From Simone Biles to Hidilyn Diaz: How the Tokyo Olympics Changed the Game

Aug 10, 2021 0 comments


I believe that people watch sports because of three reasons: a) they grew up in a household that tuned into ESPN 24/7, b) they aspire to be as good as their favorite players, and c) for pure entertainment.

The last time I was ever hooked on the Olympics was in 2008. With the eyes of an eight-year-old dilated in awe, I watched as a female Chinese gymnast did a beam routine in her home court. My dad said she would win because eight is a lucky number. She didn’t and without that connection between my own superstitions and sports, I just couldn’t relate. That’s why I didn’t get caught up in London or Rio. Athletes are superhumans to me and I didn’t need a reminder that I probably won’t ever be as strong, fast, or high as them even before their peak.

This time around, I found every reason to have NBC Olympics playing in the background as I worked from home. I don’t think anyone ever watches sports events because they think an athlete is making a political statement or that they symbolize standing up for oneself. What started out as a curious bout on who will top this year’s artistic gymnastics events led to learning what goes on whenever the torch’s flames are out.

This year’s Tokyo Olympics has gone down in history not only for record-breaking feats, but most especially for giving the world another platform to take a stance about issues that transcend an athlete’s physical strains.

Advocating for Mental Health

Early into the two-week affair, Simone Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast of our time, pulled out of her meets due to her mental health. The audience was divided – half applauded her courage to take the road less traveled while the other half, most of them from her own countrymen, called her a coward.


Her last appearance was on the beam, where she snagged bronze trailing Tang and Guan from China, who won silver and gold respectively. After her battle with critics, more people exposed the often silenced side of sports. Demanding training schedules leave athletes barely enough time to be with their loved ones, much less to pay attention to their emotions.


But Simone showed – as she has already done after speaking up about the sexual abuse she and her teammates experienced with their doctor – that no medal is worth trading her own wellbeing and value for. From her conviction, we saw more of them smashing archaic ideals. 


The Possibility of A More Accepting Audience

Laurel Hubbard’s entry to the +87kg weightlifting competition sparked yet another controversy. She is the first transgender woman to enter the Olympic games. Though she missed a podium finish, her legacy is defined by initiating the conversation on equality in the athletics realm.

Our generation has seen progress in society’s approach to the LGBTQIA+ community, including same-sex marriages and gender neutral bathrooms, but it is far from enough. Even farther in a heteronormative atmosphere, where aside from skills, one’s gender dictates where one belongs.

We’re lucky that in this dialogue, the Philippines’ bets further articulated the claim that gender stereotypes do not and should not have a place in the sporting arena. With Nesthy Petecio, Margielyn Didal, and Carlos Yulo’s impressive performances, we are beginning to see the possibility of halting the labels we put on each sport. No more forcing boys to get into basketball or glaring with disgust at women with packed biceps. After all, the strength of an athlete is determined by discipline and passion, not the disadvantages nor the privileges they are born with.

Truce Between Two Nations

Though passion is essential, it has formed rivalries, and sports has seen them all. From Ateneo vs. DLSU to Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, the tension among the players and fans can give rise to boiling tempers. But on August 2, two high jumpers shared the first spot in their event and embodied the spirit of friendly competition.


Mutaz Barshim from Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy exemplified what sportsmanship truly is about; that it’s not just a handshake you give out at the end of a game, but a genuine acknowledgment of the opponent’s deserving talent. Other players were also spotted embracing each other and clapping for other countries regardless of the result, showing that even the most heated games must end in fairness and gaiety.


Playing Without Boundaries 

This year's Summer Olympics may have also lent a louder voice to feminism. Allyson Felix entered her final Olympic run with Saysh, her own shoe brand, after revealing that Nike threatened to cut her pay by 70% while she was pregnant. The 35-year-old sprinter rose above the challenge of 4 am trainings to hide her baby bump, a premature delivery, and the risk of not being able to come back to her sport, by finishing her Tokyo stint with her 11th Olympic medal.


Women can do great things if they do not always have to choose between their careers and families. To date, she has been hailed the most decorated female track-and-field Olympian, but perhaps her biggest win is proving to the world that not even motherhood could slow her down.


Paying the Price of Pride

Tradition, inspiration, and amusement keep the world’s eyes peeled on the next athletic superstar, but do we ever realize that they can give more than what we are here for? Why choose to play in the face of jeering or public failure? Why weep for a couple of points unearned or a medal from scrap? If winning were their only goal, they would easily have enough of their losses.


Take it from Hidilyn Diaz, the first Filipino to snatch an Olympic gold. She could have given up after Rio, but she carried on without any financial backing from the Philippine government and away from her home. Not many even knew who she was, and isn’t that another sad truth about being an athlete, especially from a place that is not exposed to sports outside what’s mainstream?


People only start to pay attention once you graze the podium, but imagine if we support them from the beginning. We give pressure and ask them to return us with some honor yet provide so little – equipment, encouragement, and empathy. If we only cared even before we see our flag hoisted up the screen, we will see that they shine hope for an entire country, with or without a title. 



Just when I thought I had run out of any compelling rationale to choose to watch sports over another Netflix series, the Tokyo Olympics reminded me that cheering for athletes is more than hoping they qualify for the next round. It means letting them know that their effort, though may sometimes be unrewarded, is not futile.


It means fighting for their own rights and ensuring their dreams do not get left behind. It means understanding that like the rest of us, they are first, human; that they are allowed to pause or establish another career. And that even if these happen before our eyes, we will choose to remember them for how they have ushered fairer play and a better world. 


Also Read: Young Filipino Athletes Everyone Should be on the Lookout For



━━ Written By Melissa Tan 


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