Looking back at the top defining moments of the Tokyo Olympic Games

U.S. gymnast Suni Lee jumps into the air during the all-around competition.
U.S. gymnast Suni Lee competes in floor exercise during the women’s all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Tokyo Olympics will be remembered primarily for what was here — the pandemic, which forced everyone involved into a strict regimen of mask-wearing, COVID-19 testing and social distancing — and for what wasn’t here, mainly fans and tourists.

But beyond that there was competition, much of it fierce, and incredible performances, all of them memorable. Here are the six moments you won’t forget.


Japan’s first gold medal

Naohisa Takato of Japan celebrates after defeating Yung Wei Yang of Taiwan for gold in judo.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

These Olympics went forward during a state of emergency in Tokyo, where the vast majority of people wanted the event canceled. So Naohisa Takato’s victory in men’s lightweight judo at the historic Nippon Budokan the day after the opening ceremony was not only Japan’s first gold of these Games, it was like a salve for a wounded country, lifting spirits at a time when they needed a boost. Japan would go on to win 58 medals, 27 of them gold, by far the country’s biggest haul in a single Olympics.



Alaskan wins gold in swimming

U.S. swimmer Lydia Jacoby reacts after winning gold in the women's 100-meter breaststroke at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Speaking of first golds, the first win for the powerful U.S. swim team in Tokyo didn’t go to a household name or a world record-holder but rather to 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby, the first Olympic swimmer from the state of Alaska. Jacoby, who is about to start her senior year in high school, won the 100-meter breaststroke and later captured a silver in the 4x100 medley relay, giving her two of the 30 medals the U.S. won in the pool.


Suni Lee wins all-around title

U.S. gymnast Suni Lee picks up her gold medal while standing on the podium after the women's all-around final.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When Suni Lee first showed interest in gymnastics, her father, John, built her a wooden balance beam in the family’s backyard in St. Paul, Minn., because they couldn’t afford to buy one. He’d always given her a pre-competition pep talk, and she vividly imagined how he’d join her someday to celebrate an Olympic triumph. But when she won gold in women’s all-around here, becoming the first Hmong American to win an Olympic medal, she celebrated alone since COVID-19 forced her family to watch the competition on TV from Minnesota.


Amazing men’s 400-meter hurdle race

Norway's Karsten Warholm reacts after winning the men's 400-meter hurdles in a world-record time.
(Petr David Josek / Associated Press)


It was perhaps one of the greatest races in Olympic history, Karsten Warholm of Norway holding off Rai Benjamin and a blazing field to win the 400-meter hurdles in a world-record 45.94 seconds, breaking his own record by a whopping .76 seconds. Benjamin also beat the former record, finishing in 46.17. It was a Beamonesque performance. “If you would have told me I was going to run 46.1 and lose, I would probably beat you up and tell you to get out of my room,” Benjamin told reporters. Yet that’s exactly what happened.


Tom Daley dives into knitting

British diver Thomas Daley knits before the men's 10-meter platform diving final.
(Clive Rose / Getty Images)

British diver Tom Daley won two medals, gold in the men’s 10-meter synchronized event and bronze in the individual platform. But he went viral for something he did on flat ground, with cameras catching a masked-up Daley in the stands with crochet needles during the women’s 3-meter springboard. Daley was there to support his teammates but it was the pink-and-blue garment he was knitting that got the most attention. Daley was caught knitting several times during the Games. Among the things he created was a small sleeve for his gold medal in the colors of the Union Jack.


True Olympic spirit

U.S. runner Isaiah Jewett and Botswana's Nijel Amos, right, shake hands after falling in the men's 800-meter semifinal.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Isaiah Jewett’s dream of a gold medal ended when he fell during the men’s 800 semifinal. Nijel Amos of Botswana, running behind Jewett, also fell. In an act that embodied the Olympic spirit, Jewett helped Amos to his feet, shook his hand and then draped his arm over his shoulder and the two runners finished the race. Afterward, Jewett said that, like his favorite anime superheroes, he was standing up and showing good character.