Late sleepers probably didn’t see it live, but as of 6:55 a.m. ET yesterday morning (roughly 8 p.m. local time in Tokyo) the Olympics got their formal kick-off with all the pomp, circumstance, unintentional humor and touching moments that have been a staple of the Games’ opening ceremonies in the modern era. Even Pita Taufatofua was there — once again bare-chested, oiled up and ready to lead his home nation of Tonga to Olympic glory.
For those who somehow don’t remember Pita Taufatofua, he is a Tongan judo competitor who stole the show at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics as his nation’s incredibly fit and grass skirt-wearing flag bearer. Taufatofua went on to train in cross-country skiing, qualified for that national team and returned to his flag-bearing duties in the 2018 PyeongChang Games — still shirtless, still oiled up, still in a grass skirt, then in sub-zero weather. Although he’s never won a medal and isn’t expected to do so in 2021, he does prove to the world that there is more than one way to be an Olympic champion.
That kind of outside-the-box thinking may prove to be a killer asset in 2021, as it will in many ways be a very different Olympics. The opening ceremonies, as majestic as they were, played to a largely empty house due to COVID-19 concerns. The opening ceremonies won’t be the only thing lacking a live audience this year — all of the events will also be sans crowds.
As the saying goes, the show must go on — and different doesn’t necessarily mean bad, as experts forecast that with the addition of live casts streaming highlights alongside the regular TV broadcasts, a lot of people all over the world will still see the Games.
“I think we could see that its reach across all platforms is bigger than any Olympics that came before,” said Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive turned media consultant.
New Sports Striding to Center Stage This Year
Adding new events to the Games is something of an Olympic tradition: Since 1980, more than 100 events have been added, usually at the request of each host city.
This year is no different. In 2021, five new sports will debut: rock climbing, surfing, karate, 3×3 basketball and skateboarding.
The new events have generated various amounts of excitement from the athletes who will be part of their sports’ Olympic debut. A 12-time X Games champion, 26-year-old Nyjah Huston, headlines Team USA’s first Olympic skateboarding squad. He reports dreaming since childhood of being able to go for the gold in front of a global audience, and a full willingness to “put it all on the line.”
U.S. women’s karate representative Sakura Kokumai, on the other hand, said she never imagined she would be competing at the Olympics. “We never trained to become Olympians,” Kokumai noted in an interview. “We just did it purely out of the love for the sport.”
The IOC has dubbed this year’s expansion “the most comprehensive evolution” in the history of the Olympics, noting that this year’s additions were chosen specifically to appeal to younger Olympic viewers worldwide, And so far, it seems to have worked: The new events have garnered plenty of international discussion across social media.
Maybe not as much as breakdancing did when it was added to the Olympics in 1997, but close.
The Norwegian Team’s Battle With Bikini Bottoms
Every Olympics needs a controversy, and the Norwegian women’s handball team will be this year’s gold medal winner for creating one — but for a reason that, curiously, seems non-controversial. The team insisted on wearing shorts to compete in their beach-based event, on the sound argument that wearing a rather skimpy bikini bottom added nothing to their ability to play the sport.
Unfortunately, that decision meant that they rejected Olympic regulation uniforms, which, for this sport, require players to compete in a sports bra-style top and bikini bottoms. As a result, the team was fined $1,770 for competing in “improper clothing.”
The issue seems unique to handball: The International Volleyball Federation updated its own rules in 2012, and athletes competing in the sport at this month’s Olympics in Tokyo can choose to play in bikinis or one-piece bathing suits or shorts and T-shirts. Norway’s Handball Federation has been campaigning to change the IHF uniform since 2006, but thus far has made little progress. Adding to the awkwardness is the fact that the men’s beach handball team competes in shorts and T-shirts.
The GOAT Emoji
Simone Biles is widely expected to walk away with gold in women’s gymnastics, and quite a lot of it. Although her performances may inspire a debate as to whether she really is the greatest of all time, or just the greatest gymnast of her generation, Twitter has already made its position known.
The social media site has made Simone Biles the first and only female Olympian in history with her own hashtag and emoji. Her image? A goat, of course, wearing a sparkly red gymnastic leotard and doing a very Biles-like aerial split. Tweet #SimoneBiles or even #Simone, the emoji will pop up. Twitter confirms the emoji is meant to recognize Biles’ “legacy, achievements and epic usage of the platform.”
She tweets a lot — and over the first six months of this year, Biles was the second-most talked about Olympic athlete on the platform, according to Twitter, behind Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee.
That’s because even a global pandemic can’t keep the GOAT down — or the Olympics that she is about to dominate with the arsenal of gymnastics skills she invented.