The year was 1896. The Olympics—a festival of virility—had returned. Men from across nations lined up to prove their athletic prowess; women, though, were made to sit this one out. “It was for their own good,” said men with twirly moustaches and inflated egos.
Testosterone triumphalism was in vogue, and oestrogen could only lend polite applause. “The common wisdom held that a woman was not physiologically capable of running mile after mile; that she wouldn’t be able to bear children; that her uterus would fall out; that she might grow a moustache; that she was a man, or wanted to be one,” read a 1996 The New York Times article recapping those days.
A century and a quarter later, a Jamaican lady will take to the track in her quest to become the fastest woman ever—nearly four years after having become a mother to little Zyon. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, fondly called ‘Mommy Rocket’, covered 100m in 10.63s this June in Kingston. This made her the fastest woman alive; Florence Griffith Joyner (Flo-Jo) is the fastest of all time, clocking in at 10.49s in 1988 (she died in 1998).
“Pregnancy was the last thing on my mind,” Fraser-Pryce recalled in a BBC interview. “A couple of tests later, I found out I was pregnant. I was shocked because I was thinking I had to finish track and field before I could start a family.”
Following a victorious return to the track at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, she told Olympic Channel: “Motherhood does not stop us from achieving our goals. If anything, it adds value to who we are. And knowing that we can create a human being and come back and be able to get the ball rolling and still be a tough mum was just awesome.”
Fraser-Pryce is one of the most decorated runners of all time, having been on the Olympic podium six times. She won the 100m gold at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, and a bronze in 2016 Rio. She also won silver in the 200m and 4x100m relay in London, and in the 4x100m relay in Rio. She also has nine golds and two silvers from the World Championships.
If she grabs gold in Tokyo, Fraser-Pryce, at 34, would become the oldest athlete to win the individual Olympic 100m dash. A task made a little easier by the absence of American Sha’Carri Richardson—a favourite in the race—who was banned for a month for smoking weed. The women’s 100m this time is more exciting than the men’s. While there will be hype to find out who Usain Bolt’s successor will be, the names in the mix are not household ones. Among the women, though, there is the Jamaican trio of Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson-Herah (the defending champion) and Shericka Jackson, as well as Britain’s Dina-Asher Smith.
That Fraser-Pryce also hit her personal best in 200m in June—21.79s—makes her outing in Tokyo all the more exciting. For, in that race, she will meet Harvard graduate and epidemiology student Gabby Thomas, who recently did in 200m what Fraser-Pryce did it 100m—registering the fastest time in the discipline, just behind Flo-Jo. At the US Olympic trials, Thomas—who recently found a benign tumour on her liver—outdid herself thrice in three days, crossing the finish line in 21.61s in the final. Flo-Jo’s record of 21.34s looks fragile, especially as Thomas started celebrating 5m before the finish, which means she can go faster.
There was another story unfolding in that race. The veteran Allyson Felix finished fifth and failed to qualify for Tokyo in 200m. The former gold-medallist in the half-track dash at London 2012 will, however, compete in 400m and 4x400m relay in Japan. Also, a mother, the 35-year-old Felix is just one medal away from being the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history. She currently has nine, including six golds, and could join Carl Lewis as the most decorated Olympic US track and field athlete of all time.
Felix had, in 2018, undergone emergency C-section forced by pre-eclampsia and delivered daughter, Camryn. The more vocal of the track mothers, Felix called out her sponsor Nike for refusing to promise that she would not be penalised for not being at her peak in the months surrounding childbirth. She has since switched sponsors.
Felix has also testified before Congress on the racial disparities in the maternal health care system. “You need to make sure you don’t say too much,” she recently told TIME. “It has to be this pretty, pretty package. That’s always been in the back of my head. And that’s not real.”
Felix and Fraser-Pryce will run into the sunset in Tokyo. They might compete in other events, but their Olympic chapter will end in 2021. And the mommies would want to put their feet on the podium before they put their feet up.
Simone Biles, though, is not done writing her book. In fact, she is red-pencilling the history books with every leap and landing. Fearless and peerless, the four-foot-eight gymnastic powerhouse is—and it might sound hyperbolic—competing only with herself. Biles has won every all-around national, world and Olympic competition she has entered since 2013. She also has four gymnastics skills named after her, and will likely add a fifth in Tokyo.
There has been speculation that judges underscored Biles’s outrageous Yurchenko double pike vault at the US Classic in May—she was the first woman to do it in competition—to dissuade other gymnasts from trying it.
As of now, Biles has four Olympic golds and one bronze. A bronze that disappointed many. She has, overall, won 25 World Championships medals, including 19 golds. She has the chance to be the first woman in half a century to successfully defend the all-around title at the Olympics—Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia was the last.
But Biles’s story is not confined to what she does in competition. Hers is a story made for Oscar-winning biopics. From having spent her early years with a mother battling alcoholism to being put in a foster home to being adopted by her grandparents, Biles has had, to put it delicately, a tumultuous life. In her autobiography, Courage to Soar, she says: “I don’t recall much about living with Shanon (birth mother), but for some weird reason I do remember playing with a cat… this cat was always being fed—and at that time, we were hungry a lot, so I was always kind of mad at this cat…. I can still see us pouring dry cereal into our bowls and then putting water on it because we didn’t have any milk.”
Having found gymnastics, life got better. But then came #MeToo and Biles put out a post claiming that she, too, had been sexually abused by the US gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. He was accused of sexually abusing more than 140 women during his stint and was later sentenced to jail in 2018.
It is from this cauldron that Biles emerges in Tokyo. And she will not be denied.
Neither will her compatriot Katie Ledecky. The swimming phenom had quite a different first few years on earth compared with Biles. The tight knit Ledecky clan was always a pillar of support; uncle Jon co-owning the hockey team Washington Capitals meant that, as a child, she sat in the owner’s box with basketball legend Michael Jordan during a match.
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Ledecky is arguably the best freestyle swimmer in the world; she has won 15 World Championship golds and has set 14 world records. She won her first Olympic gold in 2012 London at the age of 15. She defended that 800m freestyle title at 2016 Rio four years later, creating a world record of 8:04.79 and beating the rest of the field by more than 11 seconds. She also struck gold at Rio in 200m, 400m and 4x200m relay; there was a silver in the 4x100m relay.
“Katie does not have all the tools that some others have when it comes to technique,” Rowdy Gaines, who won three golds at the 1984 Olympics, told New York Post. “What she does have is an incredible feel for the water, from her fingertips to her elbow, and uses that as a paddle, which others cannot tap into. She was built to be one with the water where others are adapting to be in the water.”
The pandemic has forced Ledecky to stay away from her folks for over a year; she FaceTimes them twice or thrice a day, but their absence in Tokyo will lessen the sweetness of any medal she wins. The virus has also made another one of her tasks difficult. A long-time fan of American singer Bruce Springsteen, Ledekcy is hoping to meet his daughter, Jessica, who has qualified for the Olympics in equestrian. Covid-19 protocols may not let that happen.
If all goes to plan, though, she could be the most decorated Olympian at the Tokyo Games, perhaps alongside Biles. But there is a 20-year-old Australian creating ripples in the pool. Ariarne ‘The Terminator’ Titmus defeated Ledecky in 400m at the 2019 World Championships. Ledecky withdrew from the 200m and 1,500m races citing medical reasons.
Many analysts are backing the Aussie to dethrone the American in the 200m and 400m races, especially as Ledecky was quite slower than her best in the latter event at the US Olympic trials. Titmus, in her trials, nearly broke Ledecky’s world record. Nerves may decide the outcome; it is, after all, Titmus’s Olympic debut.
Speaking of debuts, the sports making their first appearance at the Games also have some champion women on display. First up, sport climbing. The event has three disciplines—bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing—and the combined results will determine the medallists. Slovenian Janja Garnbret is widely seen as the frontrunner, though she has competition from Natalia Grossman of the US.
Garnbret has had a whopping 46 World Cup podium finishes, and wants to take the increasingly popular sport to, well, new heights. “I think it (Olympics) will be really beneficial to climbing because [it] is still a young sport,” she told CNN in June. “It’s definitely a huge playground for everyone, for sponsors, for some non-endemic sponsors that are still yet to come into our sport.”
Garnbret has said that she feels responsible for her sport; a sentiment the other women representing the first-time sports would share. Or, for that matter, girls. Sky Brown, 13, is set to become Britain’s youngest Olympian in Tokyo. Skateboarding legend Tony Hawk described her thus: “She could definitely be one of the best female skaters ever, if not one of the best, well-rounded skaters ever, regardless of gender.”
Last year, Brown fell from a 4.5m ramp, fractured her skull, broke her left arm and hand, and had lacerations to her heart and lungs. She was back in action two months later.
But Brown’s influence extends beyond the skate park. She has appeared in an ad campaign alongside Serena Williams and Biles, has won the reality show Dancing With the Stars: Juniors and has a Barbie doll in her likeness.
The Japan-born Brown competes in the park event, and is ranked third in the world going into Tokyo. Number one is Japanese skateboarder Misugu Okamoto. She is 15. Rayssa Leal, ranked second in the world in street, is 13. Skateboarding has for long been an anti-establishment sport and its fans are divided over it going mainstream. However, if the sport is to pull in viewers in Tokyo, it would likely be because of the precocious young girls who will likely steal the spotlight from their older male counterparts.
If a team of teens is trying to put the sport on the global stage, then two much more established teams are looking to extend their streak of domination. The US women’s football team was shown the door after a penalty shootout against Sweden in the quarterfinals in Rio in 2016. It was a shocking result, given that the American women had won four of the previous five golds at the Olympics. However, the team bounced back to win the 2019 World Cup, which it had also won in 2015. The most successful team in women’s football history will be looking to right a wrong in Tokyo. It will also look to become the first women’s football team to follow up a World Cup win with an Olympic gold.
This will also likely be the last Olympics for at least two of the greats of the US team—Carli Lloyd (39) and Megan Rapinoe (36). Lloyd is America’s oldest women’s football Olympian ever; the midfielder-turned-forward also scored a hat-trick in the 2015 World Cup final against Japan.
But this Olympics will be special for another reason. Lloyd had fallen out with her family—parents, sister and brother—at the time she first became famous. According to The Washington Post, “Her parents were not invited to her wedding; she didn’t attend her sister’s. She was not immediately told of her father’s heart surgery.” But the pandemic gave Lloyd time to speculate. Slowly, they reconciled. “I feel whole again,” said Lloyd.
Rapinoe, too, took a big life decision under lockdown. Last fall, she proposed to girlfriend and basketball legend Sue Bird. They had met in the run-up to 2016 Rio and started dating soon after.
After being part of a US women’s football team that, for the first time, failed to win a medal at the Olympics, Rapinoe had a rocky time professionally. Her support for causes off the pitch—she was the first white American athlete to take a knee during the US national anthem—also had its repercussions, and she credits Bird for providing back-up.
The veteran was player of the match in the 2019 World Cup final against the Netherlands. She also famously refused to go to the White House while Donald Trump was president; she did go earlier this year to meet President Joe Biden.
Now older, the midfielder has been working harder on her fitness, and has been training with Bird. “We have quite a bit of overlap,” Rapinoe told InStyle in mid-June. “Even though we play different sports, I think especially as a little bit older athletes, you know, we have some of the same ailments—the lower back hip thing. It’s just nice to have a workout buddy, to break things up.”
Bird, too, is looking to make history. Or make further history. The US women’s basketball team has won six consecutive Olympic golds. Bird herself has four of these. “She’s a life point guard,” said Olympic teammate-turned-coach Dawn Staley. “She gives assists to justice causes; she gives a voice to women who are underpaid and underappreciated. She’s unapologetic and unafraid. Once a point guard, always a point guard. That’s her legacy.”
But Bird, the Women’s National Basketball Association’s all-time leader in assists, knows that a gold is not a foregone conclusion. The team recently lost back-to-back matches to the WNBA All-Stars and Australia. Spain, too, has grown into a legitimate threat over the years, and that is good for the game.
The US team has won eight of the last 11 World Cups, and 10 overall. In what could be her last Olympic appearance, the 40-year-old would want to extend that streak alongside fellow veterans Diana Taurasi and Sylvia Fowles, and the talented Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson. There is pressure, but also confidence.
Perhaps no other athlete at Tokyo feels pressure as much as Naomi Osaka. The four-time Grand Slam winner—the highest-paid female athlete in a year, ever—has arguably been the most talked-about athlete going into Tokyo, mostly for her life off the court.
She was criticised for not speaking at a press conference at this year’s French Open; she withdrew from the tournament citing mental health reasons. She also skipped Wimbledon a few weeks later. The introverted athlete has, in some ways, been forced to be the face of mental health and sports, and she has been open about suffering long bouts of depression.
Osaka, 23, was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, was raised in the US, and renounced US citizenship for a Japanese one in 2019. She wanted to represent her nation of birth at the Olympics; there was backlash. “So, I don’t choose America and suddenly people are like, ‘Your black card is revoked’,” she said in a new Netflix documentary on her. “And it’s like, African American isn’t the only black, you know? I don’t know, I feel like people really don’t know the difference between nationality and race because there’s a lot of black people in Brazil, but they’re Brazilian.”
There are a few people in Japan, too, who are not completely on board with Osaka. A half-Japanese, or hafu, Osaka has not spent a lot of time in Japan since she was three. Being biracial, she does not fit into set notions of what a Japanese star should be. And that she is vocal about movements like Black Lives Matter is hard to digest for some who have been brought up in a racially homogenous country.
None of this, however, should take away attention from her game. Going into Tokyo, Osaka is ranked number two among women, has won the two Grand Slams before the 2021 French Open and is known to be strong on the hard-court, which will be used at the Olympics. “I could not be more excited to play in Tokyo,” she wrote in a recent TIME article. “An Olympic Games itself is special, but to have the opportunity to play in front of Japanese fans is a dream come true. I hope I can make them proud.”
If any colour is to be talked about with regards to Osaka in Tokyo, fans of the sport would hope it is gold.