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  • Writer's pictureKaitlynaMac

Going for Gold: Groundbreaking Athletes at the 2020 Olympics

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics (held in 2021) were fraught with challenges and difficulties from the start, but despite the pandemic, lack of public and international support, and with some countries and athletes refusing to participate, the games turned out to be one for the history books in more ways than one. Athletes were under enormous stress and pressure, even before the opening ceremonies. Over 430 people and 29 athletes tested positive for COVID-19 during the Olympics (out of 600,000 tests, so... not bad! Vaccines work!), and of course the mental and physical stress of the risk must have surely taken its toll on the athletes. However, even under such adverse circumstances, many athletes broke records (personal and global) and otherwise showed amazing talent, skill, and sportsmanship, making their countries and families insanely proud. To be able to maintain such strength during such hardship is surely nothing short of astounding. In this post I would like to highlight some of the feats accomplished by incredible athletes to both acknowledge their hard work and fortitude, and also, in hopes of inspiring others to do the same. There were a lot of “firsts” during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 88 different countries made it to the podium, with 63 of those nations winning gold--an Olympic record. In this post, I want to highlight some of these amazing "firsts".

Hidilyn Diaz is the first ever Filipino to win a gold medal for her country. Diaz is a weightlifter and staff sergeant in the Philippine Air Force. She has been competing in the Olympics since 2008, and even won a silver medal in 2016. In 2021, she competed in the women’s 55kg category and finished with a combined lifted weight of 224kg (about 494lbs). She also set a new record for the clean and jerk by lifting a whopping 127kg (280lbs). Her achievement is especially noteworthy because of some extreme difficulties she had to face before the Olympics. In 2020, Diaz became stranded in Malaysia due to not being able to leave the country because of COVID-19. She also suffered from a mental breakdown because of the uncertainty of the Olympics going ahead, and probably also from the general stress of the pandemic. Gyms were shut down by the government, so she had to train using bamboo poles and water jugs. Clearly Hidilyn Diaz is a strong woman and will no doubt inspire a new generation of Filipino athletes.

Danielle Dorris was born with under-developed arms, but that didn’t stop her from breaking the Olympic record for the 50 meter butterfly… twice. Doris broke the previous record during her qualifying race earlier in the day, and then bested herself during the official race, winning a gold medal in the process. This is an amazing feat considering this is her first time competing at the Olympics. She also won a silver medal for the 100m backstroke. Dorris started swimming in 2008 when her father was posted in Texas, apparently taking to the water like a fish. When they later moved to Ontario, the family got in touch with the Para movement and the rest is history!

Another strong swimmer on the Canadian Paralympic swim team is Aurélie Rivard, who has been competing in the olympics since 2012 and has won a collective of 9 medals, and currently holds three world records in freestyle swimming. She won 2 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, alone. In 2015 Rivard became the most decorated athlete at the Parapan American Games in Toronto after winning 6 gold and 1 silver medal.

An San (안산), a Korean archer, won gold in the women’s team, mixed team, and individual archery events, making her the first archer to ever do so in the history of the Olympics. She is also the first Korean athlete to win 3 gold medals at a summer Olympics, and one of 18 Olympians to win 3 or more gold medals (I think) in Tokyo. All that and this was her first time at the Olympics. Of course, Korean citizens were ecstatic of the wins, but then An allegedly made some comments during an interview which were similar to those made by members of a certain South Korean Feminist group. "Feminism" in South Korea is sort of like a curse depending who you're talking to. Korea is very conservative, especially when it comes to the roles of women in society. The comments partnered with her short hairstyle drew the ire of conservatives all across the country. Some people were even demanding that her medals be revoked (???). Thankfully, An has a lot of support and she seems to be taking all the hate in stride:

On an Instagram post featuring screenshots of insults she wrote, "While you're sending messages in your room driven by your inferiority complex, I'm winning two gold medals at the Olympics."

Simone Biles made a big splash at the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio when she won four gold medals in various gymnastics competitions, becoming the first American gymnast to do so. She’s also a decorated medalist for world competitions and has won 32 medals overall. Biles returned to the Olympic stage for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and, again, made headlines, but not for what you would expect.

Simone qualified for all of the individual finals, but she had made a lot of mistakes during her routines and was suffering from what gymnasts call the “twisties”, and backed out of a lot of team events because of her mental health. Though some criticized her, her teammates and coaches supported her. Biles claims that she was inspired by Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open and Wimbledon for her mental health. Biles was also one of the many gymnasts who spoke up against Larry Nassar, who, during his long career as a doctor for gymnasts, sexually abused more than 140 girls. Truly a strong woman! In 1900, the first year that 'women' were allowed to compete in the Olympics, only 2.2 percent of participants were biologically female. In Tokyo, 48.8 percent of participants were competing in the 'women's' category, and therefore, this year’s Olympics were a spectacular showing of 'feminine' grit and talent. In addition to the athletes mentioned above, I would also like to quickly mention some other incredible athletes:

Laurel Hubbard (weightlifting) from New Zealand was the first openly trans athlete. Rayssa Leal (Brazil) (13) (skateboarding) is the youngest person for any country to win a medal of any color.

Sarah Voss and the German gymnastics team for challenging convention and wearing long leotards.

Allyson Felix (US) (track) for proving that mothers can do anything and sticking it to big brands for sexist endorsement clauses. Sunisa Lee (US) (gymnastics) first ever Hmong-American athlete at the Olympics.

Flora Duffy (triathlon) first gold medalist from Bermuda.

Alana Smith (US) (skateboarding) first openly non-binary athlete.

Polina Guryeva (weightlifting) won the first medal for her country, Turkmenistan.

Alessandra Perilli (trap shooting) won the first medal for her country, San Marino.

Tamyra Mensah-Stock first Black American woman to win a gold medal in wrestling.

Emma McKeown (AUS) (swimming) won 7 medals at the Tokyo Olympics, tying with Maria Gorokhovskaya (USSR) for the most medals won in a single Olympics by a woman.

Hend Zaza (Syria) (table tennis) was the youngest person to compete for her sport in the history of the Olympics.

Sources: Carayol, T. (2021, August 4). ‘I did it for me’: Simone Biles returns to Olympics to win bronze on beam. The Guardian.

Fowler, W. (2021, August 6). Which nations have claimed their first-ever medals in Tokyo? NBC Olympics.

Locker, M. (2021, August 6). These Athletes Made History at the Tokyo Olympics. Time.

Marino, M. (2021, August 8). Here’s how many people tested positive for COVID at the Olympics. Wavy.

Rankin, C. (2021, September 3). Canada’s Danielle Dorris claims gold for 2nd Paralympic medal in Tokyo Social Sharing. CBC.

Y. (2021, July 30). [Tokyo Olympics] An San wins gold in women’s individual archery, becomes 1st triple gold medalist in Tokyo. The Korea Herald.

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