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Plenty of world records were broken at the Tokyo Games (partly thanks to a very fast track), and a number of new sports and variations were introduced.

But beyond the more obvious first (yes, the pandemic Olympics), there was a dizzying array of other accomplishments and milestones.

Japan firsts

Team Japan had high hopes for the Tokyo 2020, and they exceeded them on many counts. From surprise wins to long-sought victories, the Games saw the hosts win big. Here are a few of the most memorable:

Japan's first female boxing champion at the Olympics, Sena Irie, high-fives Nesthy Petecio of the Philippines. | REUTERS
Japan’s first female boxing champion at the Olympics, Sena Irie, high-fives Nesthy Petecio of the Philippines. | REUTERS

Sena Irie’s gold-medal boxing win in the featherweight class was special for a number of reasons. Not only did she beat 2019 world champion Nesthy Petecioin of the Philippines’ in a unanimous decision, she also became Japan’s first female Olympic boxing champion. This also made Irie the first medal winner from Tottori Prefecture, one of only two that had been without a hometown medalist, before the Games began. That left only Okinawa without a medal, a situation that was soon remedied by Ryo Kiyuna, who earned the world’s first Olympic mens’ gold medal in karate — a martial art that originated in the islands.

For many Olympians, the Games were a family affair. (In fact there were 28 sets of siblings at this year’s event). That may be best exemplified in Japan by two sets of siblings who competed this year. The Kawai sisters both won gold a day apart in women’s freestyle wrestling, while judoka Hifumi and Uta Abe became the first siblings in Olympic history to win gold medals on the same day.

Baseball made a brief return to the Olympics in Tokyo this year, and Samurai Japan took full advantage of it, winning their first gold in one of the nation’s most cherished pastimes. The closest they had come before this was a silver in the 1996 Atlanta Games. But perhaps more extraordinary was the rise of the Japanese women’s basketball team. They were the second shortest team in the competition, yet they had the highest three-point shooting percentage of all of them. In the end, they lost gold to the Americans, but even a silver medal was a first for both the Japanese men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Another first Olympic gold for Japan was in table tennis, a sport that China has dominated since its introduction to the Olympics in 1988. Looking at the medal stats in the sport is to scroll through a nearly unbroken chain of red flags, as China had won nine out of 10 medals ever awarded. That changed slightly when Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito pulled off a thrilling upset in the mixed doubles finals on July 26.

Japan’s youngest medalist ever: 12-year-old Kokona Hiraki | REUTERS
Japan’s youngest medalist ever: 12-year-old Kokona Hiraki | REUTERS

Japan also cleaned up in skateboarding — one of the new entries in this year’s Olympics. From the sport’s very first Olympic gold, local talent earned the lions’ share of podium time. Among them was silver medalist Kokona Hiraki, who, at 12 years old, became both Japan’s youngest medalist as well as the youngest medalist of any country since 1936.

While all of these victories are special in their own right, perhaps one of the most memorable was when Japan’s eighth-ranked fencing team edged out the Russian Olympic Committee for gold in the epee event. Not only was this a surprise upset, but it also pushed Japan past its highest gold tally of 16, set in 1964 — the last time Tokyo hosted the games.

National firsts

The United States and China may have dominated the medal standings this year, but the awards column continues to diversify, with new countries making inroads to the podium for the first time.

First gold medalist for the Philippines: weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz | REUTERS
First gold medalist for the Philippines: weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz | REUTERS

For example, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz made history by earning the Philippines its first gold medal. Her record-breaking 127 kilogram lift in the clean and jerk category was made even more exceptional when she admitted to reporters that it was the first time she had lifted that amount.

With a population of 34,000, the country of San Marino became the smallest nation to win an Olympic medal when Alessandra Perilli won bronze in the women’s trap shooting event. Her win pushed out Bermuda for the smallest nation status. Just a few days earlier, Flora Duffy had won the island nation its first gold in the triathlon.

Bronze medalist Alessandra Perilli of San Marino | REUTERS
Bronze medalist Alessandra Perilli of San Marino | REUTERS

On the other end of the population chart, India is home to 1.3 billion people yet has earned relatively few medals for a country of its size. But at the Tokyo Games, the world’s second-most populous nation earned its first gold in athletics when Neeraj Chopra threw the javelin 87.58 meters, earning him the top spot on the podium.

The Middle Eastern nation of Qatar made similar history when Fares El-Bakh won the country’s first-ever gold medal in weightlifting. Not long after that, fellow countryman and high-jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim earned the second when he agreed to share the gold with Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi in one of the most heartwarming moments of the Games.

Despite her humble beginnings, Yulimar Rojas broke the world record in the women’s triple jump, becoming the first Venezuelan woman to win an Olympic gold and only the third Venezuelan to medal ever.

Last but not least is Hugues Fabrice Zango of Burkina Faso. His bronze in the men’s triple jump was the country’s first medal ever, certainly earning him a hero’s welcome upon return.

Inclusivity

The 2020 Olympics will also be remembered for opening the door to more diversity and inclusivity. Here are a few examples of the representation seen at the Tokyo Games.

The first openly transgender female to participate in the Olympics: Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
The first openly transgender female to participate in the Olympics: Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

In New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard, we saw the first appearance by an openly transgender woman competing in the Olympics, but it was a soccer midfielder on the Canadian women’s team who goes by the name Quinn who was the first trans and nonbinary athlete to medal. All-in-all, the 2020 Games were much more LGBTQ-friendly than the last time the city hosted the Olympics.

In the United States, many lauded the rise of gymnast Sunisa Lee, the first Hmong American to represent the country. And represent she did, coming home with a gold, a silver and a bronze.

Gold medalists Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito hold up their medals during the victory ceremony of mixed doubles table tennis. | REUTERS
Gold medalists Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito hold up their medals during the victory ceremony of mixed doubles table tennis. | REUTERS

The IOC also claimed that this was the most gender-balanced Olympics on record, with women making up close to 49% of the 11,000 athletes — up from 45.6% at the Rio Games in 2016. The 2020 Olympics will also be remembered for the expansion of mixed-gender competitions. Seven sports added mixed-gender events to their roster this year, including track, swimming, shooting, judo and table tennis. In total, men and women competed side-by-side in 18 events.

While there is still work to be done, this was a welcome step in the right direction.

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