Dina Asher-Smith fell during her qualifier, Simone Biles pulled out of multiple events and Keely Hodgkinson self-funded her Olympic dream. Yet all of these women went on to win medals, showing the true message of Tokyo 2020 is coming back from failure.
Dina Asher-Smith just helped her team break the British record in the 4X100m relay. They ran the fastest heat ever seen at the Olympics – in just 41.55 seconds – in an incredible display of speed to make it to Friday’s final. Yet, just days before Asher-Smith had failed to make the 100m finals, and withdrew from the 200m race, due to a hamstring injury.
“There was never any doubt in my mind that I’d be lining up here today,” Asher-Smith told BBC Sport after the relay. “I knew I had to rest up and get ready for the team event. I’ve been training hard to get ready.”
This is a story of a miraculous comeback from the world’s greatest athlete. While this would usually be a unique show of sportsmanship, it’s actually been a common theme throughout Tokyo 2020. It seems that every time an athlete takes a medal, there’s a story: they’ve come back from a fall, they had a frustrating qualifier, they nearly didn’t make it.
There was Simone Biles, who slipped on the vault during the women’s team qualifiers due to ‘the twisties’ - a phenomenon in gymnastics that means losing your sense of space, direction or awareness when in the air. She withdrew from the women’s team final as well as the individual floor, bars and vault finals. Just a week after that first tumble, she was back on beam - and winning medals. “She wanted to prove that problems can be surmounted,” said BBC commentator Christine Still as Biles walked off from her routine of free walkovers and split jumps.
Team GB’s Charlotte Worthington became the first ever woman to land a 360 backflip and took gold in the BMX final. On her first attempt, she failed, falling down the ramp. Dutch runner Sifan Hassan also fell during the 1,500 metre qualifiers, yet still managed to win her heat and go on to win the 5,000 metre final the next day. Biles’ teammate Jade Carey stumbled during her vault final on Saturday, ending the day in tears, yet somehow pulled it together to take on – and win gold – in her floor routine just 24 hours later.
Even in those who have sailed through their heats and smashed world records seemingly without breaking a sweat, their journey to the games have been full of adversity. Helen Glover admitted she nearly quit rowing due to the demands of childcare during lockdown. Bethany Shriever and Keely Hodgkinson had to pay for themselves to get to Tokyo through part time work and crowdfunding. All women won medals.
What is it about 2020 that has made sheer resilience the only acceptable attitude? Perhaps it’s simply down to getting through the last 18 months. Not only did Olympians have to deal with the games being pushed back, messing up the timelines of their peak condition, but many had to train from home without their perfectly curated conditions or the watchful eye of their coach. Maybe this set them up to have more autonomy, to make decisions they’d never consider making, to throw out the rule book.
While it seems the athletes will do anything to win, it’s not at the risk of other competitors. Their resilience isn’t tainted with sly undertones or self-focused drive. Rather, the Olympics feel like more of a display of community than ever before. We’ve seen men share medals, heard people clap for the competition louder than ever before, and we’ve seen people quit - a previously unthinkable move from the best athletes in the world.
If there’s a lesson to come from Tokyo 2020, it’s not that athletes are successful because they can tune out the bad stuff. It’s that they can acknowledge it, learn from it and carry on anyway. While most of us won’t face the mental turmoil of falling during a competition and then having to take the stage again, we will at some point face a failure that we need to come back from. Olympians have taught us the way to do that is to look it straight in the eye and carry on.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).