Opinion: Top 10 iconic moments that melted Kiwi hearts during Tokyo Olympic Games

OPINION: Two weeks ago, these were the Olympics that many thought should not happen.

Some still hoped organisers would pull the plug on the Games, even as athletes began to arrive at the village.

Mainstream media gleefully counted the positive COVID-19 tests and drafted its obits on the on-again, off-again, on-again Tokyo Olympics.

But a strange thing happened once the athletes were allowed to compete - the world realised why this spectacle - especially now - needed to proceed.

Although coronavirus cases continued to pop up within the Games community, for a couple of weeks at least, the world largely forgot the impossible and remembered that actually very little was.

Freed from their pandemic shackles, athletes across all sports showed the spirit required to beat this plague once and for all, genuinely delighted at being able to strut their stuff, even if it was in largely empty stadiums.

Forget gold medals, forget world records, forget personal bests. Without these Games, we would not have had these precious moments to savour...    



Coming into the Tokyo Games, most of our hopes in the pool were pinned to Lewis Clareburt, who had pedigree at Commonwealth Games and world championships, as well as clocking one of the world's fastest times over 400m individual medley.

At that point, Erika Fairweather was more famous for being serenaded by All Blacks prop Angus Ta'avao, when the national rugby side gatecrashed her Olympic farewell at Kavanagh College.

"So you're a freestyler," he teased. "I'm a bit of a freestyler myself.

Erika Fairweather sets massive personal best at Tokyo
Erika Fairweather sets massive personal best at Tokyo. Photo credit: Getty

"Erika, Erika, training to get betterer, not a real word, stay in school to get cleverer."

But on the second night of swimming competition, the world junior champion announced herself to the world, hacking four seconds off her previous best to gatecrash the star-studded 400m freestyle final.

The look on her face when she realised the enormity of her achievement was priceless - Fairweather won't be taking anyone by surprise from now on.



No doubt, the five-Games veteran was several years past her best - her 21.24m personal best was set a decade ago and she hadn’t surpassed 20 metres since she won silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In the meantime, Dame Val Adams, 36, had taken time out to start a family and many questioned her resolve to compete at elite level, having already achieved so much.

Tokyo showed you should never doubt the NZ sporting colossus, if she puts her mind to something.

Dame Val Adams celebrates her bronze medal with her kids
Dame Val Adams celebrates her bronze medal with her kids. Photo credit: Photosport

"This means so much more than winning gold medals," she sobbed after capturing a bronze medal - her fourth Olympic medal, after two gold and a silver. 

"I just hope to continue to inspire female athletes around the world. If you want to have a kid, and come back and be on top of the world, you can absolutely do that."

As Adams clutched a photo of her family during the medal presentation, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.



Arguably, no NZ athlete has attracted as much worldwide attention at an Olympics as our first transgender competitor.

Maybe John Walker at Montreal 1976, when the African boycott protesting the All Blacks tour of apartheid South Africa cost the Games a classic 1500m showdown with world recordholder Filbert Bayi.

Everyone had an opinion on whether the former male weightlifter should be allowed to compete against women at elite level and Olympic officials were happy to hide behind the rulebook, rather than court public backlash from either side of the debate.

As it turned out, Laurel Hubbard succumbed to the pressure and failed to register a lift, simultaneously vindicating her critics, while also proving their fears were somewhat unfounded all along.

Laurel Hubbard bows out of Tokyo Olympics
Laurel Hubbard bows out of Tokyo Olympics. Photo credit: Getty

But regardless of your stance, you had to be impressed with how she handled herself under fire.

"If there’s one thing I’d like to pass on, it’s this - life is difficult," she said. "There are disappointments - I know I have some today, as do we all - but if you just keep pressing on, it does get better."



Our rowers arrived at Tokyo with high hopes of global domination and largely lived up to - sometimes surpassing - those expectations.

One particularly intent on improving her fortunes was Emma Twigg, a former world champion who had twice finished one spot off the Olympic podium, referring to her Rio 2016 disappointment as "almost my worst nightmare".

She retired, went away to work for the International Olympic Committee, but returned to the water two years later with the aim of reversing her previous results.

After qualifying the single sculls boat with second at the 2019 world championships, Twigg was not seen again on the international stage until the Tokyo regatta, where she simply blew away her opposition for gold.

Emma Twigg celebrates victory at Tokyo
Emma Twigg celebrates victory at Tokyo. Photo credit: Getty

Her performance moved former rowing hardman Eric Murray to tears, as he watched from the TVNZ studios.

"All these years, many, many disappointments," said Twigg, 34. "I can’t thank the people I have surrounded myself with enough."



Any field-event athlete's worst fear is fouling their first two attempts, and having to produce the goods with their third and final effort.

With one throw remaining in Tokyo qualifying rounds, shotputter Tom Walsh had two throws ruled foul, but managed to persuade officials to measure his second, which still wasn't long enough to ensure his progress to the final.

He needed a big result on his last toss and easily beat the automatic qualifying mark - but drew yet another red flag. The look on Walsh's face was one of absolute disbelief.

How could this be happening on the biggest stage of his career?

"I'm not sure what the guy was calling me on," wondered Walsh afterwards.

Tom Walsh sweats on his final qualifying throw at Tokyo
Tom Walsh sweats on his final qualifying throw at Tokyo. Photo credit: Photosport

Luckily, fellow Cantabrian Trevor Spittle was on hand to calm his fellow Kiwi and ensure sanity prevailed. Walsh’s final throw was measured at 21.49m and he advanced as second-best qualifier.

Few athletes struggled with COVID-19 lockdown more than Walsh, who was also in tears after repeating his Rio bronze, as he reflected on the mental health toll of his journey.

"The last 18 months haven't been easy, so to be standing here with the flag on my back is pretty cool."



One of New Zealand's brightest gold medal hopes at Tokyo was the Black Ferns Sevens, who were on a mission to improve on their disappointing silver at Rio.

That almost came a cropper early, when they fell 21-0 down to Great Britain in pool play, only to produce a miraculous comeback - mainly thanks to Michaela Blyde's try hat-trick - to eventually win 26-21.

Michael Blyde, Ruby Tui and Tyla Nathan-Wong celebrate their gold medal at Tokyo
Michael Blyde, Ruby Tui and Tyla Nathan-Wong celebrate their gold medal at Tokyo. Photo credit: Photosport

Interviewed by Sky Sport afterwards, Tui declared: "There's not enough hand sanitiser in Japan to clean that whole act up!"

She became an instant social media star and helped her team become international stars for more than just their gold-medal form on the field.

Of course, once they achieved their goal, there were more tears, as captain Sarah Hirini dedicated her success to her deceased mother.

"I love you mum, I miss you."


Depending on your version of history, doubles specialists Michael Venus and Marcus Daniell won New Zealand's first Olympic tennis medal… unless you count Anthony Wilding's bronze medal for Australasia at Stockholm 1912.

After their first-round elimination at Rio, the pair arrived in Tokyo with new resolve and benefitted from a walkover against the eight seeds in round two.    

They showed their ability with victory over third seeds Cabal and Farah from Colombia, but their hopes of gold ended in the semis, against Croatians Cilic and Dodig.

The Kiwis were absolutely dirty on themselves afterwards, dispensing with media commitments and then returning to the court to iron out their shortcomings before the bronze-medal game.

They were never going to lose that match against Americans Krajicek and Sandgren, and their unadulterated joy at winning a medal was infectious.

Marcus Daniell & Michael Venus celebrate their bronze medal at Tokyo
Marcus Daniell & Michael Venus celebrate their bronze medal at Tokyo. Photo credit: Photosport

"I'm still in shock," Daniell told Sky Sport. "I've been crying for the last 20 minutes and Mike's been laughing at me."




Times have changed, since our Lydia took silver at Rio.

At that time, the teenager was putting together her best year as a professional, defending her ANA Inspirational 'Major', taking out the NZ Women's Open, along with three other victories on the LPGA Tour, strengthening her grip on the world No.1 spot.  

Her career took a downturn in 2017, when she failed to win a tournament and lost her top ranking.

Lydia Ko cries after her bronze medal at Tokyo
Lydia Ko cries after her bronze medal at Tokyo. Photo credit: Photosport

Over the past 18 months, she has rekindled that career and halfway through her final round at Tokyo, momentum seemed to be carrying Ko to a gold medal.

That wasn't to be and ultimately, she lost a playoff for another silver, having to settle for bronze.

Still, she became the only golfer - male or female - to repeat as a medallist over the two Olympic golf tournaments.

Afterwards, Ko had other things on her mind.

"In our private life, we lost my grandmother within a week ago and I was also playing for her as well," she sobbed on The Golf Channel. "I just wanted to make our family really proud and our country proud.

"This is for my grandma."



Based on longevity and consistency, Lisa Carrington should have taken the Halberg Decade Award this year - or Paralympian Sophie Pascoe - and that’s no disrespect to Bond and Murray.

Tokyo proved her credentials as our greatest-ever Olympian, as she scooped three gold medals, including a venture into uncharted territory, as she triumphed over 500 metres and in the K2 boat.

Previously, 500 had seemed a bridge too far for Carrington, but she obviously arrived at these Games desperate to improve on her bronze over that distance.

But perhaps her combination with Caitlin Regal was even more significant, as she captured her first Olympic 'team' medal.

Lisa Carrington & Caitlin Regal celebrate gold at Tokyo
Lisa Carrington & Caitlin Regal celebrate gold at Tokyo. Photo credit: Photosport

"It was a huge challenge to stick to the plank through the day and I was just fortunate to have Caitlin as an amazing teammate," she said afterwards. "I'm so proud of her and our team."

How sweet would a K4 medal have tasted?



While expectations were high for our women's rowing eight after their 2019 world title, the men's big boat had flown under the radar, failing to qualify through world championships and having to sneak through in a last-chance regatta earlier this year.

The Drysdale-Bond experiment had failed, but the two-time pair champion had stuck around, determined to write another chapter in New Zealand’s storied history in the blue riband event.

Their heat performance was promising, their repechage win was encouraging, but their gold-medal success was simply brilliant, bringing back memories (for those old enough) of Munich 1972.

"To be honest, waking up this morning, I thought we could get first, I thought we could get last," he told Sky Sport. 

NZ eight celebrate their gold medal at Tokyo
NZ eight celebrate their gold medal at Tokyo. Photo credit: Photosport

"We had shown potential throughout the year, and started to believe more and more that we were capable of pulling it off. To have done it with these guys, unreal!"

The achievement also wrote another chapter in Hamish Bond's personal legend, after successive Olympic golds with Eric Murray, successfully switching to cycling for more medals and national records, then returning to the water for this Tokyo triumph. 

As the eight crossed the Sea Forest Waterway finish-line, consensus in the Newshub sports department was they had just deprived the world champion Blackcaps of the Halberg Team of the Year.

Big call!

Grant Chapman is Newshub's online sports lead