A Memorable Tokyo Olympics, but for the Right Reasons?
TOKYO – The kaleidoscopic stands of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium – a messy mosaic of white, green and reddish-brown seats – were designed to evoke the sun-drenched floor of a Japanese forest.
Over the past three weeks, however, they’ve had another useful effect: squint your eyes, blur them just so, and it almost seems like the spectators are arrayed around the sweeping structure, as if the 68,000 stadium seats were not essentially empty, as if they were normal Olympics.
Of course, they weren’t. On Sunday night in Tokyo, a streamlined closing ceremony at Japan’s sprawling National Stadium will bring an end to these extraordinary Games, concluding an Olympics that, in some sense, looked like an illusion – at times compelling and fully welcome, in others. jarringly. false.
In the wake of a pandemic, these Games were meant to be, as International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said last year, “the light at the end of this dark tunnel that the whole world is going through.” Yet they were often claustrophobic, cut off from society, with spacious rooms across Tokyo redeveloped into cloistered havens.
They were, in this way, paradoxical, strange and difficult to fully understand. They were a feat of organizational planning and execution, even in the midst of arguments over whether to happen in the first place. They were stubbornly called Tokyo 2020, a retrograde name that reminded everyone of the winding path it has come so far. It was a show made for television, sometimes staged to the point of absurdity.
For athletes, it was Olympics of survival, resilience, survival and sometimes, ultimately, accepting not to achieve a goal. Yet even among the medalists there were feelings of ambivalence about being here, enduring the alienating circumstances of one of the strangest Olympics in history.
“I can’t wait to get home,” said US sprinter Allyson Felix after winning a bronze medal on Friday to become the most decorated female track athlete in Olympic history. “I’m counting the days, there are so few now.”
The coronavirus pandemic has forced athletes to travel and perform here without the presence of friends or family, let alone fans. They spent their time largely confined to their rooms, specially equipped buses and sports venues.
While the lasting effects of the Olympics on Japan will only be determined in the coming weeks, early signs have shown that health protocols – the effort to cut thousands of visitors from Tokyo residents – appeared to be working, from less in the short term. At a press conference on Friday, Bach reported that 571,000 drug tests had been performed at the Olympics, returning a positivity rate of just 0.02%.
But the path up to this point, the means of establishing what an IOC spokesperson called a “parallel world” within the Games, has had an undeniably strange effect.
In the Olympic bubble, the competition venues – 38 in total – have become strange ghost ships. A surplus of volunteers occupied stations that saw no foot traffic. Dance troupes performed in front of empty stands. Stadium announcers enthusiastically excited non-existent crowds. The events seemed to have been able to take place almost anywhere – a gym in Stockholm, a convention center in Kansas City, a gymnasium in Dubai – so few were the hallmarks of the place.
“If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, it would be very close to the top of the best-organized Olympics,” said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, who was attending his 19th Games.
The Olympics as a whole looked like a pearlless oyster shell.
The sense of emptiness, on the one hand, resulted from a relative deficit of outstanding once-in-a-generation performance in the most-watched sports, and the handful of crowned accomplishments lacked the roar of a crowd.
Superstar athletes withered under the punishing city sun and established champions failed to live up to their own high standards.
Everywhere the motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” – faster, higher, stronger – did not carry its old currency. Vulnerability, self-awareness and imperfection emerged as equally important themes.
Simone Biles, perhaps the most high-profile Olympian before the Games, withdrew from early competitions after developing the twisties – a gymnast version of the yips – before returning to claim a bronze medal. Japan’s Naomi Osaka, who lit the cauldron during the opening ceremony, came out in straight sets in the third round of the women’s tennis tournament. Best male player Novak Djokovic of Serbia lost his bronze medal match.
Even Caeleb Dressel, the swimmer who won five gold medals, lamented the strain of training an extra year – an unnatural cycle her coach called a “five-year quadrennial” – and the stress of making it through. Olympic Games.
“Some parts were extremely enjoyable,” Dressel said of his two weeks in Tokyo. “I would say the majority of them weren’t.”
Still, smaller, calmer moments shone.
The camaraderie and rejoicing of Italian Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatari Mutaz Essa Barshim, who decided, when offered to them, to share a gold medal in the high jump, charmed international viewers. So are stories like that of Hidilyn Diaz, a weightlifter who won the Philippines’ first-ever gold medal, and Tamyra Mensah-Stock, whose sob interview after becoming the second woman. American to win gold in wrestling has had a moment on social media.
Laurel Hubbard, a New Zealand weightlifter, became the first transgender woman to compete in the Olympics, while non-binary athletes whose identities don’t quite fit long-standing gender categorizations also participated. One of them, Canadian soccer player Quinn, won a gold medal.
Something resembling the Olympic spirit was, unexpectedly, often more easily seen in the newer sports, some of which were decried as too far-fetched when announced. At the Sport Climbing Wall, competitors gathered to review and discuss the configuration of the holds on the walls, exchanging notes on how best to tackle the challenges. At the skatepark, the rivals hugged and consoled Misugu Okamoto, 15, of Japan, who had cried after falling in the final, lifting her onto their shoulders until she burst out laughing.
Asked about the moment by journalists, she cried again.
“I’m grateful,” Okamoto said.
Not too far away, the Olympic Fan Park, a sprawling festival grounds for ticket holders, slept behind a padlocked fence, a sea of unused tables and attractions.
But Tokyoites still found little keyhole looks on the Games. They spotted them on a train platform overlooking the BMX course, on top of a viaduct with a view of the sport climbing wall, on the side of the road as the cycle race spun.
Modest crowds also gathered each evening on a catwalk near Tokyo Bay, stopping, posing and taking photos in front of the Olympic torch, even as security guards and volunteers half-heartedly asked them to continue on. to move. These were, it seems, a forgivable offense for fans who were denied all further access to the Games. The atmosphere was cozy but light.
“For some people who pay attention to it, even who like to watch it on TV, it’s captivating, I guess,” Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Japan, said of the Olympic Games in Japan. Tokyo. “On the other hand, large numbers of Japanese are still terrified of the increasing number of infections and the government’s inability to act, at least in part because of the Olympics.”
Political controversies were brewing – it was the Olympics, after all – but never quite exploded. Perhaps it was the IOC’s deliberate pace in judging a number of episodes – a Belarusian sprinter seeking political asylum; a podium demonstration by American shot putter Raven Saunders; two Chinese cyclists who wore lapel pins depicting the silhouette of Mao Zedong – which prevented each from overtaking the narrative around the pitch.
Over the course of the three weeks, questions about China, which will host the Winter Games early next year, when the pandemic is almost certain to still rage, have arisen: to what extent the IOC and the athletes engage in human rights issues in the country, such as the mass detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities? Did the restrictions on individual freedoms in Tokyo, imposed in the name of public health, augur for stricter rules in Beijing? Bach declined to answer questions about China at his last press conference on Friday.
What will stand out from these Games will therefore be their strangeness, the way in which established Olympic standards have been juxtaposed with sharp reminders of those extraordinary times.
Wallechinsky, the historian, attended his first Games in 1960, in Rome. Friday night he was wondering if he should attend the closing ceremony, as he normally does. It would be the shadow of a normal ceremony, with many athletes, in the interest of public safety, already at home. What would be the goal?
He said he preferred to remember the national stadium as he observed it during one of the athletics competitions last week, when a small group of competitors gathered in the colorful stands. prismatic, close enough to cheer on teammates and friends. The scene touched Wallechinsky, he said. He could let the harsh reality of these Games fade away, if only for a moment.
“It was a bit like the Olympics,” he said.
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