Upset! (Day 3, Tokyo 2020)

A practically unheralded no-name upset the world-ranked team. Athletes, multi-world-champions, previous-gold-medalists, who hadn’t been beaten in a long time, were outplayed and out-strategized. Cue the American excitement for our great win… excuse me, did you think this was about Team USA losing?

There’s been a ton of hand wringing at the beginning of the Tokyo Games in the American press. Headlines about being “stunned” and shocked because no U.S. medals were won on Day One, and several of our world’s best teams lost opening rounds and games. It’s especially aggravating when all this flagellation glosses over the outstanding play of everybody else. Plenty of winning has taken place. Plenty of thrilling contests and patriotic tears. Yes, there have been a few big upsets. Let’s embrace All of them.

Presume, Much?

In 1908, the first truly international Olympics in London, American team organizer James Sullivan wanted to know how the British were going to determine the “overall national winner.” Sullivan, head of the US team, devised his own system of assigning points to medals and “went so far as to claim that the British were dreaming up some dastardly counting scheme that would privilege their athletes and ensure the championship…” writes Olympic historian David Golblatt. Because, even in 1908, our obnoxious chauvinistic leaders thought we ought to win everything. That’s when the absurd medal count started.

Here are my predictions for Tokyo 2020:

Team USA will not win all the medals
Team USA will not win all the medals that the media “expects” them to win

The American women lost to Sweden in their first game, looking lethargic and sloppy. Forty-four wins in a row didn’t sharpen their edge much. Katie Ledecky lost in the 400m, despite being featured in so many advertisements! How is that possible, that the second-best swimmer in the event in the world, a person who nearly beat Ledecky’s four-year-old world record in the Australian Trials last month, did actually beat the American now? Aussie Ariarne Titmus was excited, though American eyeballs were rolling back in their head.

Ariarne Titmus excited to win a gold in women’s 400m. Photo from Yahoo News.

Skateboard Nyjah Houston, who supposedly wins 54% of the contests that he enters, didn’t medal. At all. My skateboarder son told me 8 years ago that Houston is a poser, so I apologize, but I was brimming with schadenfreude. My son doesn’t like American bronze-medalist Jagger Eaton either and said the right guy, Japan’s Horigome, won the gold. So there you have it, from the expert dude.

The American men’s basketball team lost to France. You mean, they can’t just play like in their All Star Game, simply allowing each other to take turns dunking? They actually have to play defense? France’s Rudy Gobert, by the way, was the American NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year.

In the Mixed Gender archery team competition, the Americans were seeded 2nd after their opening round. They promptly lost to the lowly 15th-seeded Indonesians, as the Indonesians beat the pants off them. World champion Brady Ellison and top-ranked MacKenzie Brown were not at their best.

There were two curious side notes. Both, as it happened, are unvaccinated. Brown complained later about the lack of spectators and the lack of cheering, as apparently archery normally attracts huge crowds, and she felt lonely. Interestingly enough, there were large cheering sections for the South Koreans, who are outstanding archers and continued their excellence in the sport. Seemed to be enough cheering for the American swimmers poolside, too. If you’re there just for the cheering, maybe it’s time to go back to Texas.

Besides, putting these huge expectations on athletes is absurd. It’s undue pressure on people who have enough pressure as it is. Do we have to start out the American gymnastic team competition by wondering how many records Simone Biles will break? Can we not just let them all compete? It also doesn’t give others enough credit. Sweden and France played quite well, thank you very much. Kudos to Ariarne Titmus.

It is definitely embarrassing–not to lose, though. It’s embarrassing to act like such a bully when we have the biggest team, the most resources, all the TV feed. We fielded a team of 613 athletes. The next largest team (Japan) has 556, followed by China (406), France (398), and Great Britain (376). Here are two more predictions.

Team USA will win the most medals. Japan will win the second most.

I could be wrong. There is a host country boost, and Japan has excellent judokas, wrestlers, and gymnasts. They could get the most medals. The world would not stop turning on its axis.

An ecstatic Horigome Yuto keeps his balance in the first Olympic Men’s Skateboarding event. Photo by AP.

Emotions Run High

The Japanese already ollied and kick-flipped their way to three medals in skateboarding, which was invented in California. Were these upsets? The youngsters were certainly emotional about these historic wins, as the first medalists in the new Olympic sport. Horigome Yuto took the first for the men with his beautifully-executed nollie 270 noseslide. There was a little dabbing at the eyes.

When 13-year-old Nishiya Momiji took the gold on the women’s side, there was more dabbing. A middle-aged Japanese woman on the sidelines was copiously wiping at her eyes with a napkin. Mom, perhaps?

When all the obsession from our media, through which these Games are filtered, is on whether our giant, over-hyped team wins or not, we miss the breadth of excitement and emotion displayed by the other 19,400 athletes. I spent an afternoon watching the 46kg women’s and 60kg men’s semifinal and medal round judo matches. One after the other was well-contested, several going into “over-time,” i.e. Golden Score. (By the way, banging a huge gong instead of a buzzer when time runs out ought to happen in more sports.)

Judoka Luka Mkheidze of France continues France’s judo legacy. Photo by

One after the other was topped by an athlete thrilled to have achieved his or her dream. Every medal winner broke out in tears. It was far more satisfying to be repeatedly excited on behalf of the winners, than to be whining about Team USA losses. I highly recommend a sojourn over to other sports where expectations don’t run so high, at least for athletes that don’t star in all the advertisements. Make no mistake, I am a huge Ledecky/Biles/USA fan. But let’s just let them compete and do their best. I actually plan to watch a lot of handball. One more prediction.

Team USA will not win a medal in handball. (The U.S. doesn’t have a handball team).

There Will Be Firsts

Did you know Kosovo won its first medal in judo? Distria Krasniqi took the gold. Ukraine’s Daria Bilodid held off Israel’s Shira Rishony. Mongolia’s Urantsetseg Munkhbat beat Portugal’s Catarina Costa. These are not giant names, not big countries. Israel, Mongolia, Portugal, Kosovo. Proud places. Tough places to live sometimes, compared to where most of us live. What does it take to train in Mongolia? How are they faring in the pandemic? Will there be billboards in Ulaan Baatar with Munkhbat’s face on it? I hope so.

The Ukraine isn’t a small country, and Bilodid was notable when, at 17, she was the youngest judoka world champion. But she had to wait years to get to Tokyo and was upset in the semifinals. Yet, she fought back to win in her bronze medal match, and her reaction was heartfelt. She’s coached by her dad, another former athlete. The hugs were long held.

Daria Bilodid of Ukraine reacts after winning bronze REUTERS/Sergio Perez

These were the first skateboarding medals and the first in mixed-team archery. Congratulations to the winners! Well-played and well-deserved.

Plus, there was a huge first. Since 1924, women have competed in the fencing foil. The gold had never been won by a non-European. Until now.

Anatomy of an Upset

This is what an upset looks like. The #1 seed, the previous gold medalist and previous-previous silver medalist, who has won the last three world championships and comes from a country that wins everything in this event … faces off against an athlete who is well-ranked but seeded fifth, who comes from a country that couldn’t care less about this sport and who has never heard her name. The #5 competes at the top of her game and, in a thrilling, back and forth duel–literally a duel because it was in Fencing!–ekes out an unbelievable victory. Hooray!

No American woman had won a medal in foil. No American had won a gold in foil. No non-European had won a gold in foil. Lee Kiefer pulled off the unthinkable against the fantastic non-Russian Russian, Inna Deriglazova. Team Russia isn’t technically allowed in the Olympics due to their massive state-sponsored doping campaign. Thus, all the 328 Russian athletes have to be called Russian Olympic Committee athletes instead. When they fence, they don’t get to wear a flag on their helmet. However, you know who they are in fencing because they’re the ones who keep winning.

Lee Kiefer trying to get inside the guard of the formidable Inna Deriglazova. Photo at Zimbio.

Where does Lee Kiefer’s win rank for The New York Times? Not at all. Forty-five listed Olympic stories and none about Kiefer. In looking up the beautiful photo above taken by Matthias Hangst, I had to sift through photo after photo of the U.S. losing their basketball game. It really is upsetting.

Kiefer’s husband fences on the men’s team, so that’s an interesting future story. Her father, sister, and brother fenced. Surely, there were high family expectations. She put her medical studies on hold to fence, practicing in the basement through the lockdown. When she won, and her coach ran up to embrace her in tears, she couldn’t believe it, “What just happened?”

The bronze medal went to another non-Russian Russian, Larisa Korobeynikova. She beat Alice Volpi of Italy, who happens to be world-ranked #4 to Korobeynikova’s #19. Add that up.

Lady K (which is easier to type) is #19, far below her celebrated #1 teammate, Lady D. How many times to you suppose that Russian Lady D beat Russian Lady K in practice? She probably lost a lot. So, yeah, Lady K didn’t win a gold or silver, but she came from behind to upset the Italian Volpi, and the Italians were the people that the Russians hired to teach them sword technique back in the 19th century. Look up the name Valentina Vezzali.

When Korobeynikova took her final point, she sobbed like a baby. It was fantastic!

Want to read more about South Korean archers or why the French like judo? Click here.

8 Replies to “Upset! (Day 3, Tokyo 2020)”

  1. Fab article, and I love your blog, thanks so much. I am a huge Olympics geek and have been setting my alarm for 3am to watch events live, I’m also a big handball fan. On a personal level one of my friends (along with one of my past-pupils!) is on Ireland’s Rugby 7s team. I’m slightly in love with Irish-Latvian rower Sanita Pušpure and her hybrid accent. It’s glorious so far and the athletics hasn’t even started.

    1. What do you think I should follow in handball on the women’s side? Plus now I have to watch Ireland play (I think I have that teed up, so good) and go look up the Irish Latvian rower. The Games are the biggest peacetime event across humanity, so no wonder so much to see and debate. Thanks for your comment, and that won’t be the last blog I write before this is done.

      1. Like fencing, handball is still very much a European affair. It’s huge in the Nordic countries, Russia, France and the Netherlands. I have family in the Netherlands so I’m cheering for them, but if I had to put money on a winner I’d pick Sweden.

  2. Not to be pedantic – but the USA Men’s basketball team had the 24 game winning streak broken – The Women’s USA Soccer team had a 44 game winning streak broken by Sweden – not 24.

    1. Y’know, the guy on TV said 44, but I swear I looked it up on Saturday, and it was written as 24… although of course now, everywhere it says 44. I must have seen it wrong or women’s footie had some other 24-game streak. So I stand corrected and the blog is now corrected because that’s not pedantic to clarify, that’s just getting it right, which I should do. Thank you for pointing that out.

  3. I love watching the non-American sports. Do people know what an upset it was that Japan’s mixed doubles table tennis beat China for the gold?
    Now watching archery…..agree about that mixed double match against Korea.

    1. Holy cow! I hadn’t caught that. Add to the stack. I liked watching the Mexican team that won the bronze in archery.

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