The Olympics are racing towards the finishing line; the Euros gave us euphoria and heartbreak; and Wimbledon revealed that the true hero on Centre Court was not an Adonis in crisp tennis whites, but rather a middle-aged vaccine researcher. More than anything, though, this summer has thrown a spotlight on the inspiring and surprising strength and character of young people like never before.

We have watched elite athletes behave with the sort of dignity and respect that world leaders would do well to emulate. They have competed under intense global scrutiny at the highest levels and never lost sight of the fact that how you behave matters more than the goals you score or the aces you serve. Here are 20 things we learned about youth politics and culture from an astonishing summer of sport.

Naomi Osaka put mental health before trophies

Naomi Osaka during her first-round match at the French Open, after which she withdrew
Naomi Osaka during her first-round match at the French Open, after which she withdrew. Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP

When the 23-year-old pulled out of the French Open, then Wimbledon, to focus on her mental health, Osaka showed the world that elite athletes are people; that we cannot use them like arcade machines. In her Roland Garros withdrawal statement, she wrote that she experienced “huge waves of anxiety” before interviews and had endured “long bouts of depression”. Her bravery prompted a groundswell of support from tennis legends, including Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. Osaka destigmatised mental health concerns for a generation of athletes. For that, she should be commended.

The England team ended the culture wars (for a few weeks)

Once a fortnight, the UK collectively loses its mind over flags/children’s books/statues. It is an endless cycle of outrage in which the only winners are chattering pundits and merchants of hate.

When Gareth Southgate announced that England would take the knee before Euro 2020 games, bad-faith provocateurs accused the team of cultural Marxism – because multimillionaire footballers are always on the brink of trying to overthrow capitalism. Southgate, with characteristic decency, backed his players, explaining that they had “a responsibility to the wider community” to use their voices on “matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice”.

Raheem Sterling and Luke Shaw take the knee before England v Germany at Euro 2020
Raheem Sterling and Luke Shaw take the knee before England v Germany at Euro 2020. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

With this, Southgate and his team helped to define a patriotism that is not boorish or rooted in rose-tinted nostalgia, but rather focused on trying your best for your country and giving back to your community.

This young, diverse team did not shy away from passionately defending these principles. When Priti Patel condemned the racist abuse of Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho after they missed penalties in the final, their teammate Tyrone Mings accused the home secretary of “stoking the fire” by refusing to condemn those who had booed players taking the knee. His comments prompted much soul-searching among Conservative MPs, with Johnny Mercer and Steve Baker suggesting that the Tories needed to rethink their attitude to the gesture.

A squad of footballers – two of them teenagers – ended the culture wars (albeit temporarily). For that, we should be grateful.

The Danes protected the dignity of their teammate

Denmark players protect Christian Eriksen as he receives live-saving treatment during their match against Finland on 12 June
Denmark players protect Christian Eriksen as he receives live-saving treatment during their Euros match against Finland. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest during Denmark’s game against Finland was horrifying to witness: the hush descending on the stadium as fans realised the gravity of the situation; the sight of his panicked partner. But the way Eriksen’s teammates formed a human shield around their fallen friend, preserving his privacy while medics worked successfully to resuscitate him, was a spontaneous and heartfelt gesture of dignity – even as the cameras refused to cut away.

Mason Mount made a little girl’s dream come true

A glow settled over England when Mason Mount spotted a young girl in the crowd after England’s semi-final win over Denmark, climbed into the stands and handed her his shirt. She collapsed in ecstatic squeals while the spectators around her cheered. Properly heartwarming.

Kye Whyte had Bethany Shriever’s back

Kye Whyte lifts Bethany Shriever after their Olympic success.
Kye Whyte lifts Bethany Shriever after their Olympic successes. Photograph: Alex Whitehead/swpix.com/Rex/Shutterstock

With UK Sport no longer funding female BMXers, Bethany Shriever had to crowdfund even to qualify for Tokyo 2020. Nonetheless, she stormed her way to Team GB’s first ever gold medal in BMX racing. Her friend and fellow Team GB BMXer Kye Whyte, who won the UK’s first ever silver medal, was cheering her all the way. After Shriever crossed the finishing line, she collapsed with agonising leg cramps – so Whyte scooped her up and held her aloft, as triumphantly as she deserved. Did you have something in your eye? Me too.

England’s footballers reminded us that the game is for everyone

From Harry Kane’s rainbow armband – showing solidarity with LGBTQ+ people – to Jordan Henderson’s tweet supporting a non-binary, queer fan who attended an England game in makeup, the conduct of the Three Lions this summer showed that football is for everyone – not just the beer-guzzlers and bum-flarers.

The high jumpers shared gold – and history

Golden boys Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi
Golden boys Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi. Photograph: Francisco Seco/AP

The Olympics is not just about medals, but also, as the Games’ charter puts it, “friendship, solidarity and fair play”. Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi embodied this spirit after tying in an exhausting two-hour high jump final. They were offered the opportunity to have a jump-off. Instead, Barshim asked an official if they could have two golds. If you agree to share, came the response. “History, my friend,” said Barshim, shaking Tamberi’s hand. It was a joyous example of sportsmanship at its best.

Kalvin Phillips rushed to console Bukayo Saka

Penalties are organised cruelty at the best of times, but during an international final they can feel positively medieval. After Saka missed the tournament-deciding penalty in the Euros final, the Italian team flooded past in glee. Saka was distraught, choking back tears. All alone, he looked like the teenager he was. Then Kalvin Phillips – a man who had just run for two hours straight bolted towards his teammate and pulled him into a tight hug. It was a moment that cut through, because it showed that supporting your teammates in triumph and adversity is more important than any goal. In that embrace, Phillips reminded us that the best athletes have heart.

The Irish Olympic team showed their class

The Irish consistently show up the British – in drinking ability, accents and devotion to the craic. At Tokyo 2020, they added manners, stopping to bow to their Japanese hosts as a token of respect during the opening ceremony. It was a gracious, Olympic-spirited move.

Marcus Rashford was … Marcus Rashford

Marcus Rashford
Marcus Rashford, AKA the leader of the opposition. Photograph: Patrick Elmont/UEFA/Getty Images

Marcus Rashford is not only a national hero but a national leader. At just 23, he has forced the government into two U-turns on free school meals, launched a nationwide reading initiative – and somehow found time to play for England and Manchester United.

What makes Rashford so remarkable is how he uses his experiences of growing up in a low-income household to destigmatise and advocate for such children today. He represents the very best of this new generation of principled athletes: never self-aggrandising, always quietly determined to use his platform for good.

Tom Daley wept beautiful tears of joy …

Those two fat teardrops on Tom Daley’s cheeks after he and Matty Lee took gold in the men’s synchronised 10-metres represented the culmination of a lifetime’s work. Hours training in the pool beside his beloved father. The bullying at school. The struggle of coming out. The heartbreak of his father’s death before Daley won his first Olympic medal. His disappointing finish at the 2011 world championship. Crashing out of the 10-metre semi-finals in Rio in 2016. And then coming back from it all, to win the gold he had coveted his entire career. They spoke volumes.

… and showed us the true meaning of Pride …

Daley has redefined what it means to be a man in sport, speaking about his sexuality with openness and sincerity. After taking gold, he spoke movingly about this. “When I was younger, I always felt like the one who was alone and different and didn’t fit … I hope that any young LGBT person out there can see, no matter how alone you feel right now, you are not alone,” he said. “You can achieve anything.” Thanks to trailblazers such as Daley, this has been a “rainbow Olympics”, with at least 172 LGBTQ+ athletes competing in Tokyo, more than three times as many as in Rio. Afterwards, he said he wanted to embrace his son and husband – and suddenly his tears were catching.

… and became a knitting icon

Tom Daley knitting in the stands at Tokyo 2020
Tom Daley gets crafty at Tokyo 2020. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Not content with being an LGBTQ+ Olympic champion with the torso of a mountain range, Daley also knits. At the women’s springboard finals, he was serenely creating what looked like a purple scarf. At another event, it was a Team GB cardigan. On social media, Daley has shown off: a pouch for his gold medal, a cat couch, a doggie jumper and, best of all, a tiny Bernie Sanders. Daley’s knitting reminds us why he is a hero of British sport – because he is utterly unafraid to be himself.

Simone Biles showed that mental and physical health are the same thing …

Simone Biles, widely acknowledged as the greatest female gymnast ever, arrived at Tokyo 2020 with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Commentators were predicting a clean sweep for the first woman to land a Yurchenko double pike. (I could try to describe it, but it wouldn’t do it justice. Just imagine the rules of gravity have been suspended.)

But things began to go wrong in qualifying. They fell apart when she stepped out of bounds during her floor routine, then aborted her vault in mid-air during the women’s team finals, narrowly avoiding serious injury and scoring one of the lowest marks of her career. Biles subsequently pulled out of the women’s all-around and the women’s team event, explaining that she had lost her air-awareness – a phenomenon known as the “twisties” – and was struggling with her mental health.

Simone Biles performs in the balance beam final at Toyko 2020
Simone Biles performs in the balance beam final at Toyko 2020. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

She later said it “sucked” not to be able to compete when she had spent the past half-decade preparing. But she explained that she had been inspired to talk about her mental health by watching Osaka and that she had quit to protect her “mind and body”.

Some armchair experts would have preferred Biles to risk her neck for their viewing pleasure. But, overwhelmingly, the reaction was compassionate and supportive. Biles showed us that mental and physical health are connected – and that there is no shame in quitting to prioritise your wellbeing. For this, not for her Yurchenko double pike, Biles will always be the Goat.

… and what it means to be resilient

Even as she struggled, Biles showed up to support her US gymnastics teammates, whooping and shouting from the sidelines. “I’m proud of how the girls stepped up,” Biles told reporters. It was no less than we now expect of Biles, who has overcome incredible personal adversity (she was in foster care before being adopted by her grandparents) and trauma (she is a survivor of sexual abuse by the US team’s former doctor Larry Nassar) to become one of the greatest athletes of her generation. After a week of nonstop speculation about whether she would pull out of the Games entirely, she took bronze on the balance beam. That single medal showed her deep resilience more than her embarrassment of golds.

Ruby Tui announced herself

New Zealand’s Ruby Tui.
New Zealand’s Ruby Tui. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

The New Zealand rugby player is a charisma atom bomb. So under the radar that she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, Tui became a viral sensation after being pulled aside for a post-match interview after a stunning 36-0 defeat of Russia. After thanking her village, her family and God in Samoan, Tui grinned her way through the most charming, feel-great interview of the Games, congratulating her opponents on a well-fought fight, describing the Russians as “really cool people, man”, and revealing that her team had donated to the British team’s fundraising efforts. Tui represents pure Olympic vibes: respecting your opponent, loving the sport and having a laugh.

Norwegian women take zero sexist nonsense

It is 2021, but still we expect female athletes to dress to titillate audiences. After campaigning to no avail for an astonishing 15 years to be allowed to wear shorts, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team decided: enough. They went thigh-length, like their male peers, at the European championship in July to protest against the sexist dress code – and were fined €1,500 (£1,295). But the world – and the pop star Pink – was with them. She offered to pay their fine – and the officials of the sport’s governing body looked like regressive dinosaurs.

England’s footballers showed what it means to be accountable

We live in the age of the political non-apology – which is why the astonishing statements put out by Saka, Sancho and Rashford after their missed penalties during the Euro 2021 final were stunning to behold. “I would like to say sorry to all my teammates, coaching staff and most of all the fans who I let down,” Sancho wrote. Here were three young men apologising fully (even though they didn’t need to), taking accountability and promising to work harder – all after coping with vile racist trolling online.

Charlotte Worthington showed us what bravery looks like

Charlotte Worthington had to work 40-hour weeks in a Mexican restaurant to support her biking career, competing during annual leave. Fast-forward to Tokyo 2020 and she tried a groundbreaking 360-degree backflip – but came off her bike. If she had completed it, she would have been the first woman to do it in an international competition. But Worthington took the risk, tried again – and nailed it. For these unbelievable levels of bravery and self-belief, she took gold.

Sky Brown became Britain’s youngest Olympic medallist

Sky Brown competing at Tokyo 2020
Sky Brown competing at Tokyo 2020. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

A tiny, gravity-defiant, flying figure: at 13 years old, Britain’s youngest-ever Olympian took bronze in the women’s skateboarding. Tony Hawk has called her “one of the best well-rounded skaters ever”. Sky Brown has the maturity of a competitor thrice her age – and the fearlessness of a babe of two. (Tellingly, she is also good friends with her young rivals, including fellow Olympians Sakura Yosozumi, Leticia Bufoni and Rayssa Leal. “We motivate each other to go hard,” Brown told the Guardian in July.) Refreshingly, there are no pushy parents or brutalising coaches in the background. Instead, Brown exemplifies the spirit of a new cohort of gen Z athletes: wildly talented and competing for the joy of the sport.