OLYMPICS REVIEW: TOKYO DELIVERS ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE GAMES

With the Games sadly over and with only 1080 days to wait until Paris 2024, Trackstaa looks back at a truly memorable Tokyo Olympics.

Karsten Warholm runs in the 400m Hurdles in Oslo Diamond League
Diamond League AG

For a long time, as the deadly covid-19 pandemic resurged across the world, it looked as though this year’s Olympic Games would be cancelled. It’s easy to forget that the Tokyo Games was already delayed by a full year. With just days to go before the Opening Ceremony, regular polls of Japanese people indicated that support for hosting the event had dropped markedly and senior Japanese officials talked about cancelling it altogether.

It’s natural for fans to consider how this Olympic stacks up against the famous Games now resigned to the history books and the not infrequent BBC montages and in a sporting sense, we’ll get on to that in a minute. One thing is for sure, however, this Olympics will forever be the Olympics that took place without spectators. The first in an Olympic history that stretches back over 2.5 thousand years right back to its ancient form in the 8th century BC. That we were able to hold the Games at all is, in many ways, the biggest triumph of the past few weeks, particularly as the odds looked so firmly stacked against us.

From a sporting and athletics perspective, the number of ‘Olympic moments’ that give you goosebumps are too numerous to mention here and everyone has their own special ones, be it Mo Farah’s Olympic 5,000m triumph in London 2012 as he kicked in the home straight to hold onto his lead amidst thunderous applause or, Dame Kelly Holmes’ winning the 800m in Athens in 2004. In fact, it’s so subjective that it’s impossible to rank them in any meaningful order or compare them to the triumphs of Toyko. But, heck, we’re going to do it anyway.

Starting with very possibly, the 2 greatest performances in the history of Olympic athletics. Both occurred a day apart and, remarkably, in the same event. Going into the Olympics, we always knew that the 400m Hurdles races, both men’s and women’s were likely to be special. We didn’t quite realise just how special. It started with Karsten Warholm’s incredible world record 45.94. Even writing it out, and it’s the second time we have written after publishing last week’s newsletter, it gets even more unbelievable. As we talked about on our recent Olympics podcast (which you can listen to here), never in our wildest dreams did we expect the winner to go under 46 seconds. How Rai (Kai) Benjamin must feel after running, if you discount Warholm’s winning time for a moment, the fastest time in history by over half a second (46.17) and still not winning, defies comprehension.

We can count ourselves lucky that Benjamin was in that race because had he not been, there is no chance that Warholm would have run 45.94. In Warholm’s glorious record, Benjamin played a vital role. That should not take anything away from Warholm, however. More than being a phenomenal athlete and the greatest 400 hurdler of all time, what warms Warholm to the hears of athletics fans is his personality. Something that we have been desperate for in track and field since Usain Bolt retired.

Warholm’s record will stand for many many years, very possibly longer than Kevin Youngs did – unless he or Benjamin break it. However, his accolade of the greatest performance in history stood for a mere 24 hours because in the women’s race, it was even better. The leading trio, led by world record holder Sydney McLaughlin were the only real contenders and even then it looked a long shot for the fiercely talented Femke Bol to win without McLaughlin or Muhammad falling or pulling up. And so it was, Muhammad was quick out as expected by McLaughin, on the inside of Femke Bol judged the race perfectly and didn’t panic as she entered the home straight in a close second.

The pace at the 300m mark was way ahead of world record pace and it only quickened. Like Warholm the previous day, McLaughlin’s superior speed and power off the final hurdle was the key to her win. Her winning time of 51.46 was nearly a full half second quicker than the world record she set only a few weeks ago in the USA. To put it in some context, no woman had ever ran a 400m flat quicker than 51.46 until 1970. Statistically, relative to other results, the women’s race is the better performance and so on that basis, we’ve decided to give McLaughlin the illustrious accolade of ‘Performance of the Games’ (very possibly ever) and I’m sure when she reads this article it’ll mean as much to her as the Olympic gold medal.

It wasn’t just the 400m Hurdles that delivered some historic races. The women’s 800m final is another race that will be talked about for generations. Two 19 year olds winning gold and silver and running 1:55 in such dominant and emphatic style was amazing. Although Athing Mu will, in all likelihood, go on to be the greatest women’s 800m runner ever and is right now miles ahead of everyone else, it will be exciting to watch how far Keely Hodgkinson can push her.

This wouldn’t be a Trackstaa article if we didn’t talk about Jakob Ingebrigsten. After countless efforts (I think it’s like 16), Jakob finally defeated world champion Timothy Cheruiyot in emphatic style to claim the Olympic 1500m title in a stunning time of 3:28.32, a PB and a new Olympic Record (the top 3 men all ran under 3. Perhaps most impressively was the manner in which he cruised past Cheruiyot in the final 120m. On so many occassions in the past we’ve seen Cheruiyot able to match and then better Jakob’s efforts to kick past him but this time he couldn’t hold out. Jakob made the final kick look so easy and that bodes well for an expected tilt on Hicham El Guerrouj’s 1998 world record time of 3:26. Jakob looks unbeatable and if the sequencing allows, you would have to say that not only is he favourite for the 1500m Gold in Paris in 3 years time, but possibly the 5000m Gold too. This was certainly our favourite race of the Olympics and with Jakob finally fulfilling his destiny, one that we will remember for a long time.

It wasn’t just these 4 races and performances we’ve touched on above that made these Games special however. Special mentions need to go some other athletes too. Sifan Hassan, for example. Wow. If she was a country she would have finished 11th on the medal table for athletics. The triple Crown of 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m was always going to be a long-shot. With heats and semi-finals, it’s just so much racing to contend with. She put up an incredible effort, nonetheless, and to win 2 gold medals and a bronze surely means she has cemented her place, alongside Tirunesh Dibaba, as the best female distance runner in history.

Other monumental displays came from athletes like: Rojas, who smashed the women’s triple jump world record, Mondo Duplantis who could make a strong case for being the most dominant athlete in any discipline in the whole Games, Grant Fisher running the race of his life in the men’s 5 and 10. Josh Kerr ran under 3:30 in the 1500m final to take a well-deserved bronze medal whilst Lamont Jacobs came essentially from the sprinting wilderness to win the Olympic 100m title in a faster time than Bolt won in Rio.

Elaine Thompson-Herah settled the debate about who is the greatest female sprinter in history by doing the double-double. Her performance in the 200m heats was sensational and incredibly in the 100m final, she ran the fastest speed ever recorded by a female athlete 37.7 kph! Her story of comeback and redemption is amazing. When Sha’Carri Richardson won the US Trials and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce ran 10.61, nobody was even talking about Elaine Thompson-Herah.

Finally, some Olympic moments that will be remembered for generations include Barshim and Tamberi sharing high-jump gold, Ryan Crouser winning gold again, Neeraj Chopra winning javelin and India’s first ever gold medal and Anita Wlodarczyk becoming the first woman in history to win 3 Olympic golds in one event. There was also Andre De Grasse finally getting his much deserved gold-medal and the GOAT’s GOAT, Eliud Kipchoge, becoming only the third man to retain the Olympic marathon title. That was certainly one of our favourite moments as was the USA’s Molly Seidel taking an amazing bronze medal in the women’s marathon.

Inevitably there are too many amazing moments to mention here. The overriding emotion at the close of the Olympics is one of sadness; the greatest festival of sport has finished. However, uniquely, we now have only 3 years to wait until the next one and plenty of athletics action to look forward to in the coming months. There’s the Pre Classic in Eugene in a few weeks and of course, the world championships next year.

For more detail and results from the Olympics and all major athletics events, sign up to our free weekly newsletter here and keep an eye on our podcast, ‘The Running Pod’ where we will be interviewing some big names and reviewing the Olympics too over the coming days.