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Athletes Lift Tokyo 2020 but Feeling Lingers About What Could Have Been

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Kara Winger (USA) is the American flag bearer during the closing ceremony for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Olympic Stadium. Photo: Rob Schumacher, USA TODAY Sports

By Michael Pavitt |

After all the words written about Tokyo 2020, particularly over the past 18 months during the pandemic, it seems remarkable to be at the end of the Olympic Games.

Have the Games been a success?

In the way that Tokyo 2020 set out to deliver them when the Japanese capital was awarded the Games way back in 2013, it must be a no.

The long-term successes and failures of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be written in the months and years ahead. The Games potential impact on the local COVID-19 situation and the vast sums spent on the Games, pre and post-postponement, will be poured over and analysed.

In the warped COVID-19 world we still live in, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo 2020 will probably be breathing a massive sigh of relief.

The organisations got through it. In the context the Games were held in that probably constitutes a success.

At the start of the Games this looked slightly shaky as positive COVID-19 and close contact cases emerged after the largest spate of arrivals.

There have been surprisingly few instances in which athletes or teams have been ruled out of competing entirely as the Games.

The most high-profile notable incidents having involved United States pole vaulter Sam Kendricks,  world number one golfer Jon Rahm of Spain, British shooter Amber Hill, the Greek artistic swimming squad and the Czech beach volleyball teams.

The hope is that those individuals have been fully supported by the IOC, their respectively National Olympic Committees and National Federations after being unfortunately robbed of their chance to compete at the Olympics through no fault of their own.

Away from cases, there have been positives on and off the field of play, which have been provided by the athletes themselves.

American superstar Simone Biles might not have had the Olympic Games many would expect, but the gymnast comes away from Tokyo 2020 with her reputation enhanced even further.

Biles’ withdrawal from competitions to prioritise her mental health is another significant step forward in athletes focusing on their well-being rather the relentless pursuit of results at any cost. Her return to win the bronze medal in the beam event being treated with the same delight as a handful for gold medals would have been demonstrates that athletes and people can win in different ways.

There was the quiet dignity of Laurel Hubbard competing at Tokyo 2020 despite the focus and furore over her becoming the first transgender woman to participate at the Olympics. No lifts, but significant history made by the weightlifter.

The marquee sports of the Games have delivered outstanding competition.

From a personal perspective, from events I watched or was fortunate enough to have been at, a couple of standouts performances come to mind.

The performance of China’s 14-year-old diver Quan Hongchan to win the women’s 10 metres platform diving was among the most dominant I have seen, with near perfect scores in three of the five rounds. The type of performance you find yourself laughing at because the standard was so high.

Britain’s Katie Archibald and Laura Kenny’s display in the madison was of a similar level, with a largely unpredictable event turned into an obvious victories after the pairing won all but two sprints in the women’s events first Olympic appearance.

From a team perspective it is hard to look beyond Japan’s domination of judo competition with nine golds, albeit it somehow losing the team event.

The US stars such as Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky lived up to expectations in the pool, with a resurgent Australia delighting in the performances of Ariarne Titmus, Kaylee McKeown and Emma McKeon, and Britain remaining led by the dominance of Adam Peaty.

Athletics delivered several contenders for the moment of these Olympics, with Norway’s Karsten Warholm and America’s Sydney McLaughlin producing world record performances in the men’s and women’s 400 metres hurdles to win genuinely thrilling races. Debates over spikes and the reported bounciness of the track should not diminish these gobsmacking moments.

The world record of Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas in the triple jump and the shared delight of Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim after sharing men’s high jump gold.

It was not a bad showing from athletics’ first post-Bolt Olympic Games, with his successor as men’s 100 metres champion proving a bolt in the blue.

Did anyone really have Marcell Jacobs on a list of potential winners heading into these Olympics, but the Italian leaves with the men’s 100m and 4x100m title and having delivered arguably one of the shocks of the Games.

Other contenders for the shock of Tokyo 2020 could be Israel’s Linoy Ashram stunning winning all-around gold in rhythmic gymnastics over the Russian Olympic Committee’s identical twins Dina and Arina Averina, or perhaps Austria’s postdoctoral researcher Anna Kiesenhofer remaining clear for the duration of the women’s cycling road race to win gold.

Several sports and events have enjoyed strong Games, with debutants sporting climbing and skateboarding seeming to engage widely with an international audience. I do think there will be a question over an age limit in the latter, but the arrival of literally new kids on the block to the Games attracted attention during Tokyo 2020.

I could be wrong but the Olympics also seemed to have a larger spread of medals across nations than I expected, potentially due to the increase in the number of events contested.

Bermuda, the Philippines, and Qatar secured their maiden gold medals, while the likes of San Marino came with a delegation of five athletes and left with three gold medals having previously never earned a podium finish.

The performance of the host nation has undoubtedly helped this Games, as it always tends to do, with Japan ending third on the medals table with 27 gold, 14 silver and 17 bronze.

Yet there is an underlying sadness to the fact that so many events were held without spectators present. Albeit their absence was more pronounced in some venues than others, with team-mates in swimming among those lifting the atmosphere. 

From the return of Naomi Osaka to the tennis court, the underdog local athletes and the country’s main medal hopes could all have benefited from being revered by a local crowd.

Having concluded the Games at the Izu Velodrome, outside of the harshest of the COVID-19 restrictions, there was an insight into what the original Tokyo 2020 would have been as a small number of fans made huge noise in support of eventual women’s omnium silver medallist Yumi Kajihara.

One of the main images I will take away will be from the train station overlooking the BMX course.

I remember standing there in late 2019 as the course took shape, where you could wonder what the Games would be like.

As it turned out, the Japanese public took up the same spot to watch events from over a barrier, perhaps wondering what the Games could have been like.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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