Curtain falls on Tokyo Olympics
TOKYO: It began with a virus and a yearlong pause. It ended with a typhoon blowing through and, still, a virus. In between: just about everything.
The Tokyo Olympics, christened with 2020 but held in mid-2021 after being interrupted for a year by the coronavirus, glided to their conclusion in a Covid-emptied stadium on Sunday night as an often surreal mixed bag for Japan and for the world.
A rollicking closing ceremony with the theme ‘Worlds We Share’ an optimistic but ironic notion at this human moment featured everything from stunt bikes to intricate light shows as it tried to convey a “celebratory and liberating atmosphere for athletes after a tense two weeks”.
It pivoted to a live feed from Paris, hosts of the 2024 Summer Games. And with that, the strangest Olympic Games on record closed their books for good.
Held in the middle of a resurging pandemic, rejected by many Japanese and plagued by months of administrative problems, these Games presented logistical and medical obstacles like no other, offered up serious conversations about mental health and, when it came to sport, delivered both triumphs and a few surprising shortfalls.
From the outset, expectations were middling at best, apocalyptic at worst. Even Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said he’d worried that these could become the Olympic Games without a soul. “But,” he said, “what we have seen here is totally different.
“You were faster, you went higher, you were stronger because we all stood together in solidarity,” Bach told gathered Olympians as he closed the Games. “This was even more remarkable given the many challenges you had to face because of the pandemic. In these difficult times, you give the world the most precious of gifts: hope.
“For the first time since the pandemic began,” he said, “the entire world came together. And now I have to mark the end of this most challenging Olympic journey to Tokyo: I declare the Games of the 32nd Olympiad closed.”
It marked a low-key end to an extraordinary Olympics that have mostly played out in empty venues with only athletes, team officials and media present.
Moments after the Tokyo doused its Olympic flame a volley of multi-coloured fireworks lit up the night sky about the Olympic Stadium where athletes were already heading for the exits.
As the Olympic flag was passed to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo for the 2024 Games, live footage showed cheering crowds in the French capital — in stark contrast to Tokyo — where several thousand sports fans waving the tricolour flag thronged into a fan zone across the river from the Eiffel Tower.
Pop music blared out as Tokyo medallists Teddy Riner and Clarisse Agbegnenou bounced on stage. Plans to fly a giant Olympic flag from the Eiffel Tower were abandoned because of strong winds.
France promises a 2024 Olympics “for the people” after the pandemic-hit Tokyo event. In a sign that those days are far from close, though, public entry to the fan zone was permitted only upon presentation of a vaccine certificate or negative Covid-19 test.
Japan’s fourth Olympics, held 57 years after the 1964 Games reintroduced the country after its World War II defeat, represented a planet trying to come together at a moment in history when disease and circumstance and politics had splintered it apart.
The closing ceremony Sunday reflected that and, at times, nudged the proceedings toward a sci-fi flavour. As athletes stood in the arena for the final pomp, digital scoreboards at either end of the stadium featured what organizers called a fan video matrix, a Zoom call-like screen of videos uploaded by spectators showing themselves cheering at home.
Even the parade of athletes carrying national flags — thousands of Olympians, masked and unmasked, clustering together before fanning out into the world again — was affected. Volunteers carried some flags into the stadium, presumably because of rules requiring athletes to leave the country shortly after their events concluded.
Still, organisers appear to have prevented the Tokyo Games from spiralling into a Covid-19 superspreader event, notable given that some 50,000 people came together amid the pandemic.
However, the virus has lurked as an ever-present threat. Victory celebrations were muted, with lonely laps of honour. Winners accepted their prizes from trays, putting the medals around their own necks.
In front of such formidable backdrops, athletic excellence burst through, from the Games’ first gold medal (China’s Yang Qian in the 10-meter air rifle on July 24) to their last (Serbia defeating Greece in men’s water polo on Sunday afternoon).
Superstar gymnast Simone Biles provided the most jaw-dropping moment when the American abruptly pulled out of competition over a bout of the “twisties”, a disorientating mental block.
Biles, widely acknowledged as the greatest gymnast in history, recovered sufficiently to claim a redemptive bronze medal in her final event, the beam.
Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand became the first openly transgender woman to compete at the Games and Canada’s Quinn became the first openly transgender Olympic medallist, with gold in the women’s football.
In other highlights, US swimmer Caeleb Dressel assumed the mantle of Michael Phelps with five gold medals and Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah achieved a sprint double on the track.
The United States finished top of the tally with 39 gold medals, one more than rivals China at 38 and Japan at 27.
Tokyo will host the Paralympics from August 24. The Olympic circus will reconvene in just six months when Beijing, faced with boycott threats and a renewed coronavirus emergency, holds the Winter Games in February.
Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2021