The XXXII Olympiad, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, are finished and by just about every measure they were a success.
There was drama, surprises, amazing performances and records aplenty. Just as important, there were few mistakes and no crises — no COVID-19 outbreaks, no compromised events and no breakdowns or organizational disasters.
As the Olympic flame was extinguished and the Olympic flag was passed to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, host of the 2024 Games, the Japanese organizing committee and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) celebrated their accomplishment. Yet even while delighted by the athletes’ outstanding performances, the world is pondering the meaning of this event and its toll — on those same athletes and the cities that host the quadrennial extravaganza.
There are many reasons to celebrate, not least of which is the holding of a gathering of the world’s best athletes to show what they can do. The mere fact that the Games were held was a victory over a disease that has claimed millions of lives and ruined tens of millions more.
Fears that the coronavirus might also ruin the Olympics were misplaced: Strict protocols and extensive testing limited the number of infections among Olympic personnel to 430 people — a sliver of the estimated 170,000 athletes, staff and volunteers affiliated with the Games.
There were many firsts at the Games as well as 20 new Olympic records. The first ever medals were awarded for skateboarding, rock climbing, karate and 3×3 basketball, and mixed gender teams also competed for the first time. Ninety-four countries won a medal, a record distribution, with several nations claiming their first Olympic medals ever and others, Japan among them, setting records for their most medals secured at a single Olympiad.
Japan has many reasons to be pleased. It won 58 medals, 27 of them gold. It prevailed over the United States in the baseball final and its women won softball gold. Ryo Kiyuna, a karateka from Okinawa, home of the sport, claimed the first gold medal in the kata, while Hifumi and Uta Abe, brother and sister, took the gold in judo, along with seven other Japanese judoka. Sena Irie became Japan’s first woman to win a gold medal in boxing, while Yuto Horigome and Momiji Nishiya, won the first ever gold medals in men and women’s street skateboarding, respectively.
The skateboarding events, like BMX and rock climbing, were part of a concerted effort to target a younger audience. They were rewarded with medal performances by Momiji, 13; Brazil’s Rayssa Leal, another 13-year-old who won silver; 12-year-old Kokona Hiraki, silver medalist in the women’s park final; and 13-year-old Sky Brown of Great Britain who claimed the bronze.
Even in traditional events, youth excelled. Chinese diver Hongchan Quan, gold medalist in the women’s 10-meter platform, is just 14. And Syria’s Hend Zaza, eliminated in the first round of table tennis, was the youngest Olympian at the Tokyo Games, competing at the age of 12.
These Olympics will be remembered as the first to spotlight the mental pressures to which world class athletes are subjected. Tennis player Naomi Osaka forced a needed consideration of the issue when she withdrew from the Paris Open, citing mental health concerns. And the withdrawal of U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, the greatest of all time, from team competition when she suffered a bout of the “twisties” and feared for her safety, hammered it home.
By putting their personal well-being first, they have obliged the rest of us — and freed other competitors — to reset priorities and remember what these Games are about: a celebration of individual achievement rather than a blind and all-consuming quest for gold.
Ironically, that focus was made possible by the circumstances of these Games and the absence of spectators. The COVID-19 protocols reinforced health concerns — both physical and mental. And when stadiums and venues are emptied of spectators, the humanity of an event is magnified. The performance — and the performer — is all, and that and they don’t have to compete with the screams, cheers or emotions of the crowd.
The absence of spectators will be another defining feature of these Games. Empty stands created a sense of ennui and sadness. The opening ceremony was scaled back to account for this circumstance and the gaiety of the closing ceremony — sparked in part by the successes of the previous two weeks — gave a hint of what might have been. For all the energy that the athletes generated, they could not make up for the noise and emotion that would have been created by crowds.
Still, the Japanese shifted their view of the Games. Majorities now approve of the decision to hold the Olympics, and the crowds that lined streets for public events such as the marathon and displays like the ceremonial fireworks made plain the public’s enthusiasm and interest.
Sadly, few of the athletes — forced to return home 48 hours after completing their events — nor the millions of originally anticipated visitors could see that or enjoy Japanese hospitality.
That reappraisal is unlikely to help the government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. His approval ratings continue to drop and the intensifying fifth wave of coronavirus infections — new daily cases doubled during the Games and hospitals are filling up — even if not directly caused by the Olympics, angered many who thought the decision to host the Olympiad, even if a success, reflected misplaced priorities.
The greatest anger is likely to be reserved for the International Olympic Committee. Its determination to hold these Games reinforced the image of the IOC as an institution focused on its interests and one that uses fine words to cover up arrogance and a fixation on its own comfort and status.
Never before has the economics of the Games come under such scrutiny — Japan faces a multitrillion-yen bill — and a reassessment is under way, evident in reports that only one city bid for the 2032 Games, awarded to Brisbane. Those Olympics will look little like those just concluded — which is probably a very good thing.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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