Every Olympics has its stories. Yet, Tokyo 2020 was different. All the pre-event attention had been on Covid-19 and how much of an impact it would have on the world’s biggest sporting spectacle.
A remarkable turnaround happened as soon as the event began; the attention shifted to the on-court drama. Covid-19 still lurked, but with the safety measures in place, it had receded to the background.
These, then, were the most remarkable stories at Tokyo 2020:
Kevin Cordon blazed through the event like a shooting star – just as brilliantly, and as mysteriously.
Cordon’s last significant achievement at a major event was at the World Championships 2011 when he beat Chen Long. Yet, at Tokyo 2020, he displayed skills that were considered the preserve of top 10 players.
Spectacularly, against opponent after opponent, he jumped high, Zhao Jianhua-like, to smash with pinpoint precision, making everyone wonder where he’d been all these years.
An Olympic journey that started in ignominy transformed, in a feat of supreme alchemy over nine years, into a joyous afternoon for Greysia Polii, who along with Apriyani Rahayu, achieved what no Indonesian women’s doubles pair had done – win the Olympic gold.
Few players in Olympic history must have gone through such a dramatic reversal of fortunes. London 2012 was when Polii and Meiliana Jauhari were disqualified for not giving their best efforts on court. Nine years since then, and with her third Olympic partner Rahayu, Tokyo 2020 witnessed the Indonesian duo stand atop the podium. Could any scriptwriter have dreamt this up?
Japan’s steady rise as a badminton power had raised expectations among badminton fans of a dominant Japanese performance at their home Olympics. Yet, one favoured home shuttler after another fell early, leaving Japan with only the consolation of a single bronze in mixed doubles.
The biggest upset in the opening week was Kento Momota, who failed to progress from his group after falling to Heo Kwanghee. The other contenders – Akane Yamaguchi, Nozomi Okuhara, Mayu Matsumoto/Wakana Nagahara, Hiroyuki Endo/Yuta Watanabe and Takeshi Kamura/Keigo Sonoda – all fell before the semifinals, while an injury to Sayaka Hirota affected the prospects of Hirota/Yuki Fukushima. The enormity of pressure at the home Olympics was apparent.
Since London 2012, six World Championships and an Olympics had passed by without China reclaiming the crown that they once had a firm grip on. When Tokyo 2020 arrived, China’s prospects – Chen Yu Fei’s in particular – weren’t considered significantly higher that of her principal opponents such as Tai Tzu Ying, Pusarla V. Sindhu, Nozomi Okuhara, Akane Yamaguchi and Ratchanok Intanon. Besides, there was the long layoff from international badminton for the Chinese team. How much would that impact Chen Yu Fei and her compatriot He Bing Jiao?
Not much, as it turned out, with Chen winning a thriller over Tai Tzu Ying in the final.
It needed a special effort from the challengers to upstage Zheng/Huang, and they produced just that to finally emerge out of the shadows of their illustrious compatriots. They have now established an identity independent of Zheng and Huang, as Olympic gold medallists, and their journey from now on will be closely followed.
♦The most painful moment of the Olympics happened on the sixth day of competition, in the women’s singles Round of 16. Beiwen Zhang led He Bing Jiao 21-14 7-9 when she fell to the floor in pain and had to be wheeled out with an Achilles tendon injury. He Bing Jiao herself was in tears despite making the quarterfinals. “I didn’t want to win in this manner,” said the soft-spoken Chinese.
♦Lee Yang and Wang Chi-Lin’s journey to Olympic gold was quite a contrast to past men’s doubles gold medallists, most of whom were already world champions before winning the Olympics. Having not won a World Tour Super 750 or above title until the beginning of this year, to then sweeping the Asian Leg with back-to-back titles in three weeks, and then stamping their authority in the knockout rounds at Tokyo 2020 – it has indeed been an eventful year for the Chinese Taipei duo.
♦Their compatriot Tai Tzu Ying’s entry into the semifinals was a first at a major event, for she had never passed the quarterfinals at previous Olympics and World Championships.
♦Aram Mahmoud made history both for his homeland Syria and for the IOC Refugee Team when he took the court against Jonatan Christie in Group G. The Syrian gave a good account of himself despite straight-games defeats to Christie and Loh Kean Yew.