TOKYO: Katie Ledecky got her first gold medal of these Olympics, while Simone Biles pulled out of another event she came into the Games favoured to win.
Ledecky bounced back from losses in her first two events in Tokyo to win the inaugural 1,500m freestyle for women by more than four seconds on Wednesday.
The victory came about after Ledecky finished fifth in the 200m freestyle for her worst finish ever at an Olympics. Ledecky came into the Games with five gold medals but finished second to Australia’s Ariarne Titmus in the 400m free and then failed to medal in the 200m that Titmus also won.
“I think people maybe feel bad for me that I’m not winning everything and whatever, but I want people to be more concerned about other things going on in the world, people that are truly suffering,” Ledecky said. “I’m just proud to bring home a gold medal to Team USA.”
Biles, the American gymnastics superstar, withdrew Thursday’s from the individual all-around competition, a day after she shocked the world by pulling out of the team event.
Olympians past and present flooded the U.S. gymnast with messages of support as the mental health of athletes — and the extra pressures brought by the Covid-19 pandemic — were in sharp focus at the Games.
“The advice I would give is to reach out, to colleagues and friends,” said Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics. “Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability, it’s a badge of honour in a way to want that help.”
The International Olympic Committee admitted “more could be done” around athlete mental health. IOC spokesman Mark Adams said it was a matter the organisation had been working on for some time.
As the US Team adjusted to a Games without Biles, host city Tokyo grappled with a record surge in coronavirus infections. Fears over rising cases cast a shadow over Japan’s on-field performance.
The host nation continued to top the medal standings with 13 golds and 22 in total. China had 12 golds with a total of 27 medals, with the United States in third position on 11 golds and 31 medals in all.
MENTAL HEALTH IN SPOTLIGHT
“Biles will be evaluated to see if she can take part in the individual apparatus competitions,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement on Twitter.
Biles made the decision so she “can focus on her mental health,” the organisation said, adding that it supported her “wholeheartedly”.
“It broke my heart,” US swimmer Michael Phelps told broadcaster NBC. “But also, if you look at it, mental health over the last 18 months, is something that people are talking about.”
Phelps, the greatest swimmer in history and the winner of 23 Olympic gold medals, has publicly discussed his own battle with depression, including contemplating suicide.
The 24-year-old Biles said the pressure of living up to expectations around her quest for a record gold medal had prompted her to drop out of the team competition after receiving a low mark in her opening vault.
Biles is not alone in suffering mental problems, and several athletes have complained of difficulties during coronavirus lockdowns.
On Wednesday, Dutch athletes in quarantine in Tokyo after testing positive revealed they staged a sit-in strike over the harsh conditions, eventually earning the concession of being able to stand at an open window for 15 minutes a day.
“Not having any outside air is so inhuman, and it is mentally super-draining,” said street skateboarder Candy Jacobs, while taekwondo fighter Reshmie Oogink called it “Olympic jail”.
IOC spokesman Adams said support measures included psychologists in the Athletes’ Village and phone helplines.
“That became more urgent obviously with the Covid pandemic, so we’ve been working on that quite a lot,” he said.
JAPAN BATTLES COVID-19, HEAT
The host city recorded 3,177 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, a daily record high for a second straight day as a spike in infections puts pressure on hospitals, and a new state of emergency was expected in three prefectures neighbouring the capital city.
Organisers have reported 169 Covid-19 cases related to the Games, a miniscule number given the tens of thousands of people visiting for the event.
While unprecedented restrictions and spectator bans have kept numbers down in the Olympic village, athletes voiced concerns about the heat on Wednesday.
In baking conditions, Spanish tennis player Paula Badosa retired and left the court in a wheelchair after suffering heatstroke, and Russia’s Daniil Medvedev had breathing problems during his third-round win over Fabio Fognini.
In response to the incidents, organisers said from Thursday matches would not start until 3:00pm to avoid the worst of the Tokyo heat.
Men’s world number one Novak Djokovic moved one step closer to winning the Golden Slam after the Serb beat training partner Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain 6-3, 6-1 to reach the quarter-finals.
Ledecky, who won four gold medals at the Rio 2016 Games, lost her 200m freestyle crown to Titmus but regrouped to annihilate the field in the first women’s 1500m held at an Olympics, finishing more than four seconds clear of US team-mate Erica Sullivan.
Ledecky, 24, is just the fourth female swimmer to claim six Olympic gold medals. However Titmus, nicknamed “Terminator”, is emerging as one of the stars at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.
“I’m just from a small town in Tasmania and it just goes to show if you believe you can do something, you can 100% do it if you work for it,” Titmus told Australia’s ABC News.
Japan’s Yui Ohashi completed a medley double, winning the 200m event to go with the 400m gold she secured on Sunday, while world record-holder Kristof Milak powered to the men’s 200m butterfly gold.
Britain’s freestyle swimmers brought the morning session to a thrilling climax, narrowly missing out on a world record in the 4x200m freestyle as they beat the Russian team by more than three seconds.
Japanese gymnast Daiki Hashimoto won the coveted men’s all-around title at the age of 19, edging China’s Xiao Ruoteng with a superb final horizontal bar routine.
Hashimoto used a thrilling high bar routine during the final rotation to edge Xiao and reigning world champion Nikita Nagornyy.
Hashimoto’s all-around total of 88.465 points included a 14.933 on high bar. That was good enough for him to surge past Xiao and into the top spot. The gold is the third straight Olympic title for the Japanese gymnast. Kohei Uchimura won in 2012 and 2016.
In a disappointment for the hosts, Japanese top seed Kento Momota fell at the first hurdle in the men’s singles badminton, losing in just 52 minutes to unseeded South Korean Heo Kwang-hee.
Hayato Sakamoto hit a game-ending, bases-loaded single that capped a three-run, ninth-inning rally, lifting host Japan over the Dominican Republic 4-3 in the baseball opener.
Japan are pursuing their first gold medal in baseball after the sport was restored to the Summer Games for the first time since 2008.
The United States made history as the first 3x3 basketball Olympic champions when their women beat the Russian Olympic Committee 18-15. Latvia took the men’s title.
In men’s basketball, the United States bounced back to hammer Iran 120-66 after they fell to a strong French team for their first Olympic defeat in 17 years.
The US women’s water polo team lost at the Olympics for the first time since 2008, falling 10-9 to Hungary in group play.
Elsewhere, Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten won the women’s cycling time trial on the course around Mount Fuji after being left red-faced on Sunday when she mistakenly thought she had won the road race. Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic powered to gold in the men’s time trial.
Shi Zhiyong won the men’s 73kg weightlifting with a world-record total of 364kg, giving China their fourth gold of the competition.
Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2021