Olympics 2021: High-profile athletes missing from Tokyo Games

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·Sports Reporter
·11-min read
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Ben Simmons, Sha'Carri Richardson and Roger Federer are three athletes who will not be competing in the Tokyo Olympics.
Ben Simmons, Sha'Carri Richardson and Roger Federer are among the biggest names in world sport to withdraw from the Tokyo Games, each with their own reasons for not competing in the Olympics. Pictures: Getty Images

The upcoming Tokyo Olympics are set to be like no other - for many obvious reasons.

The Games aren't taking place in a leap year as is customary - there is also the devastating global pandemic to keep in mind as well.

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Concerns over the safety of the Olympics, as well as various sporting controversies and injuries, have meant some of the world's biggest sporting names won't be attending the postponed Games.

Tennis has been one of the most heavily impacted events, with a raft of stars either opting out of the tournament in the months leading up to the Games, while others have had their Olympic dream put on ice by the coronavirus.

One of the most unusual Games in the event's storied history is set to get underway this week regardless - so who are some of the biggest names to miss out?

1. Serena Williams - Tennis

Women's tennis champion Serena Williams confirmed in late June that she would not travel to Tokyo for the Olympics, citing a desire to remain with her three-year-old daughter, Olympia.

The 'bubble' arrangements designed to limit the athletes' exposure to the outside world and prevent potential Covid-19 outbreaks in the athletes village.

Asked about her reasons for staying home prior to Wimbledon, Williams said there were a variety of reasons behind her decision, but said she wasn't willing to expand upon them.

“I'm actually not on the Olympic list - not that I'm aware of. If so, then I shouldn't be on it,” she said in June.

“There's a lot of reasons that I made my Olympic decision. I don't feel like going into them today. Maybe another day. Sorry.”

Williams won gold in the singles and doubles at the London 2012 Olympics, as well as further doubles gold medals in 2000 and 2008 - all of which were won with sister Venus as her partner.

2. Ben Simmons - Basketball

Australian basketball fans have been clamouring for Ben Simmons to represent Australia ever since he was pick first overall in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Simmons is no stranger to FIBA basketball, having been a key member of the team to win silver at the 2012 Under-17 World Championship - but that was a long time ago.

After his Olympic status was up in the air during the NBA Playoffs, his highly-scrutinised performance against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semi-finals ultimately led him to withdraw his name for selection.

Ben Simmons will not play for the Australian Boomers at the Tokyo Olympics.
Ben Simmons pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics following the Philadelphia 76ers' NBA Playoffs loss to the Atlanta Hawks. (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

Simmons was slammed by the NBA world for his shooting capitulation, which contributed to the Philadelphia 76ers' premature demise at the hands of the Hawks.

In the wake of the frenzied response, Simmons opted to withdraw from the Olympics in order to focus on his personal growth and development as a player.

He was spotted at Wimbledon soon after the playoff exit alongside new romance Maya Jama.

3. Roger Federer - Tennis

Swiss tennis maestro Roger Federer had to make the heartbreaking move to withdraw from the Olympics soon after he was knocked out of Wimbledon.

The 39-year-old said he suffered a setback with his knee, which required surgery in 2020 following the Australian Open.

Federer only made a proper return by the French Open earlier in 2021, and had to make his decision after his loss in the quarter-finals.

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He is a two-time medal winner at the Olympics, winning doubles gold in 2008 and silver in the men's singles in 2012.

Sadly, with his career now in its twilight, Olympic gold might be a rare tennis accolade to elude Federer, who will nevertheless go down as an all-time great.

“During the grasscourt season, I unfortunately experienced a setback with my knee, and have accepted that I must withdraw from the Tokyo Olympic Games,” Federer wrote on Twitter. “I am greatly disappointed, as it has been an honor and highlight of my career each time I have represented Switzerland."

4. LeBron James - Basketball

Arguably the greatest player in basketball in the 21st century, LeBron James decided to skip the Tokyo Games in order to focus on the release of the film Space Jam 2, in which he plays the starring role.

James' absence from this Olympics, as well as the 2019 FIBA World Cup, represents something of a changing of the guard for Team USA, which has traditionally dominated men's and women's basketball.

The Los Angeles Lakers star's Olympic career began in 2004, where he was a member of the American team which only claimed bronze in a shock result as Argentina claimed a memorable gold medal.

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He righted the ship in subsequent games, aiding Team USA to gold in 2008 and 2012, but missed the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro after guiding Cleveland to their historic NBA championship soon before the Games got underway.

USA Basketball manager Jerry Colangelo said James' Olympic career was likely over.

"LeBron made choices these last couple of Olympics not to participate because he’s got a lot of things going on in his life. So he put in his time, he made a contribution that is appreciated, but I think his time is over,” Colangelo said earlier this year.

5. Sha'Carri Richardson - 100m sprint

American sprinting sensation Sha'Carri Richardson is one of the most controversial figures on this list, after she was ruled out of the Olympics after receiving a 30-day ban after testing positive for cannabis.

The decision to ban Richardson, who had used cannabis in a state where it had been legalised following the death of her mother, generated widespread controversy.

Many urged American officials to consider altering the rules around cannabis, which is not considered to be a performance enhancing substance.

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While the 30-day suspension led to some hope the elite sprinter might be able to compete in the team's 4x100m relay, Richardson ultimately decided to withdraw from the Games entirely.

"Like I tweeted yesterday, I'm human," she said.

"We are human, I want to be as transparent as possible with you guys whether it's good, whether it's bad.

"But when it comes to Sha'Carri Richardson there will never be a steroid attached to the name Sha'Carri Richardson. The charge and what the situation was marijuana."

6. Nikola Jokic - Basketball

Recently crowned NBA Most Valuable Player, Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic, is another big-name basketballer to opt out of the Tokyo Games.

Jokic, a passing wizard for his size, cited fatigue after his Nuggets were knocked out of the NBA Playoffs by the Phoenix Suns in the second round.

Averaging 26 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists for the season, Jokic successfully completed the transition from interesting sideshow to dominating force during the 2021 season.

NBA MVP Nikola Jokic cited a need for rest as his reason for not competing for Serbia in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
NBA MVP Nikola Jokic cited a need for rest as his reason for not competing for Serbia in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

"The simple condition of my body requires a longer absence from the field for recovery," Jokic wrote after the NBA season ended.

The 26-year-old added the Nuggets had encouraged him to take a break to recover from a brutal NBA schedule over the past 18 months.

Serbia ultimately failed to qualify for the Olympics in his absence, going down to Italy in a last chance qualifier in Belgrade earlier in July.

7. Rafael Nadal - Tennis

Alongside the previously mentioned Roger Federer, the absence of Rafael Nadal is arguably of most consequence to Serbian star Novak Djokovic.

Djokovic is chasing the historic 'Golden Slam' feat - all four grand slams in a calendar year, plus Olympic gold.

Nadal opted out of both the Olympics and Wimbledon soon after the French Open, another athlete citing the need to recover after a gruelling clay-court season.

“It’s never an easy decision to take but after listening to my body and discuss it with my team I understand that it is the right decision,” Nadal posted in a Twitter thread.

Nadal is a two-time Olympic medallist, claiming singles gold in Beijing in 2008, as well as a silver medal in the doubles in 2016.

8. Shelby Houlihan - 1500m Running

Prior to Sha'Carri Richardson's ban over cannabis, long-distance hopeful Shelby Houlihan made headlines when she was handed a four-year ban for testing positive for an anabolic steroid.

The 28-year-old blamed a contaminated burrito for her positive test, but despite a groundswell of support for her and a campaign to have the ban overturned, those efforts came to nought.

“I did everything I could to prove my innocence,” Houlihan said. 

“I passed a polygraph test. I had my hair sampled by one of the world’s foremost toxicologists. The World Anti-Doping Agency agreed that the test proved that there was no build-up of this substance in my body, which there would have been if I were taking it regularly.

“Nothing moved the lab from their initial snap decision. Instead, they simply concluded that I was a cheater and that a steroid was ingested orally, but not regularly. I believe my explanation fits the facts much better – because it’s true. I want to be very clear. I have never taken any performance-enhancing substances.”

9. Nick Kyrgios - Tennis

Of all the Olympics sports, few have had so many big names withdraw from Tokyo than tennis.

Nick Kyrgios was among the latest to withdraw from the Games, with the Australian firebrand opting to compete in the ATP Tour in America rather than confine himself to the Olympic 'bubble'.

After an impressive return to international tennis at Wimbledon, the first overseas tournament Kyrgios contested since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, many fans were hoping he would carry that form into Tokyo, where he was a realistic medal chance thanks to the to the absences of players such as Dominic Thiem and Denis Shapovalov. 

Nick Kyrgios announced he would not compete in Tokyo after his impressive return at Wimbledon. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Nick Kyrgios announced he would not compete in Tokyo after his impressive return at Wimbledon. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Kyrgios made his intentions clear soon after he was knocked out of Wimbledon.

"It's been my dream to represent Australia at the Olympics and I know I may never get that opportunity again," he said.

"But I also know myself.

"The thought of playing in front of empty stadiums just doesn't sit well with me. It never has."

10. Liz Cambage - Basketball

A number of prominent WNBA players have been unable to compete at the Olympics for a variety of reasons, but nobody's withdrawal from the Games was as controversial as Liz Cambage.

Cambage, an All-Star for the Las Vegas Aces, withdrew from the Games just a week before they were set to begin amid a cloud of scrutiny after reportedly upsetting her Australian Opals teammates.

A reported physical and verbal altercation against Nigeria, combined with frustrations over her hitting the town in Vegas in the lead-up to the games while teammates remained in bio-secure bubbles, led to her citing anxiety over heading to Tokyo as a reason for her withdrawal.

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Her absence will hamper the Opals' medal hopes, despite an impressive victory over Team USA in a practice match without Cambage.

"Every athlete competing in the Olympic games should be at their mental and physical peak, and at the moment, I'm a long way from where I want and need to be," Cambage wrote on Twitter. 

"It's no secret that in the past I've struggled with my mental health and recently I've been really worried about heading into a "bubble" Olympics."

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