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The 5 Most Dramatic Stories of the 2021 Olympics

Jonesing for high drama? The Olympics provide.

American swimmers Ryan Murphy and Caeleb Dressel celebrate a first-place finish in the Men's 4 x 100m Medley Relay.
(© NBC)

It goes beyond the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Every two years, the Olympic Games bring together the best athletes in the world, representing every country in the world, and competing in sports that don't receive nearly the level of attention lavished on football (or fútbol). The heady mixture of individual struggle and geopolitics is enough to keep this drama queen glued to the television, and considering there hasn't been an Olympics in three years, I have been especially eager to get my fix in 2021. Here are the five most dramatic stories from this summer's Olympic Games:

1. Iranian Martial Arts
In 2016, Taekwondo athlete Kimia Alizadeh became the first woman ever to win an Olympic medal for Team Iran, a fact that might have made her a favorite daughter of the Islamic Republic if not for the fact that she defected in 2020, citing that regime's poor treatment of women. This year, she competed under the banner of the Olympic Refugee Team, nearly becoming its first medalist: She defeated two-time gold medalist Jade Jones, as well as her friend and former teammate Nahid Kiyani. Unfortunately, she lost the bronze medal to Hatice Kübra İlgün of Turkey. Another Iranian defector did manage to medal in his sport, however: Judoka Saeid Mollaei left Iran shortly after being instructed to throw a match in order to avoid a potential contest against Israeli Sagi Muki (Iran does not recognize Israel as a "legitimate" country). Mollaei and Muki have since become close friends. In Tokyo, Mollaei won Silver for Team Mongolia, where he has recently become a citizen, and he dedicated his win to his friends in Israel. His story has proven so inspirational, that it is now being developed into a television series for MGM.

2. Simone Biles
Undoubtedly, the Olympic story that has most riveted the press is that of champion gymnast Simone Biles, who came down with an incredibly ill-timed case of the Twisties, a strange phenomenon that causes a gymnast to become disoriented. This forced Biles, already a four-time Olympic gold medalist, to withdraw from nearly every event, several of which she was considered a lock to win. This suddenly opened up the competition, leading to a thrilling and unexpected gold medal for her American teammate Sunisa Lee in the all-around. Biles returned this week for one event: the Balance Beam. Biles has spoken openly about her "love-hate relationship" with the beam, an event she has felt shaky on long before her mental block. So that makes it all the more remarkable that Biles ended up winning bronze in that event — even though she still hasn't overcome the twisties (she altered her dismount accordingly). While this must have been a frustrating Olympics for Biles, she ended it on a high note. She remains the most remarkable gymnast of my lifetime and will probably hold that title for decades to come.

3. Wrestling
Admittedly, I started following wrestling because I think the athletes are hot — but I've come to appreciate how much skill, strategy, strength, and endurance is needed for this most ancient and gentlemanly of combat sports. Oh, and the drama! Every match is a little one-act play, and the characters wrestling attracts are larger-than-life: There's newly minted Greco-Roman gold medalist Zhan Beleniuk, a member of the Ukrainian parliament who danced a little hopak in celebration of his victory. There's America's own unstoppable "Magic Man" and cat enthusiast David Taylor (seen above), who is set to wrestle for gold against his old rival, Iran's Hassan Yazdani. And then there is the potential rematch in the 97kg category between reigning gold medalist Kyle Snyder and the odds-on favorite to win, "Russian tank" Abdulrashid Sadulaev. It was a major blow to the Russian psyche when Snyder played the role of tank destroyer at the 2017 world championships, and they are keen to not let it happen again. Speaking of which...

4. Russia
As in 2018, Russian athletes are not permitted to compete under their country's flag, nor will the Russian anthem be played at any medal ceremonies in Tokyo. This stems from a wide-ranging doping scandal during the 2014 Sochi games, and while you would think it would be a major source of humiliation for the Russian athletes competing at this year's games, it has been anything but. What the "ban" has meant in practice is that we have heard an awful lot of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1, the national anthem stand-in by Russia's most flamboyant Romantic Era composer, a piece dramatic enough to underscore this memorable montage in the Stephen King horror film, Misery. Decked out on their national colors, the 330 athletes of the "ROC" (Russian Olympic Committee) occupy the respectable position of number three in the total medal count, right behind the United States and China. It just goes to show that in the post-truth world the Russian state has done so much to bring into being, a "ban" doesn't really mean a ban at all.

5. The Runaway Belarusian Sprinter
It all began when Belarusian runner Kristina Timanovskaya was signed up by her coaches for a relay event for which she had not trained. She complained about this last-minute conscription on Instragram, raising the hackles of her Olympic committee. They started pressuring her to return immediately to Belarus, where state TV was already abuzz about her fragile mental health. Fearing that she would not be taken home, but to a detention facility, Timanovskaya did what any good sprinter would do: She bolted. Now in an undisclosed location with an offer of asylum from the Polish government, Timanovskaya seems unlikely to return to Belarus, a country often described as "Europe's last dictatorship." It has been ruled with an iron fist by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, and its Olympic committee is headed by his son, Viktor, a man whose prodigious mustache betrays a dream of succeeding his father (groom for the job you want, not the one you have). Anti-Lukashenko protests rocked the country last year, but they have so far failed to dislodge the dictator. Until they do, the list of talented Belarusians abroad will continue to grow.