Olympics End as They Began: Strangely
TOKYO – As the athletes finished walking into the stadium for the closing ceremony of the 32nd Summer Olympics on Sunday night, the announcer called for a round of applause. But there just weren’t enough people in the stands to make much noise. And the most flashy element of the ceremony, a formation of the five Olympic rings by tiny points of light, was invisible live in the stadium. The magic of its special effects only plays out on large screens and in front of viewers.
And so one of the strangest Olympics in recent memory ended as it began, with small cohorts of athletes waving to cameras and volunteer dancers rather than spectators, and rows of empty seats serving as reminders of a pandemic that could not be contained by messages about the healing power of the Games.
Yet, perhaps more than any recent Olympics, the tournament was an athletic reality show, calling on viewers to seek respite from the frustration and tragedy of the past 18 months. The drama of the competition and episodes of exhilarating sportsmanship have provided a diversion from the daily number of coronavirus cases – those within the Olympic bubble and the much larger numbers outside of it.
There were upheavals: the US women’s soccer team fell to Canada in the semifinals; Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito won Japan’s first table tennis gold medal against world champions China. Naomi Osaka, after lighting the Olympic cauldron for Japan, was eliminated in the third round of her tennis tournament, depriving the host country of a potential gold medal it had so hoped for.
There were triumphs that made history: Allyson Felix passed Carl Lewis as America’s most decorated Olympic athlete in track and field, and Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya defended his gold medal in the men’s marathon.
Outside the stadium ahead of Sunday’s ceremony, Ryogo Saita, 45, who was walking with his 7-year-old son, said they enjoyed watching Yuto Horigome on TV winning skateboarding’s first gold medal for Japan. Still, with daily coronavirus infections having more than doubled in Tokyo since the start of the Games, Saita expressed concern. “But people also love sports,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing that they happened. It’s like I’m struggling with two emotions.
Although organizers argued that Japanese audiences and international audiences embraced the Olympics after months of controversy, figures from NBCUniversal in the United States, the Games’ biggest broadcaster, showed a steep drop from the Games. Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. In Japan, a smaller proportion of viewers watched the Games than when Tokyo last hosted the event in 1964.
Numerous performances at the closing ceremony aroused a slight joy that the darker opening ceremony did not. In one segment, fashionably dressed street actors and dancers frolicked around the center of the stadium, supposedly reminiscent of a park, with capoeira dancers, stuntmen, jugglers and Dutch double jumpers, a poignant demonstration on a side of Tokyo that most Olympic visitors never got to see.
In his closing remarks, Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, thanked the Japanese people and noted that no organizing committee has ever had to postpone a Games before. “We did it – together! He said to lukewarm applause.
The closing festivities, based on the theme ‘Moving Forward: Worlds We Share’, were the last chance for the organizers to put on a show meant to inform everyone of an event – and an entire one. movement – which had started showing cracks before. the Games have even started.
The policy, which the IOC assiduously insists that it has nothing to do with the Games, prevailed in Tokyo. Kristina Timanovskaya, a Belarusian sprinter who sought protection as her country tried to force her to return home after criticizing her coaches, was granted asylum in Poland. The IOC took five days to remove Olympic credentials from coaches involved in the attempt to send her back to Belarus.
More generally, the committee’s decision-making came under intense scrutiny in Tokyo. Even before the pandemic, organizers pushed to host the Tokyo Games in its hottest weeks to maximize broadcast revenue. The move had obvious repercussions, with one tennis player leaving the field in a wheelchair and rescheduled football and track events at the last minute. The fact that the Games were held during the pandemic despite strong public opposition in Japan demonstrated the undemocratic principles that underpin the organization.
“There is no doubt that the Tokyo Olympics stripped the larger Olympic project for ordinary people,” said Jules Boykoff, former Olympic football player and sports policy expert at the University of the Pacific. “I have heard some people talk about how the Olympics are this huge political economic force with sport attached to it.”
Indeed, athlete advocates have accused the IOC of neglecting the talents that make the Games possible, given that such a small slice of the organization’s revenue goes directly to the competitors. Most funds are channeled through National Olympic Committees and sports federations, according to an analysis of IOC funding by Global Athlete, a group of athletes, and the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.
The IOC “supports an industry and administrators,” said Rob Koehler, CEO of Global Athlete. “But do they support the athletes? The proof is in the pudding: no.
At the Tokyo Games, critics questioned the IOC’s commitment to apply disciplinary measures. Athletes from Russia, a country officially banned from the Olympics, competed under the banner of ROC, the acronym for the Russian Olympic Committee. But it was difficult for a casual observer to see how Russia was bearing the real consequences of a massive state-orchestrated doping campaign as its leaders cheered on the numerous medals of its athletes.
On Sunday, even as Tokyo organizers officially passed the Olympic flag to Paris for the upcoming Summer Games, the real specter lurking behind the moments of well-being was the Beijing Winter Olympics, including the opening is scheduled for February.
With the postponement of the Tokyo Games by one year, the organizers will only have six months to prepare for the next Olympics.
Here again, the actions – or inaction – of the IOC have come under scrutiny. Officials, including Bach, avoided answering questions about how the committee planned to deal with the fact that the Games were to be held in a country that has been condemned for committing genocide and crimes against humanity for its repression of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities.
The big countries – first and foremost the United States – will have to decide in the coming months how they might react to the Beijing Games.
At the same time, the pandemic is still likely to be a factor. Just as Japan faces a new wave of infections, China is also battling new outbreaks of the Delta variant in several provinces and has already imposed de facto lockdowns.
The country’s use of sport to promote nationalism was on display at the Tokyo Games, where criticism fell on Japanese athletes especially if they outweighed Chinese competitors.
But the Olympics pose risks for the ruling Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping.
“The Olympics are either an opportunity to look great or they could introduce a lot of instability,” said Stephen R. Nagy, professor of politics and international relations at Tokyo International Christian University. He cited the re-emergence of the coronavirus and possible athlete protests in Beijing.
But as the cauldron was extinguished and the athletes exited the stadium, perhaps the biggest legacy of the Tokyo Games was how they highlighted the costs of hosting the Olympics.
For future hosts, said Shihoko Goto, senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center, a Washington research institute, the question is “are the people in these governments behind the government’s efforts and the sacrifices that must be made to put on these great events.
Hikari Hida contributed reports.
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