The Slatest

The Best Photos We Didn’t Use This Week: The Gold, Silver, and Bronze of Olympics Photography

L-R: a bronze, gold, and silver medal from the Tokyo Olympics sitting on a platter.
This is what’s at stake. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Slate’s homepage editors spend a lot of time looking for editorial photos to put on our site. Those searches sometimes yield unexpected results: random, perplexing, and mesmerizing photos that don’t belong on the homepage, but that are too good not to share. Every week, we’ll share the weirdest photo from the wires.

Competing in the Olympics requires acute spatial awareness, a keen sense of timing, and sheer grit. The same skills are also critical for the photographers and camera operators tasked with documenting the Games, but they don’t get the glory of winning medals for it. During the Tokyo Games, the wires have filled up with a bounty of perfectly timed photographs that capture the spirit of the events—the competitors’ tenacity, the funny moments, and the superhuman feats that defy the laws of physics. Below, I’ve awarded medals to the best photos I’ve found of athletes in motion.



Kurt-Lee Arendse (South Africa), rugby, photograph by Roger Sedres

A rugby player in a green and white uniform holding the ball, is hoisted up horizontally by another player, as several other rugby players stand around him
Roger Sedres/Gallo Images/Getty Images

One of the best genres of Olympics photography is bodies defying gravity. It is fascinating to study the split-second motions of people flying through the air upside down or sideways.

In this July 26 photo, South Africa’s Kurt-Lee Arendse is lifted single-handedly by team captain Siviwe Soyizwapi. Arendse looks out of place in this position; it’s hard to comprehend how exactly Soyizwapi was able to hoist him up like that. Perfectly horizontal and rigid, Arendse looks more like a muscled mannequin than a living human with a full range of motion—and yet the other South African and Kenyan players play on, completely unfazed by this configuration.


Mima Ito (Japan), table tennis, photograph by Dai Tianfang

A table tennis player stares intently as she holds her paddle. The white ping pong ball is centered on her face like a clown nose.
Dai Tianfang/Xinhua via Getty Images

Every photograph of table tennis at the Olympics is a treat. The players look like they have the power of telekinesis, with their eyes laser-focused on the ball. In this Aug. 1 photo, Mima Ito of Japan is poised with her paddle at the ready, but the photographer’s impressive timing gives the shot a sense of whimsy. The ball centered on Ito’s nose makes her resemble a clown, albeit a serious one. Capturing such a well-framed shot is no easy feat, considering those little ping-pong balls can move faster than 60 mph.



Svetlana Kolesnichenko and Svetlana Romashina (Russian Olympic Committee), artistic swimming, photograph by Ian MacNicol

Two women, wearing bedazzled suits with giant spiders on them, raise their arms in the air as they swim in a pool.
Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Artistic swimming, with its theatricality, glitzy outfits, and synchronized movements, is arguably the campiest sport at the Games, which makes it a Getty gold mine. Like the best gymnasts’, these swimmers’ elegant motions appear effortless, belying the raw power required to perform them in the water.

In this Aug. 2 photograph, Svetlana Kolesnichenko and Svetlana Romashina of the Russian Olympic Committee emerge from the water striking poses reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” with clawed hands, sharp elbows, and spooky outfits. The angle of the shot, with the Svetlanas’ arms parallel, magnifies the sense of seeing double.


Honorable Mention

Gianmarco Tamberi (Italy) and Mutaz Essa Barshim (Qatar), high jump, various photographers

A high jumper wearing a blue uniform leaps into the arms of a high jumper wearing a red uniform. They embrace.
David Ramos/Getty Images
A high jumper lies on his back on the track, rolling on the ground, holding his hands to his heart, and screaming.
Jewel Samad/Getty Images
A tall, lanky high jumper lies belly-down on the ground, his legs raised behind him, screaming.
Photo by Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the best photographs from the Games that happened outside of competition. At the end of the men’s high jump final, Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim agreed to share the gold medal, rather than battling it out for first and second place in a jump-off. The two men are friends, and both came to Tokyo after rebounding from serious injuries. “I would never share it with somebody else,” Tamberi said.

After the decision, Tamberi leaped into Barshim’s arms for a hug, then proceeded to scream and roll around on the ground in an exuberant, over-the-top celebration. The photos are overflowing with sheer ecstasy, and the friendship and sportsmanship behind it make this one of the most poignant moments of the Olympics.