The 2020 Summer Olympics came to a close this weekend after a wild two weeks that followed an even crazier, unprecedented five-year cycle. Now that Tokyo has officially passed the baton to Paris for the 2024 Games, it's time to look back at our biggest takeaways from the 2020 Olympics.
American Women Rule
The 2020 Summer Olympics were all about the women from the United States of America. Thanks to their contributions, the U.S. won not only the overall medal count, but also edged China for the lead in gold medals, 39 to 38. A staggering 58.4 percent of the U.S.'s overall medal haul of a 113 came from female athletes or teams. That's the highest percentage ever.
American men won 41 medals in Tokyo. Six were won in mixed events, while 66 were won by women. It's the fourth Summer Olympics in a row where U.S. women topped the men in the medal count. If the U.S. women were their own country, they would have ranked fourth in total medals, edging Great Britain by one. It's also worth noting that those numbers came with Simone Biles taking herself out of several events she was a gold medal favorite in, so they could have been even higher.
On top of the great medal count, two U.S. women's teams continued their dynasties, as the women's basketball team won its seventh-straight gold medal, while the water polo team won its third consecutive gold. Both qualify as legitimate juggernauts and shouldn't fall off in Paris.
As far as the U.S. is concerned, women rule.
Fans Were Missed
I wasn't sure how I'd react to unfilled stands at the Olympics, and NBC did a solid job avoiding big shots of empty arenas, but still, something felt off. The fact that crowds weren't roaring down the stretch of some races, and that we didn't see camera flashes near the climax of events did leave these games feeling a bit hollow.
Then we get into the idea of whether we should have even had the Games at all. That's a dicey one. I've said from the beginning the Tokyo Olympics should have been pushed to 2022 to have an old school double-Olympic year with the Winter Games in Beijing preceding it. But clearly the people with money on the line didn't want any part of that line of thinking. For the future we now know a crowd is essential for the Olympics to feel like the grand spectacle it should be.
NBC Must Improve Its Broadcasts
NBC's broadcast strategy for the 2020 Summer Olympics was puzzling to say the least. I get that the 13-hour time difference from New York to Japan made things difficult, but the network didn't help itself at all. It was difficult to figure out what would be on when, where to find things being broadcast live vs. on delay, commercial breaks often came at odd times and most of the live men's basketball action was relegated to Peacock. In fact, the only thing that seemed to be broadcast well was swimming, which got the sort of attention it deserves.
For Paris, things have to change. Guides have to be more handy and the network needs to make better use of its sister channels. An idea that was absent from the 2020 Games is some sort of NFL Red Zone-style broadcast that jumps coverage when Americans are in medal events, or at least participating in a competition. If several are on at once, give the audience multiple boxes. It seems something like that would be relatively basic, but NBC hasn't cracked the formula. That needs to change moving forward.
Simone Biles Brought Mental Health Issues to the Forefront
Biles was the story of the 2020 Olympics, but not for the reasons we all expected. Her mental health struggles and battle with the dreaded "twisties" ruined what could have been an amazing close to her gymnastics career. But in talking openly about her issues she created a worldwide conversation about the mental stresses elite athletes face. Even the best can struggle with their mental health.
Michael Phelps has been open about his struggles for years, but Biles being vulnerable on the biggest stage in her sport started a discussion we'll likely be having for years. More dialogue and resources are needed on this topic. Hopefully this is just the beginning of the world's eyes being opened on the subject.
China Continues to Challenge U.S. Medal Supremacy
For much of the 2020 Games it appeared China would win the race for the most gold medals. The U.S. finally nabbed the top spot on the final day thanks to three golds in quick succession -- women's water polo, women's basketball and cyclist Jennifer Valente. The U.S. has won the overall medal table at every Summer Games since 1996, but China beat the Americans for the most gold medals as host during the 2008 Beijing Games. Since then it had been a rout for the U.S.
China has put considerable resources into developing its athletics programs over the past two decades, and the Chinese dominate several sports the U.S. isn't very competitive in. This Olympics, China won seven gold medals each in diving and weightlifting, four in shooting, four in table tennis and two in badminton. That's 26 of the country's 38 Olympic titles.
As usual, the U.S. dominated swimming and track and field, bringing in 56 total medals in the two sports. But some of the nation's former power programs like boxing and diving have fallen back considerably over the years. As China continues to catch up in traditional U.S. power sports like swimming and track, American will need to continue invest in Olympic events that may not be considered mainstream just to keep pace.
Sydney McLaughlin Is a Superstar
If there was one athlete who went from largely unknown to a massive star at these Olympics, it was Sydney McLaughlin. Oh sure, she'd been a rising superstar in track for years, but now the average observer knowns who she is and is fully aware she oozes superstar energy.
McLaughlin scored two gold medals in Tokyo, winning the 400 meter hurdles while smashing her own world record, then running the opening leg on the dominant U.S. women's 4x400 meter relay team. She's an immensely-talented 22-year-old entering her prime and she's got the personality and looks to be marketed heavily. She'll be a huge part of the build up to Paris in 2024 and brands will love her.
Tokyo Was the Best Host it Could Be
While the Olympics themselves have received a fair bit of scorn for even happening during a global pandemic, the host country and city received rave reviews. Everyone I talked to who covered the Games claimed Japan and Tokyo itself did the best it could with an impossible situation. Everything from the food, to the venues, to the volunteers all garnered praise. But the same refrain kept finding its way back to me: it would have been brilliant without COVID.
Tokyo did what it could. The host city was backed into a corner and it almost felt as if the Games were forced on the city and country at a time when no one wanted them. All in all things went off pretty smoothly, and those involved on the ground garnered a lot of respect from attendees.
Cycling Is a Relaxing Watch
Weird confession time: I watched every second of both the men's and women's cycling road races. Yes, I sat through all six-plus hours and 234 kilometers of the men's race and the nearly four hours and 137 km of the women's race. I just couldn't turn the damn thing off.
It felt like one of those Sundays where golf is on in the background and you're kind of doing other things and half-paying attention. Cycling was soothing. I also enjoyed the strategy of when teams decided to go fast, when to pace themselves and who to work with to push for the podium. Both races were mesmerizing and highly-enjoyable. Maybe it's time to get back into watching Tour de France next year.
Caeleb Dressel Lived Up to the Hype
Dressel entered the Olympics as the U.S. male with the most hype around his potential performance. He did not disappoint. The swimming star competed in six events, winning five gold medals. He captured gold in each of his three individual events, and helped the U.S. take gold in two relays it was not favored to win. The only time he didn't capture gold was a fifth-place finish for the U.S. in the 4x100 mixed medley relay where Team USA's roster construction should take the full blame. Even in a disastrous result for the U.S., Dressel was brilliant in his leg of the race.
Perhaps most endearing was Dressel's genuine shock and pure happiness each time he won. He was the favorite to take home gold in each of his individual events, but every time it seemed as if he was the only person in the Tokyo Aquatics Center surprised by the result.
In Dressel's three individual events, he set an Olympic record in the 100 meter freestyle, then set a world record in the 100 meter butterfly and capped it off by setting an Olympic record in the 50 meter freestyle. Along with his teammates he also helped shatter the world record in the men's 4x100 meter medley relay.
Dressel stepped up and answered the challenge every time he entered the pool. The 24-year-old will never be Michael Phelps -- it's simply not a fair standard for anyone to live up to -- but he is America's newest swimming superstar and should remain so at Paris in 2024.
The Sprint to Paris Should Be Fascinating
Paris, you're up next and the Games are coming quickly. After a five-year wait for Tokyo 2020, the French now have just three years before they host the next edition of the Summer Olympics. The five year cycle to Tokyo was tough on everyone, and the three years between now and the Paris Games will be no less difficult, especially for the athletes.
Many gold medal favorites struggled in Tokyo. Athletes usually have four-year plans to peak right around the Olympics. Many were starting to ramp up to that form in 2020 when the world shut down. Having to go through that, only to attempt to reach their peak again in 2021 had to be difficult and some handled it better than others. It was uncharted territory having a five-year Olympic cycle. Now we're headed there again with a three-year sprint to the Games.
There won't be a ton of time to relax for the best of the best. Many will have world championships to prepare for fairly soon, then they must begin the build up to 2024. The Paris Games will be here before we know it. It's a great situation for Olympics junkies but could be rough on some of the world's best athletes. How they train and handle the build up will determine how they perform on the grand stage.