Vertical Progress: The High-Flying Heroes Who Reshaped The Olympic Idea

Not all heroes wear capes – and not all of those who captured the hearts of a new generation of fans in Tokyo in the summer of 2021 cut a classic Olympian figure. Away from the track and the pool and the gymnasium, a group of fearless and innovative competitors brought new sports to the biggest stage of all. They sped up vertical walls in the blink of an eye; they tamed the wilds of the ocean; they defied gravity on featherweight boards and bikes. 


This group of athletes provided some of the Games’ most memorable moments, and in doing so they won not just gold medals, but an army of new followers. A generation of young people watching their first Olympics could now dream not only of running a world-record 100m, or making a perfect score on the floor, but of nailing a 360-degree air over raging waves, or a frontside boardslide down a handrail. And in many cases, the athletes they saw performing these incredible feats were not any older than they were.  Nelson Mandela observed, at the first Laureus World Sports Awards, that sport ‘speaks to youth in a language they understand.  This Olympics did just that.


The 18-year-old climber Alberto Ginés left his family home in Caceres, Spain, at the age of 15, moving 800km north to Saint Cugat to further his training. He spent years dedicating himself to his sport, yet the pinnacle of his achievement was over in less than seven seconds. That’s how long he took to win the speed climb, the first of three disciplines that constituted the first-ever Olympic climbing competition, and the foundation for his gold-medal victory. But Ginés proved himself more than just an outstanding climber, speaking out against homophobia and racism and establishing himself as a giant in the sport - while still only a teenager.


Adversity comes with the territory in action sports and no one faced more on the way to Olympic glory than the unflappable Brazilian surfer Ítalo Ferreira. The 27-year-old taught himself to surf on a Styrofoam cooler lid; three years ago, as he sought qualification for Tokyo, a stolen passport and a cancelled flight due to a hurricane almost kept him from the qualifying event in Miyazaki. When he finally reached Japan, he made the entry deadline with nine minutes to spare, whereupon he competed in a pair of denim shorts and a borrowed board. Ferreira's quick thinking was put to the test once more at the Olympics when his surfboard was snapped in two by a huge drop in the final. He dug out his replacement, on which he beat Japan's Kanoa Igarashi to win gold.


Ferreira’s contemporary in the women’s event in 2021 was Carissa Moore, who confirmed her status as one of the greatest surfers of her generation. Moore won the two big competitions of the year: Olympic gold in the first-ever event at the Games and the World Surf League world championship, her fifth world title. The Hawaiian did it all with a smile on her face – her blog documenting how much she loves the itinerant lifestyle in which she celebrates “living out of a suitcase, belly-aching laughs and incredible adventures”.  The 29-year-old also has a passion for using her profile to do good, and through the Moore Aloha Charitable Foundation, she has a simple goal: Moore Love. The charity’s mission is to encourage young females through the sport of surfing to be strong, confident and compassionate individuals.


Two Japanese street skateboarders shone as their sport debuted at their home Olympics. On a baking hot Tokyo day, Momiji Nishiya – aged 13 years and 267 days – fell off her board twice before dusting herself down to produce some memorable spins and slides to win gold and become the second-youngest champion in Olympic history. Meanwhile, her compatriot Yuto Horigome beat skateboarding superstar Nyjah Huston on his way to gold to complete a memorable double in the men’s sport, having earlier defeated Huston at the world championships. Horigome, 22, who moved to the United States to hone his talent, spent the Covid lockdown practising on a ramp built by a friend in his parking lot.


Unlike climbing, skateboarding and surfing, BMX has been on the Olympic roster since 2008, but none of our nominees in this category epitomised the Olympic ideal more than Bethany Shriever, the gold medallist who literally paid her own way after her UK Sport funding was cut, crowdfunding £50,000 to keep her dream alive. The 22-year-old recorded a gold medal victory over two-time Olympic champion Mariana Pajon then franked her status at the top of her sport with another gold, at the UCI World Championship win in Arnhem.


The Tokyo Olympics did not resemble other incarnations for several reasons, not all of them for the best. However, each of our Laureus World Action Sportsperson of the Year nominees gave these historic Games new ideas of what an Olympian looks like and the incredible feats of which they are capable.

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