Ideas
July 28, 2021 5:29 AM EDT
Gregory is a TIME senior editor.

If something like this—the stunning premature absence of two global icons from the Olympics—was ever going to happen, really, it would happen here, in Tokyo, in these troubled 2020 Olympic Games.

Assuming the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t going to completely overrun the whole affair once it began—and caution, we’re not in the clear yet— these Olympics were supposed to belong to Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, full stop. Or Naomi and Simone—with the single-name status, in whichever order you prefer.

Gymnastics is a quadrennial television obsession, and Biles delivered like no one has before or since. She had nothing else to prove, but was back for another Olympic run to thrill an adoring audience once more. She was the surest of bets.

Biles pulled out of the team competition on Tuesday and will skip Thursday’s all-around individual competition. In a statement, USA Gymnastics said Biles had withdrawn “in order to focus on her mental health.” She could still take part this weekend’s individual event finals; USA Gymnastics said she will “continue to be evaluated daily.”

So Biles might not be gone from the Tokyo Olympics for good. But the gymnastics team and individual all-around events are the key TV draws for U.S. audiences during the first week of the Games. With Biles’ exit from the marquee events, the Olympics took a stunning turn.

And they were already reeling from Osaka’s shocking third-round loss on Tuesday to no. 42-ranked Marketa Vondrousova, of the Czech Republic, in straight sets. Normally, the Olympic tennis tournament feels like a bit of an add-on; the world’s best already gather four times a year to compete in Grand Slams. Do we really need to do it again?

But Osaka, a four-time Slam champ, was the face of the Tokyo Olympics for the home country, and she has a passionate following in the U.S. She lit the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony. And her mere presence carried even more importance after she withdrew from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon to tend to her mental health and prepare for the Games. She made a statement, heard loud around the world, on the pressing need for self-care. With that backdrop, millions were pulling for her.

“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,” Osaka said after her exit. “I think it’s maybe because I haven’t played in the Olympics before and for the first year (it) was a bit much.”

Make no mistake; combined, Osaka and Biles have propelled mental health to the forefront of sports, and society, like no one else before them. In the long run, this will prove more valuable than any gold medal.

But that doesn’t mean fans can’t feel disappointed. If the Olympics weren’t going to mark a global victory over COVID-19, as imaged by organizers when they postponed them last March, they could at least serve as a welcome distraction from a persistent pandemic. Simone and Naomi were the key distractions.

Outside the U.S., there’s plenty to cheer. Japan, for example, has established itself as a skateboarding powerhouse and stands near the top of the medal count. China is succeeding in its quest for gold and continues to dominate sports like synchronized diving.

But who fills the superstar void for the American audience? Katie Ledecky proved human, finishing fifth in the 200-m freestyle and second in the 400-m freestyle, before winning 1,500-meter freestyle gold on Wednesday. She’s still an all-time great; maybe just not in Tokyo.

The U.S. men’s basketball team lost to France in its opening game; despite rebounding for an expectant win over Iran, Kevin Durant and Co. are vulnerable. The U.S. women’s soccer team, still trying to win a World Cup and Olympic gold back-to-back, has so far been uninspiring, going 1-1-1 in pool play.

Novak Djokovic is here, but at this point he’s practically winning machine; while his talent deserves the upmost respect, the Olympics aren’t banking on him.

Track and field starts Friday; it would have been nice to have Sha’carri Richardson in town. Noah Lyles has swagger, Sydney McLaughlin set a world record at the Olympic Trials, offering hope that she can repeat that feat. Travyon Bromell could be crowned the world’s fastest man. Allyson Felix is writing her final chapter, and chasing the all-time medals mark for a female track and field Olympian.

They all may shine. But these weren’t their Olympics. We can only wish Osaka and Biles well. And can’t help but wonder what might have been, during an Olympics we can never get back.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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