Team SA unlucky at Covid-hit Tokyo Games

The 2020 Olympic Games drew to a close on Sunday at an empty Japan National Stadium, as Team South Africa returned home from Tokyo with just three medals – their lowest tally since the 2008 Beijing Games.


More than 11,000 athletes from 206 nations/territories took part in the latest Olympic Games despite an ongoing pandemic which has wreaked havoc right across the globe.

As the start of the Games loomed closer, there was a large portion amongst the Japanese population which vetoed the staging of the Olympics in the capital.

A poll found that up to 80% of people in Japan were against Tokyo hosting the Games.


With three days until the showpiece was scheduled to get underway Toshiro Muto – head of the Tokyo2020 organising committee – refused to rule out a last-minute cancellation of the Games, as Covid cases resurged with the dominant Delta variant.


Japan’s government has called multiple states of emergency throughout the year, including in April lasting until 20 June. In early July officials and organisers declared Tokyo was to be placed in a state of emergency from 12 July until 22 Aug, two weeks after the conclusion of the Olympics, “to combat coronavirus”. This ultimately barred the attendance of any supporters at the Tokyo Games.


One week prior to the opening ceremony, Japan’s active Covid cases were in the region of 20,000.

However cases have since skyrocketed mainly due to the tourism associated with the Olympics and, to date, active cases in Japan sit in excess of 130,000 – a 650% increase compared to four weeks ago.

An estimated 87,000 positive cases were recorded throughout the country in the week leading up to the Games’ closing ceremony.


According to official Olympic sources, 511 positive Covid cases were detected from the start of July until 11 August, of which 29 were athletes.

80% of positive cases within the Olympic bubble were accounted for by contractors and games-related personnel, with the remainder either media, volunteers or Tokyo2020 employees.


For a first-world nation, Japan's vaccination rollout has been relatively slow but picked up speed throughout the Tokyo Games. One-third of Japan’s 125million population have been fully vaccinated.



A flurry of competitors – particularly tennis players – pulled out of the Games in light of the pandemic.

Aside from those who withdrew on their own accord, others were dubiously suspended from competing.

Caster Semenya and Sha'Carri Richardson were amongst a plethora of black athletes who were controversially prevented from taking part in the most recent Games, a pattern that is by no means new neither to the history of the Olympic Movement nor world sport in general.


A two-time Olympic gold medalist, South African long-distance runner Semenya was ruled out by World Athletics for having high levels of natural testosterone, whilst American track and field star Richardson delivered a positive marijuana test and was subsequently barred from competing by the US Anti-Doping Agency.



The opening ceremony on 23 July – as well as the Games in general – was lifeless in terms of an authentic atmosphere. Fans were not permitted as the 68,000-seater National Stadium in Tokyo held just 950 officials, media and dignitaries.


New events added to the latest Olympic Games included karate, skateboarding, sport climbing, and surfing. Team South Africa sent six athletes to compete in three of the new sporting codes, with a total of 181 team members called up for the Tokyo games – compared to the 137-strong squad drafted to Rio five years ago.


Despite the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) naming an all-time highest number of competing athletes, Team SA returned home with their third-lowest medal tally since 1992. The average age of Team SA's 181 athletes in Tokyo was 25 years & 9 months.


Evidently Team SA flourished more in individual events than they did across team sports.

Tatjana Schoenmaker bagged SA's first medal in Tokyo as she took silver in the Women's 100m breaststroke final.

Later that same day, 27 July, surfer Bianca Buitendag also earned a silver medal to become the first-ever female recipient of a silver medal in surfing – both for her country as well as in Olympic history.


Days later Schoenmaker doubled up and claimed gold as the 24-year-old set a new world record of 2:18.95 in the Women's 200m breaststroke final.


Sadly, however, SA's third medal in Tokyo was also her last as previous medalists failed to live up to the billing. Defending Olympic champion Wayde van Niekerk failed to qualify for the men's 400m final, finishing 5th in his heat.

Four-time Olympic medalist Chad le Clos did not qualify for the Men's 100m butterfly final, and the 29-year-old only salvaged a fifth-placed finish in the 200m butterfly final.


As mentioned many of Team SA's shortcomings were prominent amongst the several team sports in Tokyo. In the rugby sevens tournament, Neil Powell's Blitzbokke ended in 5th position as Fiji once again picked up gold following their triumph at Rio 2016. New Zealand finished runners-up with Great Britain taking bronze.


In the hockey, SA Women's finished plumb last in Pool A as they lost five out of five group matches, whilst the Men's side ended 5th in Pool B, winning one game out of five.

Men's Final: Belgium 1-1 Australia (3-2 pens); India bronze.

Women's Final: Netherlands 3-1 Argentina; Great Britain bronze.


On the football pitch, Bafana Bafana were grouped alongside Mexico, France and hosts Japan. SA succumbed to three defeats to finish last in Group A.

Brazil secured back-to-back gold medals as they defeated Spain, 2-1, in the Men's Final.

Brazilian forward Richarlison finished the tournament as top scorer with five goals, as skipper Dani Alves added to an already impressive trophy collection.

Brazil previously lost in the Final at London 2012, before the Seleção won gold on home soil, 5 years ago. Spain were the last European nation to win gold in Men's football, back in 1992 when they hosted the Games.


SA did not send a Women's football team to compete in the Tokyo Games. Canada beat Sweden, on penalties, to earn gold after claiming bronze both in 2012 & 2016. Sweden claimed silver again after also losing the 2016 Final to Germany.


Back in the swimming pool, SA Men's and Women's water polo teams both failed to progress from their preliminary groups.

SA Women finished last in Group A after tasting defeat in all four of their group encounters. SA Men also bottomed their Group A with five straight defeats.

Men's Final: Serbia 13-10 Greece; Hungary bronze.

Women's Final: USA 14-5 Spain; Hungary bronze.


An underwhelming effort for SA's rowers who were seeking a medal for the fourth successive Summer Games. SA took bronze in rowing in 2004, before claiming gold in 2012 and silver four years later in Rio. However this year it was not to be as no South Africans managed to land a podium across all rowing events.


In terms of medals, South Africa ended the Tokyo Games tied-60th, Team SA's least convincing effort on the Olympic stage since 2008 in Beijing.

2016 was the country's best return since since readmission to the IOC in 1991, as Saffers brought home 10 medals from Rio, including 2 gold & 6 silver, which landed SA tied-27th on the medals table.

To date South Africa have won 38 medals at eight Olympic Games', following a 21-year expulsion from the Olympic movement between 1970-1991.


South Africa at the Olympic Games:

Games Gold Silver Bronze

2020 Tokyo 1 2 0

2016 Rio 2 6 2

2012 London 4 1 1

2008 Beijing 0 1 0

2004 Athens 1 3 2

2000 Sydney 0 2 3

1996 Atlanta 3 1 1

1992 Barcelona 0 2 0

With no Usain Bolt, a new Men's 100m king was set to be crowned and South African sprinter Akani Simbine was in the mix.

Italian Lamont Jacobs took gold with a time of 9,80s as Fred Kurley of USA settled for silver and Canada's Andre de Grasse snatched the bronze medal from Simbine – by just four-hundredths of a second. De Grasse later won gold in the Men's 200m Final.


From the shortest running distance to the furthest, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya graciously won gold for a second time as he completed the 42km Men's marathon in a time of 2h8m38s.


USA beat France 97-82 in the Men's basketball Final, whilst Australia took bronze.

Team USA collected gold for the fourth consecutive Summer Games and have picked up first prize at seven of the last eight Summer Olympics, with the exception coming at Athens 2004 where they could only claim bronze.

USA's Women's basketball has been equally if not more impressive than their male counterparts.

In the seven Summer Games from Atlanta'96 until Tokyo'20 USA won the gold medal in Women's basketball on all seven occasions.


One of Germany’s 10 gold medals came on the tennis court as Alexander Zverev defeated Karen Khachanov of Russia, 6-3, 6-1.

Serbian Novak Djokovic lost to Zverev in the semifinals before missing out on bronze to Spaniard Pablo Carreño Busta.

Belinda Bencic of Switzerland won the gold medal in the Women’s singles



At the closing ceremony on 8 August, the Olympic Movement said Arigato to Tokyo, and Bonjour to Paris as the French capital officially prepares to host the next rendition of the Games, which get underway in less than 3 years' time on 26 July 2024.


Of the 206 competing nations, 93 of them left Tokyo with at least one medal to their names.

With a larger squad (613) than any other competing nation, Team USA won the most medals (113), across 28 different sports.

USA has topped the medals table at every Summer Olympic Games since Atlanta 1996.


China accumulated the second-most medals overall, with 88 from 19 sports.

Despite having a smaller squad (406), China still earned more podiums than the likes of Japan, Australia and Germany.


With the Russian Federation currently banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency from being represented in all international sport, athletes competed under the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), which claimed 71 medals from 18 sports.


Great Britain sent 376 athletes to Tokyo and won a total 65 medals from 18 sports.

Hosts Japan had a team of 552 competitors, winning 58 medals in 20 disciplines.


South Africa competed in 19 sports and its 181 athletes was the highest amongst any African nation competing in Tokyo, and the 17th most overall.

USA won the most medals for a 7th straight Summer Games

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