after she had just swum the second-fastest 400 free of her career, behind only the world record she owns.

Ariarne Titmus of Australia won the women's 400-meter freestyle final.
Ariarne Titmus of Australia won the women's 400-meter freestyle final.DOUG MILLS/NYT

“I fought tooth and nail and gave it my all; I can’t be disappointed by that,” she said. “That was a great time for me.”

The Olympics are not yet a week old, and already the great performances are rolling in.

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But there have been hiccups, and to see them occurring among some of the more seasoned athletes tells me the pressure of the extended layoff is weighing on them. To see the aging US women’s soccer team so flat in its opening loss to Sweden, to see top women’s tennis seed Ash Barty go out in straight sets in her opener, to see the US men’s basketball team fall apart across the final minutes of an opening loss to France, to see Simone Biles hop after so many clean landings, all of it was quite unsettling.

“I feel like I’ve had a lot of pressure on myself,” conceded Biles, the only holdover from the 2016 gold-medal winning women’s gymnastics team in Rio. “That was not the best. I don’t know how many events I’ll qualify for at the end of the day” — it ended up being all four disciplines — “I’m just happy to be at another Olympic Games.”

Simone Biles wasn't perfect but reached the finals in all four gymnastics events.
Simone Biles wasn't perfect but reached the finals in all four gymnastics events.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Indeed, part of the magic of the Olympics is seeing new and surprising young athletes take their turn in the headlines, the way Biles did in the past. The five years since Rio have clearly inspired many a new face.

Are you watching? I sure am, and here are some of my favorite impressions so far . . .

▪ Loved, loved, loved watching the US gold-medal performances in fencing and taekwondo. And I loved hearing how 18-year-old Anastasija Zolotic dreamed her success into reality.

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“My 8-year-old self was running around the schoolyard saying I was going to be Olympic champion, but she could never have imagined what this moment is like,” Zolotic said after winning the first-ever US gold medal in taekwondo. “It’s unbelievable. It really hasn’t sunk in yet.”

American Anastasija Zolotic was atop the podium after the women's taekwondo competition.
American Anastasija Zolotic was atop the podium after the women's taekwondo competition.Maja Hitij/Getty Images

And as I’ve often said in this space, representation matters, so here’s to Zolotic’s closing thoughts as they related to being just the second woman and fourth American to reach a taekwondo final: “Isn’t that amazing? I’m just glad I can do something to raise its profile in the US. I just want the country to be proud of me, to share this flood of emotions.”

Fencer Lee Kiefer is much more seasoned, but no less groundbreaking. Her gold medal in foil was thrilling to watch, right down to the final points. That the 27-year-old former Notre Dame star returns home to finish her final year of medical school at Kentucky speaks even more to her unique talents, and what she’s done while spending the last 10 years on US Fencing’s senior national team.

▪ Best upset came in men’s swimming, when the announcers during the men’s 400-meter freestyle were so focused on the favorites in the middle lanes that they ignored the man who sneaked to victory in Lane 8.

At least until Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui won gold.

Hafnaoui came out of nowhere, though he was there all along. When his head popped up from the pool and he saw his winning time, the way his mouth went from primal scream to near-crying breakdown was impossible not to feel. A video that later popped up on Twitter, showing his family watching the race, was just as moving, filled with joy and hugs and love and heart.

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American bronze medal winner Kieran Smith (from Ridgefield, Conn.) spoke for us all when asked what he knew about Hafnaoui: “Absolutely nothing.”

▪ The pace and energy in the 3x3 basketball has been a revelation, and for anyone who ever played a game of halfcourt driveway hoops, it brought us back to the days of our youth.

Bravo to the American women, carrying the ball better than imaginable, their 6-0 run through the prelims punctuated by a thrilling 21-19 win over China. With six lead changes, this was the Americans’ closest game, but their ability to stay clean while every other team has at least two losses speaks to their depth, and the anchor that is center Stefanie Dolson.

Stefanie Dolson of the US (left) is defended by China's Yang Shuyu during pool play of the women's 3x3 basketball competition.
Stefanie Dolson of the US (left) is defended by China's Yang Shuyu during pool play of the women's 3x3 basketball competition.ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images

▪ Great little numbers nugget from reader Greg Conley: “Sox down 3 runs, being no-hit by Yankees. Two innings, 6 at-bats to go … Team USA Softball down 1-0, being no-hit by Japan. Two innings, 6 at-bats to go …”

Both teams pulled out a win. Our softball players are proving to be quite the comeback kids, also beating Australia in the final at-bat. The gold-medal rematch against Japan is set for 7 a.m EST Tuesday, though with Tropical Storm Nepartak on the way, that could change.

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It was analyst Jessica Mendoza who mentioned the weather as a reason for the Americans’ late surge against Japan. She said the possibility of canceling, rather than just rescheduling, the gold-medal game (though unlikely) would mean reverting to the final pool-play game as the decider.

▪ The weather forecast did give us this great quip from New Zealand rugby player Andrew Knewstubb: “Feels like we’re trying to prepare for bloody everything.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.