Tokyo 2020 - Paul Hayward: Farewell Tokyo Olympics, you were a games truly unlike any other
In his final piece on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games Paul Hayward looks back at a games that turned out to be one of the most memorable in recent history. There were problems of course but there was also some truly incredible moments that offer hope as the world tries to move forward. Stay tuned to Eurosport because the sport never ends.
Powerful moment Tokyo Olympic flame is extinguished to end Closing Ceremony
As the circus packed up you would never have known the Tokyo Olympics were sport’s biggest gamble, an affront to Japan’s people, some said. The transformation was from a £12 billion party ‘nobody in Tokyo wanted’ to a triumph of human resilience that was just what billions of people across the world needed.
No global sporting event has started with so much anxiety and ended on such a spiritual high. From here in the UK you could only marvel at 11,000 athletes and the population of Japan entering uncharted water and returning to port with a smile.
It may seem flippant to overlook the possible lasting damage to life and health in Tokyo from the increase in social mixing related to the Games. But inside the fragile sanitised bubble it built for itself, where there were 438 positive cases from tens of thousands of visitors - but no mass spread - the Tokyo Olympics emboldened demoralised populations on every continent. They were all-out, emotionally raw, prime-time entertainment.
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These were the Games of 12- and 13-year-olds winning medals in the skateboard park, high jumpers sharing gold rather than settling it in a jump-off, mixed men’s and women’s teams, candour and sympathy around mental health and a noticeable upswing of crying in mixed zones and on podiums: the clearest sign of the strain athletes had been under, and evidence of a new generational unwillingness to keep feelings hidden.
It was also the Olympic summer where a German coach punched a horse in the modern pentathlon, Belarus apparently tried to kidnap one of its own athletes and the Russian Olympic Committee finished fifth with 71 medals and 20 golds, despite Russia itself being banned from the event. Some 330 athletes carried the ‘ROC' flag and improved on Russia’s performances at both the 2012 and 2016 Games.
There were the usual outlandish winning times and sudden improvements to performance, some of which will be revisited. In other words, the Olympics were not, nor ever will be, a parade of angels; but the light overwhelms the darkness, often in the stories of individual athletes who look and sound like they might live next door.
The 1964 Games were Japan’s return to international acceptance after World War II - a seismic change. The 2020 (or 2021) Olympics were strapped to the 2019 Rugby World Cup as a vast double infrastructure project that almost went horribly wrong.
Japanese people will have their own view on whether it was all justified. They spent 19 days pressed against the window of a carnival they had built. But if they’re seeking reassurance from abroad about Tokyo’s contribution to global happiness they can take plenty from Great Britain, who matched the London 2012 total of 65 medals and used the Games, like many nations, for catharsis. Japan’s third-place finish with 58 medals (27 gold) will also help the country’s rulers look their electorate in the eye.
The scale of the enterprise isn’t in doubt: 42 competition venues, 33 sports run by 32 International Federations, with 339 medal events, including 18 mixed or open events and five new sports - karate (briefly), skateboarding, sport climbing, softball/baseball and surfing. “As a result the Tokyo 2020 Games are more youthful and more urban,” the International Olympic Committee claimed.
It’s no idle boast. Only now are we seeing the full transformation in how sport is consumed in the digital age, through video, interview clips, social media highlight flashes and intensely detailed TV coverage, with a rich, immersive feel. Tom Dean’s family and friends put the “watch party” on the Olympic map from a garden in Maidenhead; but heaven forbid that nearest and dearest will ever again be shut out.
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On a personal note, these were the first Olympic Games I have followed on TV since 1992 (I had covered every one since). I was staggered by the richness and range of the experience, the freshness of new sports. Digital innovation is radically altering the visual information reaching our eyeballs and brains (and, thus, our imaginations).
Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi jumping into each other’s arms after effectively cashing out their bets in the high jump will join the indelible images of Olympic story telling. So will Simone Biles returning from a mental health related mid-schedule break to take bronze in the balance beam. And Tom Daley standing up to the homophobia displayed by Russian TV. And the Belarusian sprinter Krystina Timanovskaya escaping compulsory repatriation to find refuge in Poland.
In years to come, Covid may feel like a road bump compared to climate change, which extended its finger towards Tokyo with brutally high temperatures and humidity. Numerous reports have already shown how world sport is going to be adversely affected by extreme weather and habitat destruction.
The scene-shifting has already started. The IOC say: “The Paris 2024 Games will be open to the city with spectacular, temporary competition venues at the foot of some of the most beautiful French landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Palais and the Château de Versailles.” For the first time Paris will stage an opening ceremony in the city, “thus allowing hundreds of thousands of spectators to participate in a unique experience along the River Seine.”
But first let Tokyo exhale and enjoy its miracle. As Britain’s Lauren Price said after winning the women’s middleweight gold: "Yeah, happy days."