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Any Olympics is enhanced by an unmissable rivalry. The first week of the Tokyo Games has been defined by a pair of female swimmers, Australia’s Ariane Titmus and Katie Ledecky for the US.
On Saturday, Ledecky beat Titmus in the women’s 800m freestyle. But the pair will leave Japan with two golds apiece and their reputations enhanced for the challenge they have set one another.
“That was not my last swim,” said the 24-year-old Ledecky, insisting that battle will continue into the next Games in Paris in three years’ time. “I’m at least going to ’24, maybe to ’28, we’ll see.”
The American has now won seven golds across three Olympics. But in Rio de Janeiro five years ago, she was without peer, winning the 800m freestyle by half a pool’s length.
Titmus has emerged to close the gap. The 20-year-old from Tasmania, the island off the south of the Australian mainland, began swimming aged seven and was competing for her country at world championships by 16. She has held up Ledecky as both her idol and chief target.
She hunted Ledecky down on Monday, when she came from a body length behind in the early stages of the 400m freestyle to overtake the American legend in the final few metres.
“I’ve just been trying to chase her,” said Titmus after that win. “I can’t believe I actually pulled it off.” She followed that up with a more dominant victory in the 200m freestyle, her favourite event.
Ledecky was victorious in the 1,500m freestyle earlier this week, but that was one race in which she did not face Titmus.
The US and Australian team have dominated the swimming medals for decades. But in recent Olympics, the golds have largely been reserved for the American squad.
Saturday’s racing showed the dominance of the two nations. US swimmer Caeleb Dressel tool his second Olympic title at these Games, winning the men’s 100m butterfly final in a world record time of 49.45 seconds. Australia’s Kaylee McKeown triumphed in the women’s 200m backstroke to also clinch her second title in Tokyo.
In 2016, the US won 16 golds to Australia’s 3. In 2012, the score was 16-1. In 2008, it was 12-6. After Saturday’s races in Tokyo, the score stood at 8-7. More used to racking up golds in the pool, a relatively even split at these Games has harmed the US in the overall medal table, starting Saturday behind both China and Japan.
The final swimming races of the Games take place on Sunday, when once again, it will be American and Aussie teams that will be the ones to watch.
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There was a shocking development on the day of the women’s 100 metre final. Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria was provisionally suspended by the Athletics Integrity Unit after testing positive for human growth hormone. Okagbare, one of the top-seeded sprinters in the event, recorded the positive test in an out-of-competition sample provided on 19 July, the anti-doping agency said. Her suspension further scrambles one of the most anticipated events of the Tokyo Games, as Jamaicans Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah, and Briton Dina Asher-Smith vie for the title of fastest woman in the world on Saturday night.
Simone Biles pulled out of two gymnastics apparatus finals, the uneven bars and the vault, USA Gymnastics said on Saturday, adding that the champion athlete is still being evaluated for participation in the balance beam and floor events.
Biles said she continued to struggle with what gymnasts refer to as “the twisties”, in which her body won’t perform what her mind is instructing. “It’s honestly petrifying trying to do a skill but not having your mind & body in sync. 10/10 do not recommend”, she wrote on Instagram. The mental block typically takes “two or more weeks” to abate, she added, though Bules has been practising on soft surfaces in Tokyo in hopes of participating in the remainder of the gymnastics schedule.
Team GB stalwart Jonny Brownlee has retired from Olympic competition with his first gold medal. He was part of the British team that won the first ever mixed sprint triathlon, alongside Jessica Learmonth, Georgia Taylor-Brown and Alex Lee. “Olympics? Completed it,” said 31-year-old Brownlee afterwards. He has appeared on past podiums, often behind his brother Alistair. “It feels absolutely amazing. It’s my third Olympics and I’ve finally got gold.” He intends to focus on even tougher Iron Man competitions in future.
Britain also achieved a stunning victory in the mixed 4x100m swimming relay, with the quartet of Kathleen Dawson, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Anna Hopkin clocking a world record time of 3.37.58. It was Team GB’s fourth swimming in the pool, matching its best performance in the sport since the 1908 Olympics.
Serbia’s Novak Djokovic was knocked out of the men’s singles tennis tournament by Germany’s Alexander Zverev. The shock defeat means the world’s top ranked male player cannot complete a “golden slam” — winning the Olympic title and the sport’s four “grand slam” tournaments in the same calendar year.
“I feel sorry for Novak,” said Zverev. “You can’t have everything.” The German faces the Russian Olympic Committee’s Karen Khachanov in Sunday’s final. Before that, on Saturday, Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic will meet Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova in the women’s singles final.
China continued its domination of table tennis at the Olympics. World number one Fan Zhendong was defeated by his compatriot and reigning champion Ma Long in the final of the men’s singles at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium on Friday night. The country has now won all but five of the available golds in table tennis since the sport was introduced at the 1988 Games. However, the country suffered a rare defeat earlier in the week when Japan’s mixed doubles pair of Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito won their country’s first ever table tennis gold.
On the podium
Years of training to cover the trampoline final 😂 pic.twitter.com/qdorrpl8zy
— Dan Walker (@mrdanwalker) July 30, 2021
Just as the world’s greatest athletes have been training for years to reach the Games, broadcasters have also been preparing to capture the action. Though BBC presenter Dan Walker realises this better than most, but couldn’t help but be amused by a cameraman filming the trampolining finals on Friday. Let’s just say it’s a job that has its ups and downs.
Click here to see FT’s “alternative medals table” which ranks nations not just on their medal haul, but against how they should be performing against economic and geopolitical factors.
Tokyo Olympics Daily is published at 4pm Japan time. It is written by the team behind the Scoreboard business of sports weekly newsletter, with contributions from the FT’s Tokyo bureau. Sign up to Scoreboard here to receive it in your inbox every Saturday morning.